Mercury Glass - Silvered Glass

from Europe

Mercury Glass - Silver Glass

Mercury Glass - Silver Glass vases

Silvered glass vases with cold enamel and gilt decoration, Germany around 1870
glass coloured line
Glass items in this article are from Diane Lytwyn's private collection unless otherwise indicated

authors: Ivo Haanstra, Angela Bowey, and Diane Lytwyn

Silvered glass (also know as Mercury Glass or sometimes, Varnish Glass) is double-walled glassware with a silver coating inside the walls, similar to the silvering on a vacuum flask liner. The first patent for silvered glass was taken out in 1849 by Hale Thomson and Edward Varnish in England. Shortly afterwards, in 1855, Thomas Leighton of the New England Glass Company took out a patent in America. This article is primarily about silvered or mercury glass from Europe.

Silvered glass Silvered glass like the items on the left, were a cheap alternative to the silverware which furnished the houses and churches of the rich, the nobility and the well-to-do.

From the end of the Biedermeier period to well into the early years of Art Nouveau (throughout the second half of the nineteenth century), silvered glass was welcomed as a piece of affordable luxury in the houses of farmers, workers and the middle classes. It was also used in poor churches for candlesticks, crosses, chalices and sometimes statuary.

The demand for silvered glass led to production in glass-houses in England, Germany, France, Belgium, the USA, and Bohemia, many with their own production processes. In England Edward Varnish and his partners sold silvered glass for only about ten years. They had a major display at the The Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in 1851. They were retailers and glass dealers, so their glassware was made at James Powell's Whitefriars Glassworks in London (and possibly also elsewhere).

silvered glass goblet
The goblet or cordial glass on the left has an engraved design of vines and foliage, with a gold-washed interior. German, from around 1880.

The main production from about 1860 onwards came from glassworks in the Bohemian forest. Huge quantities of silvered glass left the factories at Iglau and Haida, where the whole region was geared for its production.

Mercury glass was sold in many places; at fairs and markets, in resorts, by travelling salesmen, and at religious outlets, as well as retail stores.

In Germany this type of glass was known as Bauernsilber, - farmer's silver or peasant silver. In England it was often called poor man's silver.

Silvered glass or mercury glass products.

The first products were silvered door knobs which conveniently did not need polishing. Then came religious statuary and crude tableforms. Many crucifixes, saints, madonna's and candle sticks were produced as religious souvenirs, and adorned roadside chapels and church altars. Silvered glass proved to be very popular and improved decorating techniques were employed to produce more expensive items. The number of different products is astounding. Salvers, plates, goblets, figurines, match holders, globes, flower vases and lamps were produced, as well as the items already mentioned.

Among the rarer mercury glass items are the beautifully decorated pieces on this page. Souvenir goblets from the fashionable spas of Karlsbad, Marienbad, Baden Baden and Franzensbad were produced between 1860 and 1890.

The rare engraved German goblet on the right has a golden interior. It is blown flint glass with fine copper wheel engraved cartouche areas depicting German landmarks. The original glass disc is still on the base, and it was made around the third quarter of the 19th century.
silvered glass vase

Methods of Manufacture:

For many years, glass manufacturers had been trying to produce silvered glassware by using tin, lead, bismuth, mercury and other compounds but it took until 1849 before a satisfactory procedure was developed and patented. Early pieces used mercury amalgams, based on techniques used for silvering mirrors; but these proved unsuitable. Nevertheless, the name "mercury glass" has remained to describe all kinds of silvered glass.

Silvered glass compote
This silvered glass compote has an etched bird and foliage design, and is made from light non-flint glass like most European mercury glass. Size 5.25 inches acress and 4.5 inches tall, it has the original glass disc intact on the base.

The most common mixtures used to make silvered or mercury glass were solutions of silver nitrate with some form of glucose (Hajdamach British Glass 1800-1914 page 271). At Whitefriars Glassworks in London they made silvered glass for Edward Varnish and Hale Thomson using silver nitrate mixed with grape juice (Evans, Ross and Werner Whitefriars Glass: James Powell and Sons of London page 30).

Each manufacturer had their own recipe, which was a closely guarded secret.
The silvering liquid was poured into the space between the walls of the glass vessel through a hole in the bottom, and it adhered to the glass. The residue was drained off, the inside dried, and some form of seal placed over the hole. In the cheapest versions, this seal was just a paper label, which was not very effective protection if the items were later washed. Other finishing techniques included glass or metal discs or plugs, and the intergrity of the finished ware depended to some extent on the seal.

If the plug, cork, or disc remains intact, the silvering remains bright. If the item is opened, the silvering can deteriorate due to damp or water damage, resulting in cloudiness, fading, pealing, and eventual loss.

The candlestick on the right is silvered or mercury glass with an etched geometric and leaf design, from Germany in the late 19th century
Silvered glass candlestick

The discs sealing the bases were also used for makers marks. HW stands for Hugo Wolff (in Iglau and in Haida), and JJ&C stands for Josef Janke & Co in Haida. English mercury glass often carries the inscription "E. VARNISH & CO. PATENT LONDON". The same partnership also marked their pieces "HALE THOMSON'S PATENT LONDON".

Decoration on Silvered Glass

Decoration was often done in cottage industries on blanks supplied by the factories.And because the thin, hollow glass could not support cutting, the decoration consisted of cold enamel painting in white or colour, acid etching and frosting, sometimes even stick-on paper decorations.

More expensive items were flashed or cased in coloured glass and copper-wheel engraved through to show the silver. Hot enamel was also used for more expensive pieces, and in the US cut decoration is found on thick walled flint glass items.

The vase on the right is a rare German non-flint glass vase painted with a bird design, approximately 6 inches tall

A frequently found decorative technique is granulated decor, which gives a rough surface like Coralene.

To enhance the opulent look of the hollow silvered glassware, gold coloured lacquer was often used on the inside.
Silvered glass vase

Copper-wheel engraving was used on the better pieces. Silver glass was more commonly decorated with hand painting or etching, and florals, vines, ferns and bird motifs are found most frequently.

Etched silvered vase
The urn shaped vase on the left has etched ferns and foliage and a gold-washed interior. It is approximately 7 inches tall, still has its glass disc on the base, and is made of light non-flint glass, from Germany circa 1880.

The fragility of the double walled, very light glass vessels, accounted in part for the fact that not many items have survived. In addition, Mercury or Silvered glass was completely disregarded for many years. In the early years of this century it became synonymous with bad taste, mass produced, cheap, and awful. It was the original source of the work Kitsch. So although it was produced in enormous quantities, relatively few pieces have survived.

Today collectors seek out these rare and beautiful glass vessels. It is easy to overlook them in a busy antique display, because they look so much like the metal they were made to imitate.

Production of mercury glass declined around the turn of the century, and it soon became obsolete. Different manufacturing techniques took over, and the taste of the general public changed. Mercury glass disappeared from the shelves.
silvered glass gobletS

The goblets on the left have painted decorations and were made by Hugo Wolf in Bohemia around 1880 (picture by Ivo Haanstra).


If you are looking for silvered glass, you can usually find a selection on offer on ebay. Click here to see Mercury or Silvered glass currently for sale on ebay.






The items below are for sale right now on eBay - we thought you would like to see these examples.





Mercury glass book British glass book Powell Glass book
If you have enjoyed this article you should find Diane Lytwyn's book "A Pictorial Guide to Silvered Mercury Glass" really helpful. Click on the cover above or the title to read more about it.

Another really useful reference is Charles Hajdamach's book British Glass 1800-1914 . It covers a wide range of types of glass including silvered glass. If you would like to know more about James Powell's Whitefriars Glassworks, there is an excellent book by Evans, Ross, and Werner called Whitefriars Glass: James Powell and Sons of London
Click on the titles or the book covers to get more details.

You could also check out our Recommended Books on Glass page.

Ivo Haanstra has his own homepage at http://www.xs4all.nl/~abel/






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