2000 to 2009
Mirrored Images: American Silvered Glass
Silvered glass, first produced in Bohemia and then England, became popular in the United States during the mid-19th century. This shiny, reflective glassware is considered the first type of art glass or ornamental glass manufactured in America. The first makers in Europe did utilize a formula containing mercury which had been used for mirrors. However, mercury left a distorted reflection, was toxic and too expensive to be practical. By the 1840s, manufacturers of silvered glass were using a solution of silver nitrate that was applied to the interior of vessels. It is believed that this brief period of mercury use led to the wide-spread misnomer of “mercury glass.” Silvered glass is the correct term for hollow pieces coated on the interior with a silvering solution. Pieces can be single walled, such as a doorknob or gazing ball, but the majority of silvered examples are blown, double walled objects with a small opening in the base. The purpose of the double walls was to allow the piece to appear silver on the inside and outside. Once the piece was blown and annealed, the liquid silvering solution was poured into the small hole in the base. The fluid was swirled around, coating the interior, and the excess was then drained. The creation of an air tight seal in the base so that the silvering would not deteriorate, was critical. Ground-to-fit glass plugs were fitted with cement. Several companies embossed their name or initials under the glass. Glass seals were costly and time consuming to make, so most companies sealed their silvered glass with inexpensive corks that were frequently covered with paper and wax.
Silvered glass may have been produced as early as 1825 in the glassmaking region of Bohemia. These early pieces were silvered with a mercury solution. By the 1840s and 1850s, the hazardous mixture was replaced with a silver nitrate formula. The German name for this hollow silvered glassware is “Silberglas” or “Bauerglas.” Bohemian glass factories became an important center for the production of reflective glass. Firms such as Josef Janke & Co., Hugo Wolf, and Scheinost of Bohemia were credited with making some of the finest examples. Very few of the highly decorated examples are marked, so it is difficult to positively attribute pieces. Silvered figures, such as Mary and Jesus, were popular religious items. Cheap, lightweight, poorly decorated pieces were also produced and flooded the market. They were mostly exported to England, America and Australia. In 1874, the Scheinost factory employed 200 workers solely to make silvered glass. Decoration on the inexpensive pieces was often completed in “cottage shops” which were supplied with silvered blanks from the factories. Families or towns operated businesses decorating thin walled vessels with white and colored enamels, acid etching and frosting.
English garden gazing balls with a reflective interior may have been made as early as the beginning of the eighteenth century. These balls were likely coated with a solution of bismuth, lead, tin and mercury. About 1843, Englishman Michael Drayton suggested that a solution of silver nitrate would be more suitable. In 1849, Edward Varnish and Frederick Hale Thomson of London were issued a patent for double walled silvered glass vessels. The technique had been used for at least two or three years before the first patent was issued. Once the double walled object had been completed and annealed, a solution containing silver nitrate and glucose (sugar) was poured into the cavity. To insure an airtight seal, the pieces were sealed by a ground glass plug marked “E. Varnish & Co. Patent London” or “Hale Thomson’s Patent London.” In addition to the Varnish and Thomson examples, embossed “W. Lund Patent London” pieces are known. None of these firms operated their own glass factories. It is believed that the glass was made by James E. Powell & Sons’ Whitefriars Glass Works. Plain silvered pieces were produced, but it is the cut colored overlay pieces that distinguish English silvered glass from all others. High quality lead glass, made up of a colored layer over a clear layer, was blown into a double walled vessel, cooled and then cut. The silvering solution applied to the interior made for a dramatic effect. English silvered glass was first displayed in the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, popularly known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 and continued to be produced into the 1870s.
Silvered glass made in the United States was different from the elaborate and highly decorated English and Bohemian examples. A limited number of American colored overlay pieces were produced, but the majority were made from clear heavy lead glass. The vessels are elegant in their simplicity. Most examples were plain, but when decorated the embellishments were created by engraving or simple cutting. Only one American company is known to have painted their silvered glass with white or colored paint and that was limited to curtain pins. Production of silvered glass began in the United States in the early 1850s and continued until the late 1870s.
The first United States patent for silvered glass was filed by William Leighton for the New England Glass Company of Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1855 for silvering doorknobs. The patent states that the interior of a hollow doorknob was deposited with a coating of metallic silver. It is believed that the New England firm was actually producing silvered glass for a few years before 1855, after having seen English examples at the Great Exhibition of 1851. In fact, at the New York Exhibition of 1853-1854, two years before the patent, the New England Glass Company exhibited silvered glass. Their display included three large silvered vases, a silvered pyramid, silvered show bottles, a 10 inch silvered globe on foot, a 10 inch bowl on foot, silvered goblets, a large silvered bowl on foot very richly engraved and two hundred silvered doorknobs. The large, richly engraved silvered bowl on foot mentioned in the review of the New England display is very likely the monumental engraved compote now in the collection of The Corning Museum of Glass. The New England firm made some of the finest examples of American silvered glass. Tableware, including spooners, sugars and creamers were standard pieces in their inventory. Globes on feet, often called gazing balls on stands, were used in mid-nineteenth century homes to reflect and enhance the dim light of candles and oil lamps. The showy globes were sold in sizes ranging from a small size of three inches in height to an immense twenty inches in height. The wide variety of globe sizes that New England created can be seen in the illustration of their show room featured in the January 20, 1855 issue of “Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion”. New England marked many but not all of their silvered pieces. Embossed initials of the company can be found under glass seals on many open salts. They also marked the pewter or metal mounts on curtain pins. Silvered glass was time consuming to make and costly to produce. It was so expensive that the Leighton family glass recipe book, dating from about 1848-1873, contains a lengthy account about the concern for economy in rescuing silver from the solution. The section in the book was titled, “To separate Silver from the drainings and washings in Silvering Glass Ware.” Silvered glass popularity decreased and the costly product was discontinued at New England in the 1870s.
After the William Leighton patent of 1855, the next important patent was issued to John Haines who worked for the Boston Silver Glass Company of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Haines’ 1865 patent was for a double walled pitcher with a sterling silver mount. The Boston Silver Glass Company operated from 1857 until 1871. Although they made other types of glass, their major output was silvered glass. Unfortunately, no catalog is known to exist listing their silver production, but the company did advertise. One advertisement states, “Silvered & Flint Glass Ware, plain, engraved and embossed, in every variety of style, reflectors, lamps, table ware, ornamental articles, curtain pins, door knobs.” Without an illustrated catalog, positive attribution of the nearly twenty year production of silvered glass at the Boston Silver Glass Company is virtually impossible.
The Franklin Flint Glass Works of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, organized by Englishman William T. Gillinder, was making silvered glass as soon as the factory opened in 1861. The company’s first trade card listed, “Silvered Glass Table Ware, Door Knobs, Curtain Pins, Reflectors.” The Gillinder formula book, in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, lists a formula “To Silver Glass” which used “nitrate of silver... distilled water... strong aqua of ammonia... alcohol... and grape sugar.” Sugar seems to be an important ingredient in silvering solutions. The Gillinder firm was still making silvered glass in 1879 as seen in their itemized price list from February of that year. Twelve sizes of globes on stands ranging from three inches to fifteen inches, hanging globes, and mortars and pestles were listed. Gillinder catalogs after 1879 do not offer silvered glass.
Dithridge & Company’s Fort Pitt Glass Works of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, also made silvered glass. Edward Dithridge was issued three patents for silvered objects between 1866 and 1867. One of the patents was for an improved process for making and silvering a gazing globe on stand. The Dithridge gazing globe was made in two separate pieces which were cemented together after the parts were silvered. The Dithridge catalog of 1874 lists, but does not illustrate, the many pieces of silvered glass manufactured by the company. In addition to the gazing globes on stands, they also manufactured bouquet holders, curtain pins, mortar and pestles, goblets, spoon-holders, salts, celeries, six sizes of bowls, six sizes of salvers (cake stands), cigar holders, match holders, card receivers, paperweights, five sizes of candlesticks, and lamp reflectors. Again, without illustrations, it is impossible to attribute the majority of American silvered glass. Production of silvered glass at Dithridge probably ended in the late 1870s.
The famous Boston and Sandwich Glass Company of Sandwich, Massachusetts, also marketed silvered glass. The manufacture of silvered glass at Sandwich seems to have begun about 1860 and continued into the early 1880s. Although no catalog illustrations of silvered glass are known, Sandwich trade cards prominently list “Silvered Glass Ware.” It is difficult to distinguish Sandwich silvered glass from other American silvered wares. Luckily, several examples in the collection of the Sandwich Glass Museum have a well documented history. Abby M. Basset worked at the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company. As a gift for her wedding, the employees made a silvered goblet and engraved it with her name. Other pieces were made for family members of company workers. Sandwich silvered glass can be recognized by its distinctive engraved borders around rims and feet, and all over stars. Some Sandwich examples have been found with red paint covering the cork seal.
A silvered glass brochure was printed by the Union Glass Company of Somerville, Massachusetts in April, 1874. The price list was titled “Silvered Glass Ware” and itemized a wide range of pieces. Plain and engraved ware included butters and covers, cream pitchers, sugar and covers, spoon holders, salts, slop bowls, celeries, cheese plates and covers, strawberry dishes, strawberry sets, bowls with high foot, mugs, cigar holders, match holders, ash holders, candlesticks and paperweights. Objects that were not engraved were salvers, hanging globes, globes on stands, reflectors, and mortars with pestles. Curtain pins were available in four sizes, ranging from two and one half inches to four and one half inches. The pins could be “plain,” “engraved” or “rose.” The rose pin is a mold blown design that looks like a petal flower. All four sizes were also obtainable “painted” or “white painted.” To date, the Union Glass Company is the only known American factory to have painted their silvered glass. Just when Union began producing silvered glass and when they discontinued the line is yet unknown. Judging from their extensive offering, the Union Glass Company had been making silvered glass for several years.
Two other companies, the Bay State Glass Company of East Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Keystone Flint Glass Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, also manufactured silvered glass. This brings the currently known number of American glass companies that produced silvered glass during the 1850s until the late 1870s to eight.
Much of American silvered glass was decorative tableware, but the majority of the production was utilitarian. Shiny doorknobs and drawer pulls were made in quantity. Plain, engraved or floral pattern curtain pins, in a range of sizes, were showy ways to hold back curtains. However, reflectors for oil lamps made up the largest production. Mounted on metal brackets, the silvered disc magnified and reflected the dim light of a kerosene oil lamp. Reflectors first became available in the 1860s and were widely used until homes became electrified. Sears catalogs offered several brackets with reflectors well into the turn of the century. Silvering was also used for thermoses. The same principle was employed of blowing a double walled vessel that was then silvered inside. This time the silvering was not for decoration, but used to reduce the cooling of heated liquids. Probably the most unusual of all American thermos bottles was the patented Sanitary Vacuum Bottle made by the J.B. Higbee Glass Company in 1911. The all-glass double walled bottle was first exhibited in 1912 at the Pittsburgh Exhibition and sold over 4000 bottles almost immediately. Since the Higbee thermos was entirely made of glass, without a protective metal outer sleeve, it was easily broken.
Silvering was also a popular decoration for novelty items. Probably the most recognized form of silvered glass is the Christmas ball. The early ornaments, called Kugels, were made in the Lauska region of Germany as early as the 1840s. In the United States, William Demuth of New York was the first to make and sell silvered balls and beads in 1846. Some novelties were part of factory production, such as glass flowers and candles, while other items, like sock darners, were made by individual glassblowers and given as gifts. Miniature animals were created by melting glass tubing in the flame of a torch and then silvered. Other than Christmas ornaments and novelties, production of quality silvered glass ended in the United States in the late 1870s. The American market was flooded with cheap European imports well into the early twentieth century. After World War I, Czechoslovakia became a major producer of silvered glass, which they exported in abundance. Some special order pieces were created. Excellent examples of these unique pieces were produced at the A. H. Heisey & Company of Newark, Ohio around 1922. Dinner plates in the Heisey No. 407 pattern, also known as Course Rib, were silvered on the back and then covered with a white plate to protect the silvering from tarnishing. Garden gazing ball popularity was revived in the 1920s and 1930s. The Durand Art Glass Division of the Vineland Flint Glass Works of Vineland, New Jersey marketed colored gazing balls between 1924 and 1931. Small glass companies, such as Clevenger Brothers of Clayton, New Jersey made garden balls into the 1990s.
In the 1970s, contemporary glass artists rediscovered the use of silvering and incorporated it into their work. Artist Joel Philip Myers included silvered elements in his sculpture, “Dr. Zharkov’s Mirror”. Today, silvering solution kits can be purchased and the silvering process is available to all artists. Silvered vases and tableware that reproduce many of the old designs are currently being made in Europe and imported into the United States. However, none of these new products can replicate the elegant, refined silvered glass made by American glass companies during the 1850s through the 1870s.