The year was 1907. A young man named Frank L. Fenton, after co-founding the Fenton Art Glass Company in 1905 with John W. Fenton, came out with a new type of "iridescent" glass. It was influenced by similar art glass at the art glass factories of Steuben and Tiffany. The iridescent glass became popular, and it is now a collectible known as carnival glass. Though the Fenton Art Glass Company got its start in carnival glass, it soon expanded production to include many other types of glass. In the 1930s, it scaled back manufacture of its fancier glass products in favor of utilitarian products that more people could afford.
Before it was called carnival glass, the Fenton Art Glass Company sold iridescent glass as Iridill glass, named for its iridescent properties, and Rubi-glass. The sale of Iridill and Rubi-glass was great, leading to competition from several other companies. Around the 1920s, the art glass began to lose its appeal in the public eye, and the Fenton Art Glass Company subsequently lowered prices of the iridescent art glass pieces. As a result of this markdown, they started selling the glass in bulk as carnival prizes and in promotional giveaways, which is where it eventually got the name "carnival" glass. Once they began to do this, demand in carnival glass increased dramatically, and carnival glass became quite profitable.
Most carnival glass in the United States was produced in 1925 or earlier. The production declined substantially after the beginning of the Great Depression, and by the 1940s it was almost entirely discontinued. It was officially dubbed "carnival glass" in the 1950s, when it became a popular collector's item. In fact, there is still an active collector's market for carnival glass, even on sites such as eBay.
Carnival glass is a relatively cheap glass to produce. It is pressed glass with an iridized surface. Pressed glass is glass that is formed by being pressed into a mold while it is molten. Iridescence means that the glass shows off different colors depending upon the angle from which it is viewed, kind of like a rainbow from a prism, or petroleum on the surface of water. Fenton carnival glass is made by exposing newly-formed, hot-pressed glass to various sprays, fumes, and vapors from heated metal oxides. They have to do this while the glass is still relatively hot. Workers in the Fenton Art Glass Company called carnival glass "dope glass" because the process of spraying the glass with metallic fumes and vapors was called "doping."
The glass was adopted by other companies, which gave it new names like "Golden Iris" or "Radium." In fact, Radium was produce by the Millersburg Glass Company, started in 1910 by one of the founders of Fenton, John W. Fenton. Other companies included Northwood Glass Company -- a direct competitor founded by Harry Northwood--, Dugan, and Imperial Glass. Eventually, iridescent glass collectors in the 1950s consolidated the many names given to all the different lines of iridescent glass, calling them all carnival glass for convenience's sake.
It is widely accepted that the Fenton Art Glass Company is the company that first introduced pressed glass with an iridized finish in the United States, making it one of the Fenton Art Glass Company's biggest legacies. Interestingly, Fenton's affordable and popular carnival glass made their original inspirations, Tiffany and Steuben, somewhat obsolete, because the type of art glass those companies made was purchased to show status. Once carnival glass was mass-produced, they soon lost this advantage.
Carnival glass actually can be many different translucent colors, including green, red, marigold, cobalt, amethyst, and white (also known as milk glass). Like in Burmese glass, some pale green carnival glass included traces of uranium. Of all these colors, the most common color of carnival glass tends to be marigold. Carnival glass also comes in many different shapes and forms, and can be found in over 2000 different patterns. It is staggering how many unique pieces have been made out of carnival glass.
As it turns out, Fenton is the only maker of carnival glass that is still in business today out of the five or six original, major carnival glass producers. The carnival glass market is still thriving, with dozens of large organizations dedicated to the practice of trading and collecting. In fact, a search on Google will reveal club after club and site after site, all committed to and appreciative of carnival glass in both its classic and newer forms.
As for the Fenton Art Glass Company, it is still famous today as being the originator of carnival glass. Even over a hundred years later, all of Fenton's glass products are handcrafted and intricately designed by approximately one hundred skilled employees. There are third- and fourth- generation Fenton family members who now run the company.
There are a few important things to remember about carnival glass. First of all, if it does not have an iridized coating on it, it is not carnival glass. In addition, interest in carnival glass was renewed in the 1950s after it won over glass collectors, so art glass companies like Fenton began to start making carnival glass again, specifically for the collectors. Unfortunately, there are some instances where it can be difficult to tell whether a carnival glass piece is new or old, as only Northwood actually marked the old pieces. One of the ways collectors attempt to figure this out is by examining old trade catalogs from the now-defunct manufacturers of carnival glass, but proper identification can be challenging even for a carnival glass expert.
Carnival art glass is one of the most popular and desired types of art glass, not only in the United States, but throughout the world. Its fascinating history and dazzling beauty continue to enchant collectors everywhere. There are a wide variety of carnival glass art pieces available, from candlesticks to decorative glasses to amazingly-intricate and beautifully-designed bowls. Fenton continues to be a major producer of truly amazing pieces of carnival glass art pieces.