Butler County Times Gazette
  • Through the Front Door: Exploring the magic of mercury glass

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  • Good morning my lovely friends!
    I think today we shall talk about mercury glass, that shimmering, textured, silvery finish you see on glassware. This mysterious decorative glass, sometimes referred to as silvered glass, has been in and out of vogue since the Victorian era. Its desirability always increases during the holidays because, oh my darlings, we do love our sparkle at Christmas! So let’s take a look at what mercury glass is, where to buy it, how make your own and, finally, what to do with those gorgeous pieces once you have them!
    Interesting Origins
    A bit of history to start off with is always fun! Mercury glass starts off with clear glass hand blown into a double-walled vessel. Between the walls, mercury (now silver nitrate and glucose) are poured through a hole at the bottom. The hole is then sealed with a cork, metal disk or wax. At one time, mercury glass did actually contain mercury. It no longer does for a couple of reasons: Mercury is both toxic and expensive.
    Back in 17th-century Europe, mercury glass was first used to make large round “witches balls,” which were hung in windows to ward off evil spirits. From that rather odd idea they went on to create vases, candlesticks, goblets, and even window treatment hold backs, just for starters. Sometimes the silver was tinted pink (rare), green, gold or even blue, with an etched design on the exterior of the glass.
    Mercury glass was intended to replace sterling silver in homes. In fact, it is sometimes known as poor man’s silver or, in Germany, as “farmer’s silver.” At one point, glassmakers used it to create “butler’s balls.” Now, what the heck are those?! A mercury ball was placed on a pedestal so a butler could unobtrusively observe his wealthy employers to see if anyone needed anything.
    Spotting the Real Thing
    A little tip for detecting the real thing: In authentic antique mercury glass, the silvering tends to break down from the bottom up. In addition, the cork or whatever sealed the hole is likely missing from these pieces. Of course, when the seal is removed, the silver nitrate is exposed to the air—leading to that break down! Common sense says no submerging antique mercury glass into water! The creators of mercury glass were a bit naïve about its practicality. Because of the fragile walls, the pieces really should have been used for display and not daily use.
    Shopping for Modern-Day Pieces
    Just about every place that sells home accessories—from Pottery Barn to Hobby Lobby to Target—offers an abundance of mercury glass reproductions. Adding bits of this vintage Victorian element to our homes, especially during the holidays, offers a lovely touch of mirrored magic. The silvery pieces become a natural part of our holiday displays for mantel decorations, table settings and, of course, Christmas ornaments—not to mention delicate mercury glass garlands to embellish our Christmas trees!
    Page 2 of 3 - Creating a Faux Finish
    If you find the price of mercury glass a bit steep—or just can’t find the piece you want—I have a solution for you, my darlings! Just make your own. If there is a will, there is always a way!
    You can find any number of containers to create your wonderful magic. Pick up vases, votives, hurricanes and even clear Christmas balls at places like garage sales, flea markets and Goodwill. To create the mercury glass appearance, all you need is Krylon Looking Glass Mirror-Like spray paint. It is not always easy to find, so call around before you head off in search of this magic in a can. Your best bet is Hobby Lobby (and gorgeous, don’t forget your 40% coupon because it’s around $12 a can!).
    To create the silvery effect, first wash the glassware in soapy water and dry it completely. Be sure to remove any film that might have been left by the previous owner! Now, you will need to work fast as the spray dries rather quickly. I suggest you experiment with a bigger piece, such as a hurricane, first so you understand how to manipulate the product. This can be done on the inside of the piece or the outside. Clearly treating the inside of a piece will warrant a more authentic appearance.
    The key is to lightly spray the surface with several coats, allowing the paint to almost dry between coats. Usually, it will take three coats.
    For an interesting effect, mist the paint surface with a mixture of 50/50 vinegar and water to form beads. Let it sit about a minute, and then blot the beads with a moistened paper towel. Maybe even rub a bit here and there to remove most of the paint and allowing some of the clear glass to shine through.
    Once you achieve the desired level of antiquity, lightly spray the piece one last time to fill in just a bit if the wiped-off areas to give the piece some depth.
    It might be a bit easier to spray the outside of items such as Christmas balls. Experimentation on smaller openings like on an ornament might be very beneficial.
    I will caution you that when it comes time to store these items be careful not to scratch the surface, tissue paper might be very valuable for protecting them.
    Decorating to Your Delight
    So, now that you have these beauties, the decorating possibilities are endless—especially if you love the enchantment of a Victorian Christmas display. For an incredible romantic look, display a variety of mercury glass hurricanes, votives and tall candlesticks on the mantel in front of a mirror. Mix only the softest hues, such as delicate pink or a whisper of blue, with sparkling white and crystal for a captivating look. If you surround it with greenery, dress it up with some shimmer as well. Create the same effect on your Christmas Eve dinner table. The soft, fractured lighting that mercury glass gives makes for such a pleasant evening.
    Page 3 of 3 - Of course, mercury glass certainly does not need to be saved for the holidays. It could easily be part of the décor for a bride’s luncheon or even part of an interior where your goal is to soften the ambience. Consider placing pieces in the powder room or even your bathroom. Co-mingling mercury glass, silver-plate, and some crystal would be very glamorous for your make-up area gorgeous.
    Take a fresh look at this marvelous glass and find a piece or two or twenty that makes you smile!
    Have a happy holiday week! I’ll be back for coffee next Saturday!

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