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What is Mercury Glass?

By Bronwyn Harris
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By qwertyq — On Jul 03, 2011

@anon128501 – You need to be careful when you store mercury glass. My grandmother has learned over the years how to keep hers looking beautiful. She says you should never store it in bubble wrap, newspaper, or cardboard. Each piece should be individually wrapped in an acid free white tissue paper when you aren’t using them.

Contact with air will also discolor mercury glass over time. It’s hard to display your glass without it having contact with air, so you’ll just have to deal with that.

My grandmother also says you should never try to clean a dirty or tarnished piece of mercury glass. The coating is very fragile and can come off easily.

By Vegemite — On Jul 02, 2011

@anon53332 – I’ll share my method for making antique style mercury glass candleholders. I’ve never used it on a mirror, so I don’t know if you’ll still be able to see your reflection in the mirror after you’ve treated it. It should be really pretty when you’re done, though.

Take your mirror, a glass spray bottle filled with water, and a can of Krylon mirror paint into a well ventilated work space. Your work space should be covered with a table cloth or something, or it’ll get stained. If the mirror has a frame, cover that as well.

Sit the mirror upright and spray it with water. While it’s still wet, spray it with the mirror paint. This will give it a shiny, mottled look. Let it dry overnight and repeat the process if you think the coating is too thin.

By anon128501 — On Nov 19, 2010

some of my mercury glass looks like it has turned light grey in places. what causes this?

By anon53332 — On Nov 20, 2009

Is there a way to turn a regular mirror into a mercury glass texture? This would be for a decorative use only. Thanks

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