My father collects Carnival glass, so I grew up surrounded by iridescence. I have vivid memories of him coming home with brown paper grocery bags that were sort of crumply looking and timeworn. But within these common sacks, under the layers of newspaper and dirt, were tumblers and bowls that had somehow managed to catch a piece of the rainbow. It was magical. One day, he came home with a wooden barrel filled with dinnerware that had rainbows on every piece, and though I don't remember what we ate, I'll never forget how wondrous the table looked when we used it. Now that I'm all grown up -- or supposed to be -- I have a name for the rainbow dishes: Normandie, by Federal Glass Company.
Every time I put out a display of iridescent Normandie, I hear people who "know about such things" explaining to their less learned companions how "this shiny stuff is called 'Carnival Glass'." Depending upon how many times I've heard it that day (and how annoying the 'expert' is,) I try to educate them about what they're looking at. Now, we Depression glass collectors know that Normandie is not Carnival glass, but many of us are not clear on the differences between the two. Carnival and Depression glass do have a few things in common. Both were used as premiums in grocery stores and as prizes in carnival games, and although similar style glass was made in other parts of the world, the terms 'Carnival glass' and 'Depression glass' have come to refer to glass made in the United States during a certain time period. Now let's get to the differences.
Carnival glass is older than Depression glass. It is "colored, pressed glass with surface iridescence fired on, made in America between 1900 -- 1925." (This is the definition Marion Hartung gives in her "First Book of Carnival Glass" 1960. Hartung is to Carnival what Weatherman is to Depression, and her books are known as the definitive reference works for Carnival glass pattern identification.) Making Carnival glass was a two step process. First, the glass was pressed in the molds. After it was done, metallic salts were sprayed onto the pieces and they were re-fired, resulting in the iridescent finish. Different effects were achieved by varying the color of the underlying glass and the combination of metallic elements.
Iridescent Depression glass was produced the same way with one major difference: Depression glass was made entirely by machine while each piece of Carnival glass was sprayed and finished by hand. This difference might not seem like anything at first, but it's very important when you think about it. Because each piece of Carnival glass was hand worked, you'll find variation even on two 'identical' pieces. This is desirable because Carnival glass was made primarily in decorative items. A collector may have the piece already, but can always search for one with a more pleasing iridescence or color variation that goes with his decor. With Depression glass, the opposite is true: variation drives us crazy -- just ask anyone who's trying to match the pink of his Cherry Blossom dishes. If you're making dinnerware, it's important to be able to produce a consistent product over the entire production period, so that the dishes you add today match the ones purchased years ago. The switch to automation that took place in glass factories during the 1920's made this consistency possible.
Federal Glass Company was among the first to recognize the demand for economical glassware and was quick to capitalize on it. Among the first fully automated glass factories, they produced large quantities of machine-made glass dinnerware during the Depression years, and continue glass production today. Normandie was produced from 1933 to 1940 - during the same time that Madrid, Patrician, and Sharon were made. Although it's available in amber and pink, iridescent Normandie -- known as Sunburst -- is the most commonly found color. (Federal seemed to be saving the amber and pink glass for their other patterns. Though harder to find, pink and amber Normandie are beautiful, so if you like the pattern, but don't like iridescent glass, try one of these other 'flavors'. It's worth the hunt.) In fact, Normandie is the only Depression era dinnerware that can be found in iridescent and it has caused much confusion among glass collectors -- Depression AND Carnival. (Remember that iridescent Iris and Anniversary date to the 1950's.)
Iridescent Normandie was recognized by Carnival collectors years before Weatherman published her first Depression glass books. In her Third Book of Carnival Glass (1962), Hartung lists it as "Bouquet and Lattice, and has this to say about it:
"This pattern has been included here because of the numerous inquiries about it that have been received.
Certainly, it is indeed a late comer to the Carnival family, dating into the 1920's. However, we know that occasional pieces and patterns were made later than that ... so this is no later than other patterns we find quite collectible. If you find it pleasing, why not collect it? Certainly it is easier to find than many others, and was made in forms and shapes unheard of in an earlier day. One example of this is an eleven-inch divided or sectional plate -- very practical for a salad luncheon at least.
The iridescent pieces have been seen only in marigold. These have usually have a slick look and are apt to be shiny. Still, if you like it, Why not?"
Hartung recognized that while it's a bit late to be 'real' Carnival and isn't of the same quality, it certainly is an acceptable 'go with' as Carnival dinnerware wasn't originally made. Carnival collectors fell into two camps: those who agreed with Hartung's comments, and those who saw iridescent Normandie as a later, cheaper imitation of the real thing.
When Weatherman published Book One in 1970, she had this to say about Normandie:
"Normandie is the official name for this beautifully wrought, mold-etched design of Federal's. It was not from an old Carnival mold as is widely believed, but was made especially for the new pink mold-etched glassware that was coming in vogue. It was first made in 1933 in "Rose Glow" and crystal. A year later a color called "Sunburst" was created by spraying an iridescent amber onto the patterned crystal ware and then firing in on so well that some people today might think it true Carnival glass. Traincarloads of this Normandie in Sunburst were shipped to the Great Northern Products Company to be used as premiums."
Weatherman's research turned up the true lineage for Normandie and placed it in the proper time frame. But proving that it was truly Depression glass didn't make it any more accepted by Depression glass collectors. They fell into two camps: those who agreed with Weatherman's findings, and those who saw iridescent Normandie as a later, cheaper imitation of the real thing. (Sounds familiar doesn't it ...)
Remember that all this information was coming to light in the 1960's. Jeanette Glass had just reissued Iris and Anniversary in iridescent, and companies like Indiana and Fenton were pushing reproduction Carnival glass to take advantage of the market trend. All the new glass had the same "too shiny, fake-looking" iridescence and Normandie was quickly confused with this new stuff. Carnival collectors were up in arms trying to keep up with all the new junk while protecting the integrity of the old. Depression glass collectors saw anything iridescent as "that new Carnival stuff" and wanted nothing to do with it, never realizing that true Depression glass lay among the junk. Of course, in the 1960's, Depression glass was not even recognized as collectible. It wasn't until the 1970's that the research started to congeal. If you think about it, Carnival collectors went through their 'repro scare' in the 1950's -- 70's, while ours began in the 1970's and is going on into the present day. Considering that Carnival glass is about 20 years older than Depression glass, the cycle is right on course.
So here we are, over thirty years later, and how far have we come? Well, some people are still confusing iridescent Normandie with Carnival glass, but those that do are quick to grasp the difference when you explain it to them. Carnival glass collectors are happy that much of the confusion is cleared up, and don't mind adding Normandie dinnerware to their collections. Depression glass collectors are happy that iridescent Normandie is finally recognized for what it is, and hunt fervently for serving pieces and plain dinner plates. (Grills are very common, plain dinners and serving pieces are hard to find, and the 8 inch salad plate is invisible.) Personally, I've always liked iridescent Normandie. It's lovely on the table -- especially at Thanksgiving -- and it brings me good memories. In my own collecting, I try to follow Jefferson's advice to "Surround yourself only with things you know to be useful or think to be beautiful." I think that covers all the bases, don't you?
Webmaster's Note: The author is an NDGA Board member, dealer, collector and co-owner of JustGlass.com, a web site with a host of information pertaining to glass as well as glass for sale. We thank Rosemary for permission to reproduce her article.