Fenton Art Glass – Introduction
Fenton glass is interesting to collect. The Fenton factory in West Virginia has created handmade art glass for over a century. Beautiful and practical, it appeals to nearly every glass collector; from true antiques and depression glass to more recent vintage glass and contemporary pieces. Plus, it can be a fun hobby on any budget. Newer pieces are available at the Fenton Factory Gift Shop and Fenton Dealers. Older pieces can be found at antique stores, yard sales, and online auctions.
Fenton was, and remains, a family owned and operated factory. Started in 1905 by brothers Frank and John Fenton, Fenton glass produced many types of handmade glass over the years.
Glassmaking is an exacting process, requiring dozens of highly skilled craftsmen. From modeling the unique forms, casting the molds, and chiseling designs into the molds; to formulating the glass colors, forming the pieces on the factory floor, and creating original hand-painted designs on the finished pieces.
Fenton mostly used of the pressed-glass technique, but added in blown glass techniques for special effects. In the pressed-glass technique, glass is poured into a mold and pressed together by a plunger attached to a lever. The glass came out in the shape of the mold.
While still keeping the glass hot and fluid, but turning to keep it from losing shape, the top edge can be crested, crimped, folded, etc. to add flair and beauty. For more intricate pieces, more formed glass is added to make handles or other applied additions by the “gaffer”. With the forming complete, the piece is then put into a kiln to cool. The kiln is heated to a temperature just below the melting point of the glass, so it doesn't lose shape, then slowly cooled over many hours. If cooled too quickly, the glass will crack. When cool, the piece can be sold undecorated or painted with additional design elements.
In the Beginning
The Fenton brothers worked out of rented spaces until they built and opened their factory in1907. Fenton's first early success was a formula for a glass they called Iridill, an iridescent glass that mimicked the more expensive Tiffany of the time. It was made by spraying hot glass with a metallic salt solution. Like Tiffany and others of the era, Fenton made bowls, plates, vases, etc. with designs (sculpted into the molds) from nature – animals, flowers, etc. Early Fenton Iridill is very prized and collectible. But, over the years, so many glassmakers made imitations and the glassware was so inexpensive that it was sold in bulk and came to be used by carnivals as giveaway prizes. Which is where this type of glass got the name most people know: Carnival Glass.
Fenton experimented with transparent glass styles like Stretch Glass, making plain articles in iridized pastel colors such as Celeste Blue, Florentine Green, Persian Pearl, Tangerine, Topaz, and Wisteria. In the 1920s and 1930s Fenton made pieces in opaque colors: Chinese Yellow, Jade Green, Lilac, Mandarin Red, Mongolian Green, Moonstone, Peking Blue, Periwinkle Blue, and Venetian Red.
The Depression forced many glass plants to close. Fenton introduced new patterns: Georgian, Lincoln Inn, and Plymouth as tablewear lines, plus making mixing bowls (that were very popular) and the like in their opaque colors. Fenton also took commissions from other companies to make items for them. Fenton made some Hobnail barber bottles for the L. G. Wright Glass Co., and perfume bottles for Allen B. Wrisley Co. The Hobnail pattern was popular and Fenton introduced and continued making their own Hobnail items for decades.
During WWII, glassmaking minerals were in short supply. Fenton developed its white opaque line (Milk glass) with a translucent colored or clear edge, known as the Crest line. Baskets and cranberry glass were introduced. Spiral Optics, Diamond Lace, Coin Dot and Hobnail in opalescent colors sold well in the 1940s. During the 1950s Fenton's milk glass Hobnail were their mainstay. Many Fenton bowls were turned into baskets with the addition of a handle. Until this decade, Fenton pieces didn't have a maker's mark, but Fenton decided to acknowledge the gaffer's artistic contribution with a basket hanger's mark.
Fenton continued to diversify. In the mid-1960s, Fenton hired designer Tony Rosena and decorator Louise Piper. Two new glass colors, Burmese and Rosalene, were developed by research chemist Charles Goe. Made with gold, the base color (yellow for Burmese, white for Rosalene) turns pink when reheated – more heat, darker color. With decorated glasswear returning to fashion, Louise Piper developed handpainted floral decorations like “Violets in the Snow” and “Apple Blossoms”. With the revival of Fenton's earlier Carival glass Fenton began to mark their pieces with a logo, the Fenton name within an oval so collectors could tell old from newer. Earlier pieces had only a paper lable, so collecting earlier Fenton requires more knowledge and care.
Fenton and Cracker Barrel begin a business relationship. Other glass factories began closing. Fenton acquired the molds from some of the defunct makers. To differentiate, Fenton-made pieces using the molds of other glass factories bore a cursive “F” in a circle rather than the regular Fenton logo. In the mid 1970’s, Fenton also created an artist-in-residence program, which continued until the factory closing in 2011, where skilled craftsmen produced limited edition art glass vases and other objects d’art by hand. Piper-trained glass decorators began designing other decorations. Decorators began signing the pieces they painted – usually on the bottom of the piece. In the 1980s Fenton began to create annual groupings of special colors, the first Connoisseur Collection was offered in 1983. Other collections include Birthstone Bears (1984), Childhood Treasures Series (1983-1989), the Birds of Winter Series (1987-1990). Fenton also introduced the color Dusty Rose.
At left and right are the Fenton logos stamped on the bottom of the pieces. Most pieces actually have the logo carved into the mold, so it is a raised pattern on the glass.
The bowl in the back is Burmese and the mice are Rosalene. Notice more or less post-production reheating creates different shades of pink on the pieces. Below, notice that even identical Burmese pieces have color variations.
The bird is painted with the "Violets in the Snow" design.
Starting in 1988, Fenton produced exclusive pieces for the QVC network, and the television broadcasts made Fenton collectors of many viewers. Fenton also began to create annual groupings of special colors, such as Pink Opalescent and Topaz Opalescent. Other popular colors were Persian Blue Opalescent (1990), Stiegel Green Stretch (1994), Mulberry (1996), Royal Purple (1998), and Lotus Mist Burmese (2000 – and was added to the continuing line of colors – along with Blue Burmese later on).
In 1996, Fenton began publishing a quarterly newsletter for collectors, The Glass Messenger; and also offering Subscriber Exclusive pieces. The Fenton Family Signature series and Mary Gregory-style pieces came out in the 1990s. In 1994, Fenton hired sculptor Jon Saffell, who made a number of new molds including a Nativity set and new animal figurines.
Fenton continued a leader in art glass for another decade, celebrating their centennial anniversary in 2005. But the recent economic downturn finally took a toll on the factory that survived two world wars and the Great Depression, and the Fenton factory closed in July 2011. Some of the assets were sold off. Parts the factory were rented to other companies. Fenton continues producing a line of lampwork beads. The gift shop and museum at the factory remain open, but only limited factory tours are available. Some recent pieces are still available at the gift shop – until supplies run out, and, of course, the beads are available.
2015 - The gift shop is now closed. The factory museum pieces were sold (auctioned off) and well as some of the factory glass-making tools. Fenton now rents some of their more popular molds (figurines mostly) to other companies with the stipulation that they not produce pieces in any color/color combination that Fenton ever produced. They are clearly labeled as non-Fenton, made with Fenton molds.