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Carnival glass not just ordinary hand-me-downs

PALMETTO -- As a little girl, Sheila Leach didn’t think much of her grandmother’s carnival glass collection.

It included a water pitcher and six tumblers, two vases and a bowl, all in iridescent colors.

“I just didn’t care for it,” said the Huntsville, Ala., native.

Her husband was amused.

“She thought it was the ugliest stuff she saw in her life,” said J.R. Leach, a Tampa Bay Carnival Glass Club vice-president. “I thought it was pretty.”

Eventually, so did his wife, who inherited that carnival glass.

“I’m glad I didn’t get rid of them,” said the Manatee County resident. “As I got older I started looking around for more.”

There will be 80-plus pieces on exhibit when the Palmetto Historical Park and Manatee Agricultural Museum and the club host Carnival Glass/Beginnings to 2012, 10 a.m. today at the Carnegie Library, 515 10th Ave. W., Palmetto.

Why is it called carnival glass?

Originally made in 1908 by the Fenton Art Glass Company in Williamstown, W.Va., production peaked in the 1920s, then demand tapered off for this uniquely molded glass with patterns and shiny, metallic surface.

“Manufacturers had produced a mass amount and sold it to carnivals and fairs for pennies on the dollar to give away,” said club president Carl Chapman. “Carnivals would set it up in displays and you’d pitch a penny into it. If it landed in the piece, you got to keep it.

“I remember seeing that as a kid at the old Florida State Fairgrounds,” said the Tampa native.

Consequently, carnival glass was called the “Poor man’s Tiffany,” appropriate for that period.

“Women at that time lived pretty bleak lives and this stuff might’ve been the only bright thing they had in their house,” J.R. Leach said.

Sadly, the attraction was lost on their children.

Leach’s wife was far from alone in that regard.

“People often have these in their cupboard, handed down from grandmothers and mothers and not even realize it,” said museum coordinator Diane Ingram. “My mother had a couple of pieces, but I didn’t know what it was or was particularly attracted to it, so we garage-saled it.

“Call me dumb. If I had known better, I might’ve been able to sell it for much more.”

Chapman said one Millersburg vase fetched $100,000.

“But you can put together a nice collection that’s not going to break you,” he said. “It’s not like collecting Tiffany.”

Among the carnival glass items on display in Palmetto are a Millersburg Amethyst Hobnail Ladies Cuspidor.

A spittoon for women?

Yes, indeed.

“I can remember my grandmother doing snuff,” Chapman said. “A lot of Southern women used snuff -- and tobacco -- back then.”