Frank L Fenton and his brother John decided to open their own glassworks in 1905, based on Frank's seven years' experience working for other glassworks. They started with a glass decorating shop in Martins Ferry, Ohio, and a year later moved to Williamstown, West Virginia where they built their own glassworks.
||Their first production from this works appeared in January, 1907 and later that same year they exhibited carnival glass (which they called Iridill) at a trade show. This was an instant success, and for the next fifteen years the Fenton company made carnival glass as one of its main products.
Although the shape and surface patterns of Fenton glass is usually produced by pressing the glass into a mold, it was hand-pressed and hand finished, and the Fenton company has always aimed for good quality hand made glass.
The bon-bon dish (below left) in marigold carnival glass is known as Lotus and Grape, and was shown in catalogues around 1915.
When the glass was removed from the mold it was shaped with hand tools to produce the final product. Vases were swung to give them length, bowls were given crimped edges, or pulled up, turned over, or just made wavy.
For a fuller discusion of carnival glass see "Carnival Glass from the USA".
Fenton made their own molds, usually to Frank Fenton's designs. They also made the barrels in which their glass was packed in straw for shipping, most of it going to the big retail stores like Woolworth's and McCrory's. They made tumblers, vases, goblets, jugs, and added new products as they went.
|John Fenton left the company in 1909, and set up his own glassworks in Millersburg, Ohio also making carnival glass, but this failed after only a year or two.
The Fenton Art Glass Company enjoyed many successful years during the heyday of carnival glass. Even though competitors like the Northwood Company soon produced their own canival glass there was a huge demand.
The bowl on the right is Fenton's Peacock Tail pattern, first made in 1910-11
Until the outbreak of war in 1914, Fenton could sell virtually everything they could produce in carnival glass. In 1914 there was a temporary setback, but the company soon recovered and continued to prosper until the Depression era, around 1930.
When the economy declined in the Depression years, so did the demand for hand made glass, and Fenton went through some very difficult years in the 1930's. During this period their main production was coloured glass tableware and useful glass household items. They made mixing bowls for the Dormeyer company (to go with electric mixers) and hobnail perfume bottles for Wrisley, and these two major contracts saved the company from failing when many others went bankrupt.
Business improved in 1939 with the outbreak of war in Europe. Many importing companies could no longer obtain supplies from Europe, and turned to home producers to supply the demand. At the same time, people had money to spend but many things were rationed or in short supply. So there was a demand for good quality glass.
Emphasis in the 1940's switched to opaque coloured glass, and Fenton's Victorian styles of glass were very popular.
After the war Frank L Fenton died (1948) and the company was taken over by a new generation of Fentons. They made some major changes in pricing structure and marketing tactics, raising their prices and aiming for the high end of the pressed glass market.
In the late 1940's and early 1950's there was a slump in the hand glass industry and many companies went out of business. Once again, Fenton survived, and once again they found a magic product which the public loved.
From 1952 onwards they made and sold tons and tons of items in milk glass (white glass that looks like porcelain) especially hobnail milk glass. Milk glass became Fenton's top-selling line, and the company expanded in the 1950's and 1960's.
In 1968 Rose Presznick asked Fenton's to reproduce some carnival glass for her to sell at her Carnival Glass Museum in Lodi, Ohio, which they did. Previously, in 1967, Fenton had experimented with an idea for a plate to commemorate the first American glassmakers, but they had made it in milk glass and it did not look effective. When the Fenton chemist Charley Goe saw the carnival glass made for Rose Presznick, he suggested that Fenton's should try the Craftsman plate in carnival glass.
|And so the first Fenton collector series was born. The first Craftsman Plate (shown on right) has this inscription on the back "The Fenton Art Glass Company commemorates with this handmade plate the earliest glass craftsman of New America ... Jamestown - 1608".
There were 12 annual collector plates in this series, and the mold for each plate was destroyed at the end of its year. In this way the company deliberately created a scarce collectors item.
The idea was so successful that there have been a whole sequence of collector series. There were 12 annual ChrisTmas in America plates; nine annual Mothers Day plates; the Bicentenial Glassware in 1973-74, and many more collectors series.
Carnival glass also entered a new phase of popularity in the 1970's, mostly with collectors.
|The Fenton logo of an oval with Fenton written in script was introduced in 1970 on carnival glass pieces, to distinguish them from pieces made in earlier times.|
This was such a successful idea that it was extended to all Fenton glassware produced from 1974 onwards. Fenton glassware from the 1980's can be identified by the tiny number 8 under the n in Fenton; and similar in the 1990's there is a number 9 under the n. This kind of clear identification and dating ensures that Fenton glass will continue to delight collectors. Another logo of an F in script within a vertical oval was added (from 1983 onwards) to molds obtained from other companies and used by Fenton for reproduction and variation pieces.
Another highly successful Fenton product was introduced in 1970, namely Burmese glass. This kind of glass is opaque, matt, cream shading to light pink at the top. It was first produced by the Mt Washington glass company who patented it in 1885, but it was so difficult to produce that they gave up in 1900. Fenton made many designs and shapes in Burmese glass, which continues as one of their most successful lines even today.
The decorating department is another feature of Fenton's that must be mentioned. Many Fenton pieces are hand decorated and signed by the artists, again very popular with collectors.
In 1975 the Fenton Art Glass Club of America Inc. was founded, and two years later a Fenton museum was set up at the factory.
|In 1983 Fenton introduced the Connoisseurs Collection, a series of very high quality limited edition pieces introduced not so much to make a profit on these particular items, as to enhance the company's reputation for high quality glass.|
Collecting Fenton glass is a very popular hobby. Collectors may specialise in a particular colour or type of glass (carnival glass, Burmese glass, milk glass for example) or they may specialise in a type of object (bells, or slippers, or cats, or vases). Fenton has always produced sufficient variety every year to keep all their supporters happy. Unfortunately in 2007 it was announced that the Fenton Art Glass Company was to cease production and close down. By mid 2008 there were further announcements about Fenton carrying on as a result of the support received from their customers and the flood of orders that had poured in since the announcement. We wait to see, hoping that this great company with its long traditions will survive yet again.
If you are looking for Fenton glass, you can usually find items on offer on ebay. Click here to see Fenton glass currently for sale on ebay.
If you have enjoyed this article, here are some books on Fenton glass that you may find helpful. Click on any book cover on this page to read more about a particular book, including price and any available discounts for buying on-line.
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