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All That Glitters Isn’t Silver
by Bob Brooke


As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum, the growing middle class wanted inexpensive alternatives to the silver objects owned by the wealthy. One of those alternatives was Mercury glass, first made as an inexpensive silver substitute. Soon it evolved into an art form of its own.

First produced in the late 18th century, Mercury glass is handblown, double wall glass with an interior coating of silver-colored metal compounds. It took many forms, including candlesticks, compotes, candy dishes, plates, goblets, wig stands, curtain tiebacks, and doorknobs. Some critics condemned it for looking too much like mirrored glass and too little like silver, which is what people liked about it.

Produced originally from around 1840 until around 1930 in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, and Germany, it spread to England in 1849 when Edward Varnish and Frederick Hale Thomson patented the technique for silvering glass vessels, and continued to be made there until 1855.

Mercury glass, also known as silvered glass, contains neither mercury nor silver. It's actually clear glass, mold-blown into double-walled shapes and coated on the inside with a silvering solution containing silver nitrate and grape sugar, heated, then closed. Sealing methods included metal discs covered with a glass round in England, or a cork inserted into the unpolished pontil scar on the bottom in America. In the beginning a few Bohemian makers tried to line their pieces with a mercury solution, but they stopped using it due to expense and toxicity. However, this is where the name originated.

Companies in the United States, including the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, New England Glass Company Union Glass Co., and the Boston Silver Glass Company, made silvered glass from about 1852 to 1880. The New England Glass Company displayed a variety of silvered glass articles, including copper wheel engraved goblets, vases and other tableware at the 1853 New Crystal Palace Exhibition.

Bohemian Mercury glassmakers decorated their pieces with a variety of techniques including painting, enameling, etching, and surface engraving. Antique historians believe it to be the first true "art glass"----glass made for display and for its artistic value rather than for everyday use.

The peak of Mercury glass’ popularity came in the mid-19th century. Back then, high-quality European and American-made pieces where lightweight, had graceful forms, and came decorated with acid-etched fruit or floral motifs, cut glass designs, and sometimes paint. Young girls, working on assembly lines, painted vases in particular with their own designs of swans, daisies, or leaves. Makers intended the details on their pieces to be equal to the finest decoration on other forms of glass and china.

After briefly falling out of favor, Mercury glass reappeared around 1900 in the form of Christmas ornaments and gazing balls, as well as blown fruits and flowers. Today, most serious collectors concentrate on antique forms, like curtain pins, salt cellars, or pedestal-footed silvered vases.

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