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If you come across a piece of decorative pressed glass with rich, iridescent color, you are likely handling carnival glass—or a more expensive piece of art glass. Carnival glass is collectible glassware from the early 20th century that was eventually given away at carnivals when it started to go out of fashion. Some families viewed the glass as a keepsake, and others tossed the pieces away without much thought.
Today, carnival glass is an affordable collectible that can brighten up a curio cabinet. Most patterns on the market are relatively common and inexpensive, but there are also some rare, highly prized pieces. This article will help you identify carnival glass with more confidence and accuracy.
Antique Carnival Glass History
Most carnival glass was made in America between 1908 and 1918 by companies like Fenton Art Glass and Northwood Glass. Fenton initially called the glass Iridill well before it became known as carnival glass. As the accessible glassware became more popular, other companies like Dugan and Millersburg eventually followed suit, and production continued through the early 1930s.
Fenton, the pioneer of Iridill Glass, wanted to create an affordable rival to iridescent art glass from companies like Steuben. Some people called this new carnival glass “poor man’s Tiffany” since companies mass-produced it at affordable prices.
The term carnival glass originated in the 1950s and 60s when inexpensive reproduction pieces were given away at carnivals due to a resurgence of the style. This revival period can confuse collectors because glass companies made new pieces and reproduced old patterns from the early 1900s. The older carnival glass (Iridill glass) tends to be more valuable than the vintage pieces, but there is a market for all of it.
How Is Carnival Glass Made?
To create the rich iridescent sheen, manufacturers added chemicals to pressed glass (colored or clear) before firing it. This iridescent sheen was inexpensive to produce and a knockoff for more expensive art glass like Steuben or Quezal.
- Common colors: Marigold, amber, amethyst, green, and blue
- Rare colors: Peach, red, aqua, white
- Shapes: Vases, pitches, compotes, candy dishes, ashtrays, plates, bowls
- Common Patterns: Peacock Tail, Grape and Cable, Iris & Herringbone, Good Luck
- Rare Patterns: Black Amethyst, Strawberry Scroll, Farmyard
How to Identify Carnival Glass
Don’t confuse carnival glass with opalescent glass, milk glass, depression glass, or more expensive art glass by companies like Tiffany & Co. To spot a piece of carnival glass, be on the lookout for the following attributes:
- Iridescent sheen. Before you look at patterns and shapes, look at the sheen of the glass. Carnival glass must have a notable iridescent sheen regardless of the base color. Solid colored glass like jadeite does not apply.
- Identifiable pattern. Most glass companies listed patterns in old catalogs that you can search online. Don’t get discouraged, though. There are thousands of pattern/shape combos in circulation.
- Item shape. Also, take note of the structure of the item. Carnival glass has a lot of unique folds, waves, and dips in the glass that other glassware does not. These nuances can help you pinpoint a pattern and a manufacturer.
- Maker’s mark. Northwood carnival glass is usually marked with an underlined capital N inside a circle. Most other carnival glass is unmarked, so collectors need to reference catalogs and use shapes and patterns for identification and dating.
Here are some free resources to identify common carnival glass patterns:
What Is Carnival Glass Worth?
Collectors can buy most pieces of carnival glass for $50 or less, but some special shapes can fetch a thousand dollars or more. So what makes a piece of carnival glass valuable? You’re looking for these things:
- Rarity. How many were originally produced? Is one shape rarer than another in the same pattern? Rarity can be based on supply but also relies on demand.
- Age. When was the piece produced? Anything produced before 1950 tends to be more valuable.
- Authenticity. Can you track the item back to Fenton or another company? A hallmark or certificate of authenticity helps resale value.
- Condition. An item needs to have an intact sheen and be free from chips or cracks to be considered valuable.