Like most antique glassware from the early 20th century, carnival glass’ strange and metallic appearance can cause some consumers to worry. How was it made? Is it safe to use?
Carnival glassware requires great care due to its surface’s delicate nature. Although its signature iridescence is achieved by exposing the glass to heavy metallic spray during production, serving food on carnival glassware is unlikely to cause harm to its users and is safe to use with most foods.
That being said, there are things that you should be aware of before deciding if and how to use your carnival glassware for more than just decoration.
Can You Use Carnival Glass?
Carnival glass, recognizable by its bold colors and rainbow-like iridescent sheen, gets its name from the end of its initial popularity. Invented in 1908, the method of treating pressed glassware with sprays from heated metallic oxides soon spread to multiple manufacturers, and production boomed. It was popular for carnival glassware to be pressed with complex grooved patterns and images to better display its metallic patina.
Though the initial colors that were preferred were mostly dark, bold, and opaque, there were also lighter pastel versions that were released later. Following the crash in the late 1920s, demand for the reflective metallic glass plummeted. With more pieces than there was demand, the glassware was frequently given away as carnival prizes, earning the shiny dishes the now-familiar moniker.
The concern with serving food off of carnival glassware is whether or not foods might absorb some of the metals from the reflective coating. People might ingest some of the metallic tint if carnival glass is chipped or has eroded away. Carnival glass is well-known for being delicate and easy to chip.
Most colors and coatings used for carnival glass contained mineral salts like tin and magnesium, which are not harmful if ingested in small amounts. In fact, most canned or processed foods contain small concentrations of tin, and magnesium is naturally present in many foods and drinks. Though chipping of the gorgeous coating in tableware where these are present would be disappointing, it will not harm anyone.
However, some rarer tints may contain traces of metals that are not safe to consume. Though it is unlikely, more than a small amount of cobalt could be ingested from chipping. When considering what dishes to use when serving guests, consider the risks of using carnival glass.
Carnival glass is extremely brittle and delicate, so it can break in your hands if you are not careful. Be careful using metal serving utensils and handling the dish, as they may scratch the surface.
Foods to avoid when serving from carnival glassware include anything with a high amount of acidity like vinegar or lemon juice and foods with a lot of oil like butter, cream, mayonnaise, or alcohol. Placing these foods in contact with the surface of carnival glassware will likely dull or damage it. It is also important to not serve particularly hot foods in carnival glass, as high temperatures can cause the glass to crack.
How to Handle and Store Carnival Glass
Because of its delicate nature, carnival glass should be kept with great care. When possible, make sure not to store or transport carnival glass where the pieces might bump into and chip the coating off of one another. This means that stacking of dishes, bowls, cups, and so on should be avoided.
To maintain carnival glass’s signature iridescent coat, keep pieces in an area with stable temperature and out of direct sunlight. Though it may look striking in the sun, prolonged exposure to the sun can cause carnival glass to fade, and frequent changes in temperature can cause the glass to crack.
A good storage option that meets these criteria is in a cabinet or hutch separate from everyday glassware and china. Storing carnival glass in a cabinet decreases the likelihood of damage from regular activity and offers additional protection from dust and dirt that can damage the surface coating over time.
The type of dish your carnival glass is shaped in is something you need to keep in mind when handling. For instance, pitchers or handled serving bowls are common carnival glass pieces, their spindled handles catching the light when turned. However, such pieces should not be held by the handle when cleaning and moving as they are delicate and likely to break under consistent stress.
How to Clean Carnival Glass
Cleaning carnival glass can be quite the undertaking, so whenever the need arises, be sure to set aside the appropriate amount of time; rushing while cleaning can not only result in surface damage but can break your carnival glassware altogether if circumstances are unfavorable.
First, set up your “cleaning station” in an indoor area away from windows. This is important especially during colder months as drafts or changes in temperature are likely to cause the brittle glass to crack. Fill your cleaning tub with soapy room temperature water and line it with a towel to provide additional protection from chipping. A sink or deep plastic tote or bucket should do the trick. Never put carnival glass in the dishwasher. It will end badly.
Wash the carnival glass items one at a time with a soft dishcloth, using a new, soft toothbrush to gently clean out any crevices if necessary. Once the glass piece is cleaned to your satisfaction, rinse it with room temperature water and pat it dry with a soft towel. Though it may be tempting to wash smaller pieces like cups together, don’t do it! Clinking carnival glass cups or other figures together will likely cause damage.
Some older pieces of carnival glass can be stained, either from use or too infrequent cleaning. Don’t scrub at them; instead, get a few tablets of denture cleaner and let the stained item soak for a few hours, checking on it every 30 minutes.
It should be noted that while carnival glass is technically glass, the use of cleaning products marketed as glass-cleaners should be avoided, as the chemicals will likely harm the surface layer and cause the glass to lose some of its shine.