Not all carnival glass is…well, carnivally-looking.

I’ve had this carnival glass bowl forever, and always knew what it was. My mom said the “N” meant it was made by Northwood, and it’s one of their more common patterns, Bullseye and Leaves.

It was also called dope glass.
That’s just one of the many names by which carnival glass was known. Other names included rainbow glass, aurora glass and even “poor man’s Tiffany.”

The Tiffany reference comes from the fact that carnival glass was meant to look like the expensive iridescent glass made by the famous company as well as others, such as Loetz.

But carnival glass has an appeal all its own, with its pressed patterns and shiny, iridescent colors. It was often given away at carnivals and fairs, but in fact most of it was purchased – like Tiffany, it reflected light, and helped to make gaslit rooms appear brighter.

Fenton started the whole thing.
Carnival glass is made by adding metallic salts to hot, just-pressed glass. When it’s fired again, it becomes iridescent. Fenton called it “Iridill” when they began to make it in 1908, and they continued to be the largest manufacturer until the 1920s, when interest waned.

How to tell what color it is.
The color of a piece of carnival glass depends upon the ‘base’ color of the glass before the mineral salts were added. Hold the piece up to the light and look near the base and you should discover the base color. If you’re lucky. It can be tricky, so if you can’t determine the color, ask an expert.

Note the lack of iridescence on the base of this Imperial berry bowl.

Note the lack of iridescence on the base of this Imperial berry bowl.

It isn’t all berries, leaves, nuts and flowers.
Genuine carnival glass is also available in more plain, straightforward patterns that complement today’s sleek designs.

There’s Imperial’s “Optic & Buttons” pattern, for example.

I’m not sure what the “optic” stands for (someone said it refers to the pattern being inside the piece). The buttons are easy to identify — they’re in a band above the ribbing.  This line was made in marigold (shown), crystal and smoke, and was available as a large fruit bowl, berry bowl (shown), goblets, water pitchers, salt dips, cups and saucers and several plates.

Optic Flute: Hard to find, but pretty to behold.
There doesn’t seem to be much information about Imperial’s “Optic Flute” of 1910 vintage. It appears to have been available in marigold (shown), clambroth (what a funny name for a color), lavender and smoke.

This compote is a good example of marigold Optic Flute — distinguished by the band of diamonds at the base of the footed dish.

Watch out for reproductions!
There are many reproductions of carnival glass out there, so beware.

One trick is to look for the “base color” as explained above. Most companies didn’t iridize the base – thus, you can tell what color it was (Fenton is one exception, but they usually marked their wares). Newer pieces have iridized bases – although my Northwood’s base is iridized, but then again, there’s an “N” on it. And the “N” needs to be in a complete circle. If there’s a break in the circle, be suspicious.

You don’t have to be a collector to love carnival glass.
A single piece can make a dramatic statement in a room – and several pieces will provide a unique contrast to more traditional glassware.
With all of its variety, there’s sure to be a piece that’ll brighten up the smallest apartment or largest home.

About sarathurston

I'm a marketing communications writer who also loves antiques and collectibles. You can find my shop on Etsy at
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