Goofus Is Great in Glass

What do you think of when you hear the word goofus – a mistake-driven person or a silly fool, perhaps?

Well in the crazy world of collectibles, goofus is a nickname for an ornate form of glass that began as a cheap form of finery but today is valuable. These pressed glass treasures are painted on either the back or the front of the design. The paint is often in gaudy colors of gold, red and green.

The pressed designs might be fruit, flowers or portraits, but they are always showy. Originally given as premiums at carnivals, Goofus Glass was made from about 1890 to 1920 or so. It was cheaply made and cold painted, so that the paint chips easily. Thus, the popular name of this glass with unavoidable imperfections became Goofus Glass.

Other names include Bridal Glass, Mexican Ware, Pic Jars, Gypsy Glass, Hooligan Hooleys and Carnival Glass, according to collector and author Carolyn McKinley.

Local manufacturers included Northwood and Imperial. In fact, Harry Northwood is thought to have begun the craze, according to Goofus enthusiasts. Vases, lamps, decanters, salt and pepper shakers, plates and bowls are some of the common pieces of Goofus available on the antiques market.

Of course, no Goofus Glass is common. This is one collectible that is proudly odd, eccentric and even ugly. American made and Yankee celebrated, the late Victorian art glass is a perfect example of the exuberance of pressed glass manufacturers in their heyday.

The decoration was applied to colorless and transparent green, blue or amber glass or perhaps opalescent and milk glass pieces. Sometimes the glass surface would be etched with acid, giving a crackled or pressed pattern. Designs were either embossed or blown out, or they might be intaglio or cut in.

I like Goofus because it is dramatic-looking glass that screams “look at me.” It must have been exciting to buy a piece of this elaborate stuff in the era before mass consumerism. I would bet that the lovely pieces must have made a perfect gift.

Another interesting fact about Goofus Glass (and old glass in general) that makes it pretty to display is that if the paint scales off, which it invariable does on Goofus, the clear glass turns a delicate shade of amethyst when exposed to light.

This is true in glass that contains the chemical manganese, used to make the glass clear. Some collectors have been known to remove imperfect paint on Goofus Glass and enjoy just the design as it turns amethyst, or touch it up with new paint to suit their tastes.

Goofus Glass is just one of the many kinds of collectible Victorian art glass. Northwood pieces are generally marked with a large N with a circle around it. The local Glass Museum at Oglebay Park has examples of Northwood Goofus on display daily to the public, along with thousands of other glass treasures.

The firms represented in the Glass Museum include Ritchie; Sweeney; Hobbs, Brockunier; Central and Northwood. Since 1937, Oglebay Institute’s Glass Museum has focused on these five major glass factories once located in Wheeling. These firms were among the biggest in the country and employed thousands, shipping their products all over the world.

Today, glass like this is found in antiques shops and at auctions.

Goofus Glass is considered a forerunner to Carnival Glass, but both types of glass were given as prizes at summer fairs and carnivals. Perhaps because of the unavoidable scaling off of paint, Goofus Glass did not retain its popularity as well and became less valued by some collectors.

Others, though, fell in love with this crazy glass with gaudy painted designs. Today it brings prices that would have shocked the Victorians. Plates and bowls typically list for $25 or more. My favorite piece, a vase with an ornate design of a peacock in red and gold, listed for $100 in Schroeder’s Price Guide not long ago. However, the marketplace changes from year to year and day to day with sales of big estates, buyers’ tastes and new items entering the market.

Still with the skill necessary to create a piece of pressed glass like these American-made gems, the glass artisan was anything but a goofus!

For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at: or by writing in care of this newspaper.