Carnival Glass Basics
When people first start collecting Carnival glass, they tend to buy up any and every piece of Carnival they can find, with no real reflection on if it is a "good" piece of Carnival, or "poor", or just "mediocre". And there is nothing wrong with that; I did the same thing when I first started collecting carnival, as did all other collectors. This is what I think of as the learning period; as you go around, buying up as much Carnival as you can, you are learning as you go; you are getting a feel for what a strong iridescence vs. a weak one looks like; you are learning about the different shapes and which ones are more pleasing to the eye; and you are developing your own connection to the Carnival glass, which usually ends up narrowing your focus onto one particular "thing" that you like. The abundance of Carnival glass is so vast that it is practically impossible to collect an example of each and every piece (something that I tried to do for a year or so, until I realized that it would take a warehouse to store it all), so most collectors focus their collections on one area of Carnival - some collect only pieces in Green; some collect specific shapes, such as all vases; and others focus on a specific manufacturer, such as Millersburg. It's different with every collector.
The first thing to do, however, is learn a little bit about the basics of Carnival glass. Following are the three main features to know and understand about Carnival glass: Color, Iridescence, and Shape.
Since carnival glass is iridized and basically has an oil on water, multi-color rainbow effect, sometimes it can be very hard for people to decide what color a piece is; Marigold is easily recognizable, but what about blue or green pieces which can look quite similar? The answer is, turn your piece over and look at the bottom. Carnival glass color is determined, not by the iridescence, but by the color of the base glass - the glass that was used to make the bowl and then had the iridescent treatment applied. For a bowl, simply turn it over and look at the marie, the circular bottom piece. For a vase or other shapes, hold the piece up to a strong light and look through it to the bottom.
Some colors are "standard" and are defined and recognized by everyone. Other colors, such as Renninger Blue or Clambroth are a bit more open to personal interpretation. Clambroth, for instance, is seen as a definitive color by some, while other collectors see it as just a washed out shade of marigold. Newer colors have been added to the pantheon in recent years to try to explain different shades of color; for example, Renninger Blue. Should it be its own category of color, or just considered a shade of blue? And if it is its own color category, how do you tell it from other blues when it seems so open to personal interpretation? Questions like these make judging some colors very difficult - but thankfully most colors are clearly defined, and clearly recognizable.
Purple/Amethyst - some people make a distinction between these two terms, with purple being lighter and amethyst being a darker shade of purple. But for most people, these two terms are interchangeable and are used to refer to any base glass that is purple in color.
Milk Glass - is an opaque, white glass that was made by mixing various chemicals into the melted glass, which cause a reaction that produced the white color. Older milk glass production used such chemicals as fluoride, arsenic and tin oxide. True milk glass, while it might have a "fiery" or "pearl" look to it, is always opaque and cannot be seen through.
Moonstone - is an opalescent whitish glass, that is more translucent than milk glass. It gets its name because it is very similar in color to moonstone gemstones, and has the look of soft moonlight. Moonstone is not as opaque as milk glass, and has a "cloudy", see through quality to it.
Opalescence - this effect produces milky white edges on a piece of carnival glass. Sometimes the opalescence is very pronounced, and the milky edges are wide, sometimes it is apparent on just the tips of the piece. Opalescent glass was made by placing bone ash in the glass mix. After removal from the mold a piece would be reheated; the parts that received the most heat would then turn milky white. If the original glass was clear and it was sprayed with marigold doping solution, it would become peach opalescent. If the glass color was aqua and after it was reheated and sprayed, it would be aqua opal.
Slag - comes in many different colors. Blue and Red are known to have been used with carnival treatments but are extremely rare. Slag glass is colored glass, produced like milk glass by adding chemicals that produce colors. Darker swirls of color are then added so that it ends up with a marbled effect.
Clambroth - some people see this as its own separate color, a light marigold with a yellowish tint. Others just see it as a very light application of marigold and nothing more; The collector can decide.
Smoke - can range from a neutral grayish tone, to a brownish tone. I have only ever seen this color associated with Imperial Glass pieces.
Vaseline - vaseline glass is a greenish-yellow colored glass that is produced by adding uranium salts to clear glass. When placed under a black light, the glass will fluoresce or glow green. Vaseline is most often covered with a Marigold treatment.
Helios Green - is a light green with pale goldish highlights. As with Smoke, it is exclusively associated with Imperial Glass pieces.
Powder Blue and Lime Green - both of these are terms to describe a very light shade of their respective colors. Neither is light enough to be considered "ice", but they are both much lighter than standard blue or green. Lime green is sometimes mistaken for vaseline, but it does not fluoresce. And powder blue differs from aqua, because it does not have any greenish tint.
Renninger Blue - a shade of blue that is lighter than Cobalt blue and has some aqua and jewel tones to it. This is a "new" color that is still being defined. Because collectors have started naming "shades" of color, it can be very hard to distinguish what color of glass you are dealing with. These new colors are also somewhat controversial, with some collectors accepting them, and others maintaining that they are simply "blue".
In the example to the right: 1) What color is this piece? 2) When we look at the back, we can see that it is blue...but what shade of blue? 3) Here is the same bowl in a side by side comparison. The bowl on the left is Cobalt blue, the bowl on the right was listed on an Ebay auction as Renninger blue. Besides the Renninger being a bit lighter, they still look mostly the same to me. 4) So finally, we hold both pieces up to the light, and now we can see that the Renninger piece is a lighter shade, with a slight aqua tone. But does this make it Renninger, or simply a different shade of blue? The collector must decide.
Carnival pieces can come in a huge array of shapes but there are some basic ones, with set terminology, that all collectors should know.
Bowls - one would think a bowl is a simple shape - a bowl, is a bowl, is a bowl, right? The bowl shape is not quite that simple, actually; you have several different shapes of bowls that are recognized by collectors.
- Ruffled (think of gently rolling hills);
- Pie Crust (one large crimp, followed by one small crimp, much like the edge of a pie);
- Three and One (three small crimps, followed by one large crimp, then the pattern repeats);
- Candy Ribbon (tight, small crimps all the way around, like the old fashioned hard candy);
- Ice Cream shape, has no ruffles or crimps, but is round with straight, slightly cupped sides. Some of these bowls have sawtooth edges, some are smooth edged.
Footed or Flat:
- Flat, if a bowl is flat, it sits on a "marie", the circular piece at the bottom of the bowl.
- Footed, if a bowl is footed, it can either have ball feet, or spatula feet.
Centerpiece or Fruit Bowls - fruit bowls, sometimes called centerpiece bowls, are large, deep bowls that are meant to sit in the center of the table and hold fruit or a flower arrangement. They were made to be eye catching centerpieces. These bowl are generally either footed, or sit on a stand. Fruit bowls on stand can be distinguished from punch bowls, because they are almost always deeply ruffled, and wouldn't be able to hold liquid.
Berry bowl sets - berry bowl sets consist of a large, or "master" bowl, and several smaller berry bowls in a matching pattern. These can be ice cream shaped, ruffled, flat bottom or footed. Any small bowl is known as a "berry" bowl, and originally belonged to a set, though you often find them in stores individually.
Compotes - are any non-handled bowl or candy shape dish on a stem. All compotes are "stemmed", or stand on a pedestal. Some are "covered" and have lids, others have no lids and are called "open" compotes. A "sweet meat" is a particular kind of compote with a high, domed lid and shallow base.
Bon-Bon - what is the difference between a bon-bon and a compote? The handles. Generally, if a dish has handles, it is considered a bon-bon; no handles is a compote. Either piece can either sit flat; sit on a short foot, which is known as "footed"; or sit on a tall column, which is known as "stemmed".
Breakfast or Table sets - consist of four individual pieces: butter dish, sugar, creamer and spooner. To find a whole matching set is always a good find.
Pitchers - pitchers are found in four sizes: small cream pitchers (part of a breakfast set); or medium sized milk pitchers; standard sized water pitchers; and tall, straight tankards. If a water pitchers has a large round shape, they are called cannonball pitchers.
Loving Cup - is a two handled cup, shaped like a trophey. Originally it actually was used for drinking in special ceremonies, like marriages.
Epergnes - were made to hold flowers. They are two parts: the base and the lilies that are inserted into the base. Epergnes can come with just one lily or many.
Tumblers, Mugs, Wine and Shot glasses - there are many shapes of drink glasses in carnival glass. Tumblers are flat bottomed glasses that are generally tall with straight sides, but can come in geometric shapes. Tumblers never have handles. Mugs look just like coffee mugs, while punch cups were made to match punch bowls. Wine glasses are small, stemmed glasses that were often paired with a decanter, they are also sometimes called cordials. And shot glasses look like miniature tumblers.
Vases - vases come in a huge array of sizes and shapes and patterns. One could do nothing but collect vases...and some people do. Bud vases are small vases meant to hold a single flower. "Funeral vases" refer to extremely tall vases, while "squat" is used to describe very short vases. Wallpockets are vases with a flat back, meant to hang on the wall and display dried flowers. Some vases have flat bases, other are footed.
Rose Bowls - a rose bowl is also technically a vase, since it was used to display flowers. Rose bowls fall into their own category however. A rose bowl is a cupped bowl that can either be smooth edged or pinched in to form ruffles. Rose bowls can sit on a flat base, but are more often seen with three feet.
Punch bowl sets - most punch bowls sit on a matching stand, though some are "flat" and have no stand. A punch set consists of the punch bowl, stand and punch cups. If the punch bowl is sitting on a mismatched stand, we call this a "marriage".
Iridescence is very important to choosing "good" pieces of Carnival to collect, and it can also be one of the hardest things to judge, because much about iridescence is subjective to the collectors likes and preferences.
Now, without a doubt, we can lay out different pieces of carnival glass and demonstrate which pieces have poor iridescence - the iridescence is weak (meaning it's very light), or it might be spotty (meaning the iridescence is not uniform across the whole piece), or worn (meaning there are areas where the iridescence has been rubbed or worn away). Also watch out for "rusting", which is where larger drops of the iridescent treatment dries darker and causes a freckling effect. A final note is that you generally want to avoid items that are considered "silvery"; when a piece (this most effects the blue and purple colors) becomes worn and starts to lose it's iridescence, you often see it take on a gunmetal or silver sheen, and most of it's rainbow of color is gone, this is called silvering. All of the above are considered imperfections and reduce the value of a piece.
But then as you start to study the better pieces of carnival, the question of iridescence becomes more subjective and begins to depend more on the likes and tastes of the collector. Some pieces, especially blues and purples, tend toward a gold-toned iridescence. I prefer this effect, where the design almost looks gilded in gold. Other collectors prefer an iridescence with less gold tone, and more rainbow tones. You also have terms like "electric", "blazing", etc. These are terms that people use to express a really bright, saturated, colorful iridescence...but then again, they are subjective and what one person considers "electric" may not be agreed upon by another person.
You also have to consider the color (remember the color is determined by the base glass) of the piece. Darker colors, like green and amethyst, generally have a darker, more saturated iridescence, while lighter colors such as Vaseline will have lighter iridescence simply because their base color is lighter.
So the really important thing is to make sure the piece is free of imperfections like worn spots, and generally you want to look for a good, deep color, as opposed to a color that looks washed out.
Radium Finish Iridescence
Radium finish iridescence was produced by Millersburg and can sometimes be hard to explain. Generally, pieces that have a radium finish have a lighter, almost see-through iridescence, but with a very high shine, almost a mirror like quality. Some people value radium finish pieces very highly, others do not care for them. It's easier to demonstrate Radium than to explain it with words, so a picture is shown at right showing two bowls of the same design. The bowl on the left has a lovely satin green iridescence, the bowl on the right has a radium iridescence. You can clearly see the mirror quality of the high shine.
Electric is a term that is used to describe a piece of carnival glass that has very strong, bright, saturated iridescence, with lots of rainbow color. These pieces are highly desirable and usually sell for a high price.
We will leave off with a final word about Condition. When you are buying Carnival glass, you generally want to avoid pieces that have damage, such as heat checks, cracks and chips (though there is an exception to this rule, which we will discuss below), though before you pass up on buying a nice piece of Carnival, you want to be sure to assess it carefully and determine – is it “damage” or is it “normal manufacturing marks”?
Carnival glass was a molded glass, but after it was molded, it was reheated and hand shaped by a crew of employees who worked for the glass company. They used metal tools to pull the bowl from the mold; they used wooden paddles and other tools to form the ruffled edges; and sometimes they would hand form certain pieces or whimsies. So there was a certain amount of human interaction during the glass making process – as a result, no two pieces of carnival are exactly alike, and many pieces have some sort of “tool marks” associated with the normal manufacturing process.
What is a tool mark? A tool mark is any mark, scratch or blemish that was done during the manufacture of the glass, and as a result of the technicians forming and shaping the glass. Tool marks are not considered damage, and as a general rule do not affect the value of the piece (though some serious collectors are more critical of tool marks than others).
Tool marks often manifest as scratches or shallow grooves in the glass. When assessing your piece before you purchase, be sure to determine, is it a tool mark, or is it an actual internal crack. If you hold the piece up to a strong light, you can usually determine this fairly easily.
You might also see pieces where they are slightly lopsided, or one ruffle is misshapen. I have even seen pieces where you can see the impression of a thumb print in the glass. Again, this is considered “done in manufacturing” and is not considered damage. I have even known collectors who seek out those pieces specifically because they are truly unique and one-of-a-kind.
What is a heat check, and how is it different from a crack? Technically there is no difference, a crack is a crack is a crack. However, when collectors say “crack”, they are referring to damage or cracking that occurred as a result of the bowl being dropped, or knocked up against something hard. Cracks are damage that occur after manufacture.
Heat checks are small internal cracks that sometimes resulted when the bowl was removed from the mold and reheated. They are called heat checks because they almost always have that characteristic shape, like a check mark. In 99% of cases the heat check is always located in the marie, the bottom circular part of the bowl. While heat checks were done in manufacturing, they are still considered damage – though they often don’t rate as badly as common cracks. Depending on how large the heat check is, and how noticeable it is, the value of the piece will be affected accordingly.
Chips, Chiggers, Flea Bites and Bubbles
Sometimes the language used to describe damage to a bowl can be confusing. It is always best to view a bowl in person and to be able to physically examine its condition. But what about online auctions, where all you have to go on is a few pictures and the seller’s description? Here are a few terms and what they mean in regard to an items condition:
Chip – generally used to describe a significant, noticeable chip, where a piece of glass has actually been chipped off and is no longer there. The placement of chips is a huge factor in how much the price of an item is affected. If the chip is obvious, the price goes down considerably. If the chip is on the bottom or marie of the bowl, where it can’t be seen, it often won’t affect the price much at all.
Shallow chips and flakes – two terms that are interchangeable, both describe a place where a top layer of glass has flaked off, but the bottom layer is still intact. These can often be smoothed out to ensure there are no sharp edges, and are not terribly noticeable.
Chiggers and Flea Bites – two terms that are interchangeable, used to describe very small, shallow chips, usually along the edge or bottom rim of a piece. These types of small chips generally don’t affect the value of a piece very much and are easily buffed out with a Dremel.
Burst Bubble – when the molten glass is poured into the mold, air bubbles become trapped in the cooled glass. Almost every piece of carnival has a least a few air bubbles. Most of these are encapsulated within the glass and do not affect the piece at all. If an air bubble happens to be close to the surface, however, sometime they “burst” and you are left with a small open divot or pore. Depending on how large these are and where they are located, they are usually not considered damage, but are put into the category of “done in manufacture”.
As Is – this is a term sellers use to flag an item as damaged. Sometimes their description will expound on the damage, sometime they can be vague. So whenever you see “as is”, remember it is a buyer beware situation.
When Are Damaged Items Desirable?
As stated above, the general rule of collecting is to avoid items that are damaged – cracks, chips, flakes or wear to the iridescence - because their value is lower and an item with damage is more prone to future damage because its structural integrity is already compromised.
One exception is when you are dealing with a rare, hard to find piece of carnival. In that instance, damage becomes much less important and often doesn’t even suppress the price of the item that much. For example, you might have a carnival pattern, where there are only three known examples and one of the examples has an internal crack and a chip. Because it is so rare, the damage becomes, for all intents and purposes, insignificant.