Romantic Fenton Glass

By Karen Parr-Moody


Ruffles, fanciful colors, curvaceous silhouettes – the name Fenton brings all of these to mind.


Such objects of beautiful glass are carefully placed in showcase T-302 at GasLamp Too, where they remind passersby of why Fenton remains so collectible. Their feminine grace has stood every test of time. Unlike so many art glass companies that have come and gone, the Fenton Art Glass Company has remained, and is the largest manufacturer of handmade colored glass in the United States.


Founded in 1905 by Frank L. Fenton and his brother John W. Fenton in Martins Ferry, Ohio, Fenton moved to a new Fenton factory in Williamstown, West Virginia within two years. What began as a business of painting other firm’s glass quickly grew into a full glass blowing business, known for the new and unusual colors Frank pushed to develop. In one such glass, Fenton created a seismic trend:  In 1907, the firm introduced "Iridescent" glass, which become known as the widely copied and collected "Carnival" glass.  


Up to the ‘20s, Fenton design was influenced by the firms of Tiffany and Steuben. However, Fenton’s push for innovation soon resulted in hand-blown glass of a wide variety of types, including opalescent, milk, chocolate, custard and Vaseline, which is a yellow or lime green glass that, due to the presence of a slight amount of uranium in the glass, glows under a black light. (Photo, left: tulip vase; $75.)


Practical items dominated the Great Depression era and the years of World War II. However, even during these times, designs with an unmistakably trademark look began to appear. In 1938, Fenton made perfume bottles of French opalescent glass in a hobnail pattern for the Wrisley Company. This expanded by 1939 into a variety of items done in hobnail milk glass, which would become the firm’s top-selling line.


During the late thirties, more achievements came. The standout design motif of Fenton that makes it instantly recognizable was born: this was the delicate ruffle of the “crimp” and “double crimp” seen at the edges of vases and other objects. This hallmark set Fenton apart in the art glass world, as only a highly skilled craftsman can spin an edge of molten color on a piece (photo right: a “coin dot” opalescent Jack in the Pulpit vase with a ruffled edge; $495).


The unique ruffles edges found on many Fenton wares soon transmuted into the creation of the companies "Crest" lines during the 1940s. Opaque glass formed the body of such items, while a clear or colored border was added around the ruffled edge. Clear ruffled edges were called "Silver Crest," bright green borders were called "Emerald Crest," opaque white was “Snow Crest," and black was “Ebony Crest.”


By the 1950s, milk glass hobnail was known as Fenton’s “flagship pattern.” Also during this time, a variety of opaque glass colors became desirable. Up until that point, no Fenton piece had carried a maker’s mark, but the firm decided that each handler should have his own mark for the handled baskets. (Skill is needed to put handles on baskets and pitchers. In 25 seconds, the handler attaches a molten ribbon of glass to form a handle.)


In the last few years, Fenton has encountered financial problems that threatened to dismantle the company. However, these have been solved, and Fenton continues to produce beautiful pieces of American art glass. (Photo, left: Fenton scalloped-edge vase; $30.)


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