Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Mercury Glass

Mercury glass was very popular during the Victorian period. It was known as poor man's silver, and provided an inexpensive alternative to the silver objects that furnished the churches and grand houses of the wealthy.
In recent years there has been a revival of objects made from mercury glass - candlesticks, vases, and baubles for the Christmas tree.
Mercury is a toxic substance, but mercury glass is actually a misnomer having no mercury in it whatsoever. It is made from clear glass which is mould-blown into a double walled shape and coated on the inside with a silvering formula made from silver nitrate and a grape sugar solution. This is inserted through a small hole that is then sealed. In the beginning some manufacturers did try to line the glass with a mercury solution, but the practice was quickly discontinued due to both the expense and toxicity.
HMS Beagle travelling through the Straits of Magellan
As a child I recall that my grandmother had a large Admiral FitzRoy barometer containing glass tubes filled with mercury. She had inherited it from her aunt, who had married into the famous Darwin family.  
Admiral FitzRoy was appointed meterorologist aboard the hydrographic survey vessel HMS Beagle in 1826 exploring the coasts of southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. These waters were unchartered and plagued by dangerous tides, storms and blizzards. Two years into the voyage and the captain, Pringle Stokes, had had enough - gripped by depression he shot himself, and FitzRoy became entrusted with the command of HMS Beagle at the young age of 23. On his second trip Charles Darwin was invited to join him on the Beagle's voyage and as we now know this voyage was to have a profound effect on Darwin's thinking resulting in a lasting legacy for the future development of science. 
In my Grandmother's Admiral FitzRoy barometer some of the mercury had escaped from the glass tubes and formed silver balls in the bottom of the container. If I shook it gently some of the balls would amalgamate and make big globules, and if I shook it a bit harder they would disperse into a myriad of tiny balls. I now realise that it was a very stupid thing to do, but at the time it excited my curiosity - I don't expect that my grandmother knew what I was doing, nor would she have been aware of the inherent dangers lurking in her sittingroom. I was fortunate that the wooden barometer cabinet was well sealed, thus preventing the escape of such a noxious substance.
More about Admiral FitzRoy here

42 comments:

  1. I wonder what happened to all the mercury in discarded barometers.

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    1. Barometers are a very collectible antique these days, and I know that there are people who specialise in their restoration. However, I wouldn't like to contemptemplate what may have been the fate of discarded barometers or what happened to the mercury in them.

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  2. I didn't know about the production of mercury glass - I wondered about it being toxic, but now you enlightened me, Rosemary, thank you!
    I still remember those quick tiny little mercury balls running on the floor when a fever-thermometre fell to the floor and crashed - good that we have different ones now (though now we had - orded by government! - electric oeco-bulbs that are highly toxic too - they changed clandestinely the law now and we have LED-light now. In the meantime a whole industry has earned money - changing from normal light to the bad one - and now another change).

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    1. I remember those fever-thermometres too Britta, nowadays they have a red liquid in them which I understand is alcohol. Yes, you can safely buy the mercury glass objects for your Christmas tree this year if you wish Britta.

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  3. Hello Rosemary, You have stirred up many memories of mercury glass. When I was out of college and had a lot of time for searching, I had a large collection of mercury glass. The older pieces were always available if you hunted for them, and there were such a variety--candlesticks, vases, doorknobs, etc. Unfortunately, my 100+ piece collection was destroyed in a storage-unit fire when we were moving houses.

    My brother and I also played with actual mercury when we were little--you could get it by breaking open the "quiet" type of older light switches, which worked by a tilting pool of mercury making the electrical contact. It was fascinating to watch the merging globules, as C.S. Lewis alliteratively put it, "Merry multitude of meeting selves, Same but sundered." We too survived this mischief, but as with your barometer, it would have been better to leave alone.
    --Jim

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    1. Hello Jim - what a great shame it is that you lost your great collection of mercury glass objects. I like your C.S. Lewis quote - the innocence of childhood does leave one open to doing things perhaps better left alone.

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  4. Interesting post, it brought things to mind with mercury falling on the fall after the barometer fell and broke, we didn't know of it's toxicity back then.

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    1. On reflection Margaret there were many dangers lurking that have now been removed - do you remember the illuminate fluorescent watch dials and hands? and lots of buildings in the past were made with very dangerous asbestos sheets.

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  5. Dear Rosemary, I am so happy to know that the Mercury glass compote dish I own really doesn't have any Mercury in it. I do however, have a Mercury Blood Pressure gauge which has leaked some of its Mercury. I have also watched, with fascination, how the Mercury changes shapes with movement. I had been warned by our Pharmacist how dangerous it is and now have put it away for good.

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    1. Dear Gina - I am pleased that your Pharmacist warned you of its dangers, it looks such a benign substance if you do not know about its toxicity.
      Yes you can very happily enjoy your compote dish - I bet it is lovely.

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  6. We use to shake up old thermometers---many years ago--that had mercury in them. I like mercury glass.

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    1. It sounds as if we were all a bit intrigued by mercury's properties when younger.

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  7. How fascinating that you have a connection to the Darwin family. What a fascinating tale of Admiral Fitzroy and his assumption of captain of the Beagle.
    I like the look of modern mercury glass. I wonder what the modern equivalent of the dangers of real mercury is - plastics that mimic estrogen, compact fluorescent lights, chemicals in our food - time will tell.

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    1. The connection is only a tenuous one through marriage, but we do have a few artifacts inherited from the Darwin family.
      In years to come I suspect that items we consider to be acceptable will also turn out to be hazardous.

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  8. I didn't know how mercury glass was made, so thank you for that, but I know a reasonable amount about Fitzroy - the sea area has been re-named after him - and how his barometers which were installed in almost every port in the country so that sailors would know about an approaching storm and so know when not to put to sea. I still have a barometer in our hall and yes, it's in full working order.
    Margaret P
    www.margaretpowling.com

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    1. Dear Margaret - FitzRoy is one of those great Victorians who rather sadly is not sufficiently known to many. I am pleased that you know all about him and in fact have a barometer. Sadly I do not know what became of my Grandmother's barometer, but I do know that FitzRoy barometers are highly collectible today .

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    2. WE had my late mother in law's barometer restored by Barometer World in N. Devon, and what Philip Collins (who owns the place) doesn't know about barometers isn't worth knowing, so I learned a lot about them from him and wrote several pieces for various magazines. Until I learned more about them I thought they were just rich gentlemen's play things, that they would tap of a morning. How wrong I was!
      Margaret P

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  9. I have enjoyed learning about mercury glass and the Admiral Fitzroy barometers. I suppose we all shudder a bit at how freely mercury, lead etc was once used in the home, but it is lovely to read the memories you have of your grandmother's barometer and how particularly special it was given your family links to Darwin.

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    1. The links of course are only through marriage Wendy but my Grandmother and her cousin were both left some interesting objects by her Aunt who had no children of her own. I am now wondering what happened to that barometer.

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  10. I have many vintage Christmas baubles which I presume were made in the way you describe. It was interesting to learn about the process of making such objects. The mention of Admiral Fitzroy triggered a memory of a book, This Thing of Darkness (author Harry Thompson), which I enjoyed reading a few years ago about Robert Fitzroy, his captaincy of HMS Beagle and his relationship with Charles Darwin.

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    1. I will try and get hold of a copy of that book Linda - I think that FitzRoy was a remarkable man - may be his reputation would be better known had he not been overshadowed by Charles Darwin.

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    2. I hope you find the book, Rosemary, and give it a try. It's a long book, but I found it very informative as well as a good read. FitzRoy was indeed a remarkable man. I was also moved by the last part of life and his death. It's a book I would happily read again.

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    3. Yes, I understand that he also committed suicide, some of it being the results of Darwin's findings which he supported but which conflicted his strong faith.

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  11. Fascinating post, I can just imagine a child's curiosity those silver balls! Sarah x

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    1. Yes, I found them too tempting not to give the barometer a shake when visiting my grandmother - whe had lots of interesting things in her sittingroom.

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  12. Informative as well as such a pretty post! thank you.

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    1. Thank you for your kind comment and for visiting

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  13. Interesting reading, made me remember my own curiosity ( and ignorance) about mercury as a child .

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    1. I sounds as if many of us had a close shave with mercury as youngsters Jane

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  14. As a child, I recall the broken thermometers too and played with the balls rolling around the floor! Still breathing thank the Lord!
    As for your connections with Charles Darwin - loved going back and reading about your grandparents round the world trip funded by their inheritance! I usually stay in a Torquay flat next door to where Charles Darwin lived for a while when writing the Origin Of Species - there is a plaque on the wall.
    I sailed through the Beagle Channel on my way from Ushuaia to the Falkland Is. on my way to Antarctica - lovely scenery at the 'end of the world'!

    Is your Paris trip getting close Rosemary?
    I'm not visiting France this year but will be seeing other places next month!
    Happy weekend - and I hope the scary winter weather predictions for the UK are totally incorrect!!!!!!

    Hugs - your friend, Mary

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    1. Oh gosh! Mary - you actually played with the mercury rolling around on the floor - perhaps it is alright if you don't actually come into physical contact with it. I remember a few years ago that there was also talk about the dangers posed as a result of the use of mercury in tooth fillings too.
      My husband spent almost a month travelling down the spine of Chile to the Megellan Straits 40 years ago where he did a report for the UN on an oil tanker that had gone aground causing huge problems for the wild life in the area.
      I haven't heard about the scary weather predictions so better watch TV tonight Mary. For the past few weeks it has been absolutely lovely - bright sunshine and blue skies.
      Paris is days away Mary, can't wait to find out what you are upto next month.
      Take care dear Mary♡

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  15. Thanks to you Rosemary I now know a great deal more about Admiral FitzRoy, who has a mountain named after him in Argentinian Patagonia.

    Alphie

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    1. Well thank you Alphie, I didn't know that.

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  16. Absolutely fascinating, Rosemary - and what a fabulous family connection to have! As an aside, Patagonia has always intrigued me since reading about it a Biggles book when I was very small!

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    1. My husband went to Patagonia 40 years ago - he thinks that it is the most fantastic landscape that he has ever visited - snowcapped Andes with the mighty Condor flying overhead, valley lakes filled with flamingoes and black swans, and Guanacos patrolling the beaches - he loved it.

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  17. As usual. I have learned a lot here...especially about mercury glass. Good to know that there is no mercury in it.

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    1. Dear Janey - if you do own some mercury glass objects then there is absolutely no danger connected with it whatsoever.

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  18. Dear Rosemary - You have such a wonderful family connection to Admiral FitzRoy, "the captain of HMS Beagle during Charles Darwin's famous voyage" as I read on Wikipedia. A child’s curiosity could cause harm when not paid attention, but I understand how the Mercury Glass looked tempting to play with.

    Yoko

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    1. Dear Yoko - generally speaking, I suspect that there was less awareness of the dangers that surrounded us when I was young.

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  19. I am catching up on your lovely blog, now, Rosemary - as you know I was away for a month or so. I remember how our science teacher actually ENCOURAGED us to play with mercury, it was a "dry liquid" and we plunged our hands into the stuff and rolled it around. Terrifying to think about now. I have never dared to check and see what it actually does to you. One thing I thought when reading your account was how YOUNG there men were. Being captain at the age of 23! I am sure they were as capable as older folk, in fact.

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    1. Yes, best not to think about the mercury Jenny - I suspect that most of us were subject to unknown dangers when we were younger.
      They probably achieved very senior positions at an earlier age then because peoples lives were so much shorter in comparison with today.

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