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Mercury, or silvered glass, is glass that has a silvery appearance. Mercury glass actually contains no mercury, although there were at one point, several manufacturers who attempted to line glass with mercury. This procedure was short lived due to both the toxic nature of mercury as well as its expense, but may account for the name.
Although glass collectors are not often interested in mercury glass, more and more antique hobbyists are becoming collectors of this particular form of glass. Although it is also called silvered glass, it contains neither silver nor mercury. Mercury glass is, instead, clear glass which is mold-blown into double-walled shapes. The glass is then coated on the inside with a liquid silver nitrate solution, through a hole in the bottom.
Mercury glass was first created in Germany in the early 1800s. It was used as a more inexpensive material for candlesticks, vases, goblets, and other objects. Silvered glass quickly gained popularity in France, England, Bohemia, and the United States. The New England Glass Company showed a large display of the glass at the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1853; included in the display were goblets, vases, spittoons, sugar basins, tumblers, and more.
Although some critics dismissed mercury glass as being too showy and looking too mirror-like, most people found it very attractive. Soon, silvered glass began to be decorated with enamel, etching, paint, and engraving. In the twentieth century, the glass was used to make Christmas ornaments and other household decorations.
Silvered glass is fairly inexpensive, but is often flawed due to oxidation which makes the silvered surface flake off. Air is able to enter through the hole in the bottom which is necessary for the silver nitrate solution, and reacts with the surface. To slow or avoid this oxidation process, a cork or wax plug can be placed in the hole to seal it and arrest the process.
Mercury glass ranges widely in price. Pieces can be found for no more than a few US Dollars (USD) at flea markets, or for over $1,000 USD. Most pieces that are in reasonable condition are continuing to increase in price, however, as the glass attracts a following among collectors.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is mercury glass and how is it made?
Mercury glass, also known as silvered glass, is a decorative glass that has a mirrored finish. It is made by double blowing glass and then inserting a liquid silvering solution between the layers. This solution typically contains silver nitrate or other compounds, which, when treated with a reducing agent, creates a reflective, metallic sheen. Despite its name, mercury glass does not contain actual mercury due to its toxicity.
Can mercury glass be used with food or beverages?
No, mercury glass is not safe for use with food or beverages. The silvering solution between the glass layers can contain toxic elements, and if the glass is chipped or broken, these could potentially leach out. Mercury glass is intended for decorative purposes only, and it is recommended to avoid contact with consumables to ensure safety.
How do you clean and care for mercury glass?
To maintain the lustrous finish of mercury glass, it should be cleaned gently with a soft, dry cloth. Avoid using water or chemical cleaners, as moisture can seep into the silvering layer and damage the mirror finish. If necessary, a very lightly dampened cloth can be used, but it's crucial to avoid getting the seams or any openings wet to preserve the integrity of the piece.
Is mercury glass still being produced today?
Yes, mercury glass is still being produced today, primarily as a decorative item. Modern reproductions of mercury glass are widely available and are often used in home decor and festive decorations. These contemporary versions continue to capture the vintage appeal of the original 19th-century mercury glass pieces while ensuring safer production methods without the use of hazardous materials.
What are some common uses for mercury glass in home decor?
Mercury glass is popular in home decor for its elegant and vintage look. It is commonly used in the form of vases, candle holders, lamp bases, and Christmas ornaments. The reflective quality of mercury glass adds a touch of glamour and can help to brighten spaces by reflecting light. It's also a favorite for weddings and special events, providing a sophisticated and timeless aesthetic to table settings and centerpieces.