Dear Antique Expert:
My Grandmother passed on to me some colorful glass that she called “carnival glass.” First, I would like to know why it is called carnival glass and is it worth anything.
Dear Grandma’s Favorite:
Allow me to answer your second question first. Carnival Glass is extremely collectible and sought after for its bright colors and interesting patterns. It is collected by everyone from first-time novices to hard-core collectors. It is also one the most difficult items in the antique business to price.
When considering price, many factors have to be taken into consideration, including color, shape and condition, as well as the condition of the iridescence or sheen on the glass. Two pieces made by the same company may vary in price by thousands of dollars simply based on variation in color.
Ultimately, value is a matter of supply and demand, and some colors were made in greater quantity than others, while some colors have more inherent appeal. Without seeing your actual pieces, it is not possible to give a meaningful valuation, as prices range from $35 to over $5,000. Rest assured though, with the popularity of carnival glass, you would have no difficulty finding a buyer if you chose to sell your collection.
How Carnival Glass got its name is an interesting story. At the turn of the twentieth century Tiffany Studios and Steuben Glass were making a highly collectible, but very expensive iridescent art glass. The reason it was so expensive was that the iridescence was embedded in the glass in a costly production process.
In 1907, Frank Fenton, of the famous West Virginia Fenton Glass Company, discovered a way to take cheap pressed glass and apply an inexpensive liquid metal to the exterior of the glass, giving it a similar look to Tiffany Glass, at a fraction of the cost. Louis Comfort Tiffany was reportedly outraged when one of his well-to-do patrons complained that she paid a fortune for his expensive glass when her servants could now afford something that looks just like it.
During the early 1900’s, iridescent glass was all the rage and glass companies such as Northwood, Dugan, Imperial and Fenton devoted much of their efforts to its production. In 1929 the bottom dropped out of the glass industry with the crash of the stock market. There were warehouses upon warehouses of back ordered iridescent glassware that failing businesses no longer needed. Desperate to unload their glass, officials at Fenton decided to dump their excess merchandise for cents on the dollar to small traveling carnivals where they would be given away as prizes. This is how carnival glass got its name and how Fenton Glass was able to survive one of the worst economic downturns in American history.
Today’s buyers of carnival glass should always be careful, as many reproductions and reissues have come onto the market in the past couple of years. Always consult a reputable and knowledgeable antique dealer when investing in carnival glass.
-Michael Ernst, M.Ed.
Blue Crab Antiques, Inc.