English Carnival Glass

English Carnival Glass trademark Glass Museum On Line

English Carnival Glass

above: a group of English carnival glass
top left: trademark of Sowerby glass

authors: Glen and Stephen Thistlewood,
editor: Angela Bowey, special contribution from Adam Dodds

Be honest. What pops into your mind when you hear the words "English Carnival?" Do you imagine a nondescript piece of marigold glass, with a poor iridescence and an exterior pattern that you simply can't name? If that's the case, please read on and allow us to alter your perception. If that's not the case - then you already know about Sowerby!

Let's get down to basics. English Carnival Glass has suffered from pretty bad 'public relations' in the USA in the past. It was easy to dismiss a boring, exterior patterned piece of Carnival that couldn't be identified, as "English". Fortunately, with the passage of time, more is now known about English Carnival and we can firmly attribute a wide range of astoundingly beautiful (and often very rare) examples of English Carnival.

Carnival glass thistle vase

The greater part of English Carnival was made by Sowerby. True, one or two other items were made in England, for example the Thistle vase shown on the left (Canning Town Glass Company) - but by and large, if you are referring to English Carnival - then you're talking about Sowerby.

There is documented evidence of a Sowerby glassworks in the North East of England as early as 1807. In 1852, at about the same time that Jane Austen was writing her famous novels like "Sense & Sensibility" and "Emma", Sowerby's new Ellison Glass Works was built at Gateshead on the Tyne. A director of the family business at that time was John George Sowerby, a talented artist as well as a businessman. He designed many of the cast iron moulds that were used in the glassworks.

Sowerby's produced a huge and varied range of beautiful quality glassware including vitro-porcelain and their famous Queen's Ivory ware. The Peacock's Head became their trademark in 1876 and can be found on many of their older pieces of glass. They also produced some remarkable Carnival glass in the 1920's and 30's and again in the 1950's and 60's, - the most beautiful and sought after items being the ones that were made using the old moulds, which dated from the 1800s.

English carnival glass
Illustration of the exterior of a small, handled, marigold Scroll Embossed dish, sometimes called an ashtray.

The pattern on the outside is a very detailed geometric known as Jewelled Peacock. Note that this design is raised up (cameo) rather than being intaglio, as with most geometrics.

In the very centre of the marie is a peacock's head - the Sowerby trademark.

The area where the Sowerby factory was located, known as Tyneside, is an interesting region. It's often fondly referred to as "Geordieland". A true "Geordie" is someone who was born in the area of the River Tyne - that is, Newcastle, South Shields and Gateshead. It also includes the pit villages and towns - for this is a coal mining region with deep rooted traditions, though nowadays the "Geordies" claim to hail from a wider area. The lilting dialect of the area (almost undecipherable to some Southerners!) is also called "Geordie". Why "Geordie"? Well, the word is a nickname for George .... and the coal miners used to be tagged "George" much the same way as English sailors were called "Jack" and English soldiers were called "Tommy". So "Geordie" stuck for everyone in the region!

As well as coal and later "town gas", the area was rich in local black clay (for fire bricks) and there was good local access to white sand from Europe and the chemicals needed to make glass. So Sowerby's thrived, along with several other major glassworks such as Davidson's and Greener. The accent was on quality and good, artistic designs in order to compete with goods from the USA, Belgium, France, Germany and Bohemia. The beautiful pressed glass from these factories is avidly collected today - but only Sowerby is known to have produced Carnival.


In the 1920s, Sowerby introduced iridised glass, 'Sunglow' was the name for their version of marigold, 'Rainbow Lustre' was the term used for amethyst and blue. Although the 'Sunglow' is mainly found on flint (crystal) glass, we have also seen rare examples on vaseline base glass which glow vividly under UV (black) light.

Amethyst Carnival from Sowerby is found less frequently than marigold, but even scarcer is blue - which may be an aqua shade and quite beautiful (as seen on rare examples of the Daisy Block Rowboat) or a true blue (as seen on Sowerby's rare Flora bowl). Another colour seldom seen is black amethyst - so dense that it is virtually impossible to detect colour, even when held to the brightest light source.

Sowerby's trademark was the famous Peacock's Head - introduced in 1876 and press moulded into much of Sowerby's early glassware. Carnival examples are not so easily found because they came in later years when the trademark was not used so commonly.

English carnival glass
This picture shows some more unusual items.

At the front is the Daisy Block Rowboat in the rare shade of aqua.

At either side are two splendid Sowerby Drape vases in black amethyst while at the back is Sowerby's delightful Flora bowl in blue - its pattern is all exterior.

Sowerby's Carnival can be divided into two main groups. Firstly, that which was made by utilising revived old moulds that were first used in the 1800s and later re-used to make carnival from the 1920s onwards. Examples are the Diving Dolphins Bowl,the Covered Swan Butterdish, Wickerwork plate and stand and the Daisy Block Rowboat, names given to these pieces by Carnival collectors. Within the glassworks all pieces were known by their pattern numbers, or by local nicknames like the "two-bob salad" - so-called in the 1940's because the workers thought the piecework price for making this particular bowl was far too low!

The second group of Carnival produced by Sowerby was made by using new moulds from the 1920s onwards. Examples are Pineapple, Cane and Scroll (aka Sea Thistle), Flora, and Derby (aka Pinwheel). Sowerby's Carnival Glass is greatly sought after in the UK, however, it is not too easy to find! Much was exported in the 1920s to Australia, to New Zealand and to South Africa.

When Carnival collecting "took off" in the USA during the 1960s, much glass was exported from the UK to satisfy the growing demand there, too.


Carnival glass bowl (diving dolphins)
We're not ashamed to say we have favourites! Tops has to be the "Diving Dolphins" bowl shown on the left, in our opinion one of Sowerby's finest examples of Carnival glass. It's found only in a 3 footed bowl that originally saw use back in 1882! This original version had a plain interior, sometimes marked with the Sowerby trademark of a peacock's head.

However, it is rare to find the trademark on the later Carnival versions, as the interior usually has Sowerby's version of "Scroll Embossed" - which is thought to have been copied from the Imperial pattern of the same name.

The bowls stand on three feet, each one and a half inches high and styled to form the shape of a dolphin's head. Their bodies curve round and up onto the main part of the bowl. Around the sides of the bowl are stylised flowers and leaves, the combination of elements forming a most attractive overall design. In the UK, the colour seen on most carnival glass examples of the "Diving Dolphins" seems to be a deep marigold, followed by amethyst, but neither are easily found. There are rare aqua-blue examples.

The bowls have either ruffled edges or a smooth outward flare. More unusual is the squared shape, and rarer still, the rose bowl shape, where the top is curved over towards the middle. A hexagonal shape is also reported, though we haven't actually seen one. Interestingly, we have found both the square bowl and the rose bowl shapes in the U.S.A. Originally, this bowl was made in a clear red glass and in the 1930's it was also produced in translucent amber.

Carnival glass swan
This picture shows the splendid COVERED SWAN - this example is in rich marigold.

Note the elegant curve of the neck - a masterpiece of craftsmanship and artistry


Another favorite of ours is the "Covered Swan Butterdish". A graceful work of art; the lid forms the swan's body and with the base, the effect is that of a swan on a nest.

The original Swan mould dates back to the 1880s ( it is illustrated in Sowerby's Book XI from 1885) and is a masterpiece of craftsmanship with the Swan's S-shaped neck gracefully doubling back on itself. The head itself does not touch the rest of the neck. The lid fits neatly into the scalloped edged base.

On the inside of some of the lids, a Registered Design number (Rd.) can be seen at the neck end. There are no mould seams on the base; the swan lid, however, has a mould seam lengthways from front to back. A scarce piece, the "Swan" is usually seen in marigold, though rare amethyst examples do exist.

A later version (thought to be from the 1930s) of the "Swan" can sometimes be seen in blue. Very similar to the original version in overall concept, but very different in that the head has been extended and touches the body, all spaces being filled in with a fine film of glass. The swan sits on top of a reedy nest, the base is not scalloped, but smooth and the lid fits on the outside of the base rather than inside as with the 1885 version..

Sowerby Carnival glass
A group of carnival glass cream jugs and sugar bowls. Angela is sure she has seen all of these attributed to Sowerby, but the ones on the right have been questioned so we are trying to find the reference to confirm it. These patterns were so common in Britain a few years ago that either they were being reproduced or somebody had a warehouse full of old stock (which is quite possible).


Carnival glass was not made at Sowerby's during the 1940's. In 1949 Adam Dodds joined the Company as Technical manager (he is the grandson of Adam Dodds who had controlled the company from 1907 to 1929). Adam stayed until 1956, then moved to Davidson's, another North Eastern glassworks. Adam with his team were asked to re-introduce Carnival Glass at Sowerby's. They only made "Sunglow" in this post-war period, but they made a vast amount of it. We will let Adam tell you in his own words:

"You know, I assume, that Sunglow was a surface stain applied to ordinary flint. The word 'applied' hardly describes the fearsome process involved. We used the prewar mixture of ferric chloride (iron perchloride) crystals dissolved in methylated spirit. An old vertical boiler (many 'new' mechanical things at Sowerbys were based on adaptations of whatever the scrap man next door happened to have in stock) was fitted with a short chimney at the top and a door at the side, top hinged and opened by a foot pedal.

After the glass article had been melted and shaped in the normal way and was still hot and attached to the punty, the sticker-up (a member of the team) pressed the pedal which opened the door, inserted the article, and the same pedal action turned on sprays inside. As soon as the spray hit the hot glass, clouds of green and brown smoke shot out of the chimney and spread around the upper (and sometimes lower) reaches of the glasshouse. The green would be chlorine; goodness knows what the rest was. Some of the stickers-up complained that their teeth changed colour and their shirts fell apart."

We also asked Adam about the kinds of carnival glass made in the North East after the war. He told us:

"Carnival Glass. Here I have a small problem. I had never heard this expression until a few years ago, probably in books. At the time I only knew Sowerbys title of 'Sunglow'. As to post war production, Davidsons 'no', Sowerbys very much 'yes'. Probably many tens of thousands, all one pattern - the heavily patterned 2266. This was also made in even more thousands in flint plus smaller numbers coloured. It was a wonderful production job, the pattern covering a multitude of sins. One of the moulds is sitting on a Sowerbys press in the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead. Three or four sizes of round bowl were turned into umpteen shapes.

Sowerbys, as a matter of policy, never normally sold 'seconds'. However, the Sunglow process produced colours varying from nearly black to the palest straw colour. The extremes were broken down (the cullet was used for black because of the iron content in the stain) and what could be called the middle cut was for normal stock. That left some borderline stuff which was saved up until June when the showmen arrived for the Newcastle Town Moor fair (the biggest in Europe). They always cleared up for us. This came to mind when I first heard the expression 'Carnival'."

Sowerby's #2266 is known amongst collectors as English Hob and Button, or Chunky. Oddly, the pattern was later copied by Indiana Glass in the USA (Indiana pattern #2908 "Hostess plate" known in blue and gold). Sadly, with rising prices and much competition from home and abroad, the production of coloured fancy and domestic glass ceased at Sowerby's in March, 1972. Ten years later, a new factory bearing the name "Tyneside Safety Glass" was built on the site. For further fascinating detail into this part of Sowerby's history, read "Sowerby. Gateshead Glass" by Simon Cottle (Tyne and Wear Museums Service).

The picture at the top of this page illustrates Sowerby's most popular colours - marigold (Sunglow) and amethyst (Rainbow). In the centre is the splendid Diving Dolphins ruffled bowl in amethyst carnival. Flanking it are two Derby (also called Pinwheel) vases in marigold and amethyst. Above are two Pineapple creamers, also in marigold and amethyst.

You may contact Glen and Steve Thistlewood for further information (and information on their Carnival Glass journal NetworK as well as the "Hooked On Carnival" video series) at thistlewood@carnival-glass.demon.co.uk

If you are looking for carnival glass, you can usually find items on offer on ebay. Click here to see carnival glass currently for sale on ebay.

If you have enjoyed this article and want to know more about carnival glass you should find the author's three books on Carnival Glass really interesting. They contain a great deal of previously-unpublished catalogue and archive information, covering USA Classic Carnival in great depth, with much new information on Carnival glass from Europe and the rest of the world. Click on the book covers below to get more details.

Art of carnival glass book Thistlewood Carnival Glass Carnival glass book

There are more books on Carnival glass on the Glass Encyclopedia page on Carnival glass http://www.glassencyclopedia.com/carnivalglass.html

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