The colorful history of the Fenton Art Glass Company started May 4, 1905. That day Frank L. Fenton and his brother, John made a decision that would forever alter the local economy. They jointly pooled their money and made a deposit in the Dollar Bank in Wheeling, West Virginia to officially establish their new company. A short time later, brother, Charles would join the company.
The first couple of years were spent decorating blanks made at other glass companies. In 1907 a new factory was finished in Williamstown and Fenton was on their way to producing many types of glassware themselves. One of the first types of glass that Fenton produced was an iridescent style of glass that had a rainbow sheen to it. Early advertisements called it Iridill, Wonder, or Venetian Art Iridescent glass. It was also described as a poor man’s Tiffany and proclaimed as having a metallic luster finish just like the Favrile glass being made at Tiffany. These wonderful names gave the air of fine elegance to the relative inexpensive new type of glassware. This new glass was listed as being made by the Fenton Art Glass Company and was reasonably priced.
Like all brothers, there were disagreements between Frank and John. Unfortunately this spilled over to the running of the company and John left in 1908. Two more Fenton brothers, James and Robert would then join the Fenton Company. John went on to establish his own company, called Millersburg. This company produced some very fine carnival glass that would be known for its outstanding surface color. Sadly, they had management problems and Millersburg closed in 1912.
Carnival glass didn’t receive its present nickname until after the decline of the popularity this style of glass. Glass houses wanting to liquidate their large inventories of iridescent glass, that was no longer selling well, sold it cheaply to carnivals to use as prizes in the early 1930s. The nickname, Carnival Glass (because it was sold at carnivals), was given to this wonderful glass and it has stuck through all these years. While at first the name might seem condescending from its previous glory, the term carnival does evoke a wonderful image of brightly colored booths and having fun at a traveling carnival. This term sure describes the glass today. Not many forms of glass can bring out the same emotions that this exciting glass stirs in the hearts of glass lovers.
It can be confusing in learning about carnival glass, since there are actually two colors to contend with. The base color is the original color of the glass that was hand pressed into a patterned mould. Some base colors vary in depth, like red that runs from rich ruby to an almost Amberina look. After achieving its final shape, the piece is sprayed with a combination of metallic salts and then reheated to achieve the iridescent finish. Iron and tin were two of the frequently used elements in the sprays. The temperature of the glass at the time of spraying along with the elements will affect the final surface color. At times the finish obtained a soft matte finish and other times it had a gloss finish. The desired surface color has tints of: red, blue, green, marigold and silver. The best pieces show more of the red, blue, and green. While the lesser desired pieces have a silvery finish and show a lot of silver and marigold, with only a little of the red, blue and greens. You will almost always find some of all five surface colors showing, but it is the amount of each that will determine desirability of a piece. In learning about carnival, both the base and surface colors need to be considered. In some patterns, certain base colors might be rare while on other patterns a certain shape might cause it to be scarce or rare. An excellent surface color will also enhance the desirability of the piece. Likewise, a poor surface color will reduce its desirability. All these factors play into the value of the piece.
The Fenton Art Glass Company produced a huge range of patterns of carnival glass until the 1920s. Different shapes were a major part of carnival production. A few of today’s favorite pieces include bowls, compotes, plates and vases. Berry sets and water sets are some examples of the other pieces that can be found. A few of the shapes that get special attention are: ice cream bowl, epergne, hand grip plate, and funeral vase. Colors highly desired among Fenton collectors are: Aqua Opalescent, Celeste Blue, Cobalt, Ice Blue, Ice Green, Red, Topaz, and White. Pastel colors are always a favorite of collectors. A few of the desirable patterns to find include: Basket weave with open edge, Dragon (several styles), Kittens, Orange Tree, Peacock & Urn, Persian Medallion and Stag & Holly Advertising pieces are also among favorites of collectors to obtain. Count yourself lucky to have any piece of advertising in your collection.
Popularity of Carnival Glass seemed to decline during the 1920s. Fenton again tried to capture the public’s attention with an introduction of plain iridized glassware referred to now as Stretch Glass. This exciting new glassware helped in keeping Fenton on the road to prosperity. Carnival Glass would not be made again at Fenton until the 1970s. At this time Fenton responded to the request of collectors that this new carnival glass be marked to distinguish it from the old pieces. The name, Fenton was put inside an oval. The feedback from collectors was so great that Fenton decided to start marking all their glass. Through the 1970s this mark remained on the glass. Starting in the 1980s an 8 was placed below Fenton. In the 1990s a 9 replaced the 8. With the new century a 0 replaced the 9. The mark being changed every ten years allowed collectors an approximate way to date their new glassware.
Through the years Fenton has had many successes along with their share of struggles. In the last few years, all the surviving American glass companies have had a tough time competing with cheap foreign glassware. Recently Fenton has made changes to the way they operate to try to ensure their survival. They are still here, family owned and continuing to provide employment to the West Virginia economy. They are succeeding when many others have not.
Note: For further information about Carnival Glass, authors Glen and Stephen
Thistlewood from Schiffer Publishing have written several good books on this subject: Carnival Glass- The Magic and Mystery; The Art of Carnival Glass and A Century of Carnival Glass. In addition the West Virginia Museum of American Glass has published a monograph, #36, titled Carnival Glass, Stretch Glass and other Iridescent Ware, 1907 - 1925 on this subject. All are excellent resources for information on Carnival Glass.