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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Carnival Glass: Reflection Upon the History of Iridescence

Imagine you are a young boy in 1918.  Your mother’s favorite new purchase is a vase, it is unlike any other vase – the color isn’t stagnant but shifts and shines in different tones.  She bought it from a popular company, Fenton, who called the style of glass “Venetian Art.”

Now imagine you are a young man in high school.  It is the early 1930’s and the Great Depression has transformed the country.  The unemployment rate is at an all time high. Your father has been out of work for some time and your family is barely surviving.  Pinching pennies; scrounging every cent that would help you survive another day.

Walking down the street one summer day you see a bright red poster with captive pictures of people in costume.  Your face lights up as you read that a traveling carnival is coming to town.  Smiling in anticipation of the music and games, you can’t wait to ask that beautiful girl from English class to be your date.  Rushing home to see how much money you have saved in your emergency tin under your mattress you sigh in relief realizing you should have just enough for a good time.

The traveling carnival finally makes it to town and almost everyone attends.  Despite the Depression, the lack of resources, the extreme poverty – people manage to round up a little bit of “extra” cash to experience a night of escape from the brutal realities of the era.  You arrive with your girl and go on some rides, enjoy some cotton candy and then make it to the games.  You are going to win something special for that English Class girl.  Playing the ring toss – the third time’s the charm – you finally earn that sought after prize.  Unlike the stuffed animals of today, you hand her a lovely glass bowl.  However, it is not just any glass bowl; it has a unique pattern and shine.  It flashes colors as you move it around in the light.

It was the same type of glass as that “Venetian Art” vase your mother cherished, yet now it had a new name: Carnival Glass.  Over those years this special iridized glass transformed as did the country; becoming a unique piece of American history whose own history correlates with the social changes of the time.

Carnival Glass dates back to the early 1900’s.  Back then it was not called Carnival Glass – it did not get coined with that term until much later.  So what exactly is carnival glass?  It is pressed glass with a pattern and is covered with an iridescent, metallic coating.  The two main aspects of Carnival Glass are the iridescence and the pattern.  These are the two characteristics that set Carnival Glass apart from other types of glass and individual pieces of carnival glass from one another.

 The first example of carnival-type glass was produced by Tiffany.  However, unlike the true Carnival Glass of today, the iridescence was infused in the glass itself, it was not a coating.  The fine glass became popular because of the way it played with light and seemed almost to glow.  However, this was an extremely expensive process.  In 1907 the Fenton Art Glass Company was the first company to produce another type of iridized glass which they termed Iridill.  They produced it to imitate the fine Tiffany glass, but because they applied the metallic iridescent coating on the already pressed glass, it was much cheaper to produce.   Fenton began to mass produce their Iridill and this is why you may hear Carnival Glass referred to as “poor man’s Tiffany.”

Soon after Fenton, other glass companies followed.  Another glass company Northwood, began to produce their own iridescent glass, “Golden Iris.”  This is the extremely popular marigold to which you will hear reference to again and again.  Another term you will hear referenced quite often in the world of Carnival Glass is Dugan.  Dugan was another company which produced iridescent glass soon after Northwood.  Their most distinguishing accomplishment is their opalescent iridized glass.

Millersburg was started by John Fenton while he was still president of the Fenton Company.  This company only produced glass for two years, but the quality of their pieces is extremely distinguished.  Finally the Imperial Glass Company was also a major producer of Carnival Glass.  Among these there are other companies which produced some carnival glass, but these are considered the main five.

Because of the industrial revolution, there is this massive production of iridescent glass from 1909 through the 20’s.  The glass is highly decorated and beautifully finished with the oily rainbow reflections.  It was popular and sold well at first, but by the late 1920’s interest began to wane.  Finally in 1929 the stock market crashed and the United States fell into the Great Depression.  Glass companies were stuck with loads of this iridized glass they could not sell to the public.  What they ended up doing was selling pieces in bulk to traveling carnivals which then used them widely as prizes for their games.  As the Depression worsened, carnivals grew in popularity and correspondingly in number.  Despite the tight financial situation of the population, the terrible daily conditions meant that people welcomed escape and these traveling carnivals offered the perfect solution.  They had distinctive games, stimulation for all your senses and they came rarely enough that it was worth the investment.

And so we see this product which reflects the ingenuity of man, the expansion of the industrial revolution and the result of mass fabrication come full circle to a humble end in the hands of a young girl, out one night at a carnival with a nice boy from her English class.  She treasures the beautiful glass with the unique shine as a special prize when such things are few and far between.  Today there exists an entire universe of “Carnival Glass Collection and Appreciation” populated by many people, of all ages, from all over.  Each day someone new stumbles upon this unique glass, either by happenstance or through research and find themselves wanting to know more and possibly even thinking to start their own collection.


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