Silver Overlay

by Barbara Wyrick
Issue No. 409 - August 2007

I have never written an article for the Crystal Ball before, except for meeting minutes, but I thought people might be interested in some of the research from one of our Wildflowers Study Group meetings, so I will try my hand at putting it together. Hope everyone enjoys, and let me know if there is any conflicting information out there.

Webmaster's NOTE: There were three pages of colored photographs which accompanied this article. In the text below, the underlined headings (in blue) are links to the pages which contain photographs of items produced by that company.

It was difficult finding information about Silver Overlay and the patterns. Karen McIntyre of Dallas, Texas, tried to put together a book on the subject, but finally gave up because of the lack of information available, so huge thanks go out to Ken Nicol and Lynn Welker and the entire Wildflowers Study Group for the information I have tried to compile. Silver overlay is also called silver deposit glass or silver electroplated glass.

The History

In 1889, the decorative technique of applying silver designs to glass was patented by Oscar Pierre Erand and John Benjamin Round for Stevens & Williams Ltd in Birmingham, England. It had the shortcoming that the reverse side of the silver next to the glass would tarnish and turn dark. In 1893, a patent was registered in the US by John H. Sharling of New Jersey, which had the distinct advantage that the reverse side was white and stayed that way by utilizing electroplating. He shared his methods with everyone and silver overlay came to its first peak in the early 1900's. There were two distinct eras of Silver Overlay. From 1895 to the early 1920's, this art had its own avid following and became a decorative rage. But during this first era, it was very labor intensive and expensive and this period was over by the mid-1930's.

Glass Collector's Digest records that the cost to produce a decanter made in the early 1900's was .90 cents for the glass blank, $4 worth of silver, and $5 for the added labor for the silver overlay design. A revival of silver overlay followed immediately after WWII that lasted until the late 1950's.

The Method

A designer would decide what pattern was most suitable for a piece of glass, such as grapevines on a wine carafe. The design would be hand painted onto the surface with a special flux a mixture of turpentine and powdered silver, copper or brass. The glass was fired in a kiln to permanently fix the pattern onto it, then cooled and cleaned and placed into a water filled tank with a sheet of silver. Electric current was then set up between the silver and the tank walls. The silver ions would migrate from the sheet and attach themselves to any other silvery metal surface within the field of the electric current. The longer the process continued, the thicker the build-up of the silver coating. After about 10 hours, the glass would be removed from the bath and buffed to create a glisten. If the layer was thick enough, silversmith tools could then be used to enrich the detailing. Sometimes the manufacturers name or word "Sterling" were gently stamped into the silver.

During the 2nd revival of silver overlay in the late 1940's, in a more economical process, the design was printed on sheets of paper with an inky flux or lightly etched into the glass. The sheets or etch applied the pattern to the glass for electroplating. Or an alternative method involved coating the whole surface with silver, painting the design onto the silver with a "Resist" and then dissolving away the unwanted parts of the silver. In later years, the invention of coating the silver deposit at time of manufacture with Rhodium prevented tarnishing. And if you look at the back of a piece of crystal and it looks yellow, you can tell the under-metal was brass.

Silver decorating companies did not make the glass and then decorate it. It was impossible for them without having a furnace to produce the molten glass. Some companies even owned molds, but contracted other companies to make the pieces for them. Blanks from different companies could be decorated with the same silver overlay and merchandized as sets.

Conversely, glass companies like Cambridge, Heisey, Steuben and others had no silver plating facilities or chemical ability to apply the silver to glass, so did not do their own decorating.

"Silver Overlay" by Cambridge

White Gold overlay Cambridge did not do silver overlay at the factory. Pieces that look like silver, that were actually decorated by Cambridge, are either Platinum or 22k White Gold, as in the example shown at left. In the early Opaques, the Classic etch was sometimes hand painted in 22k white gold to fill in the etching, then fired. Vases with "Hunt Scene" and "Polo Scene" were done in a white gold silk screen, using a stencil process where the silk screen was painted on.

The 30-34 Catalog advertised "Sterling Silver" on Apple Blossom and Gloria, but it was probably actually white gold, hand painted onto the etching with a brush, then fired (which can't be done with silver).

Platinum is often more of a silkscreen, has more gray color, (not a bright silver), and never tarnishes. Cambridge also painted on the platinum, then fired it. Platinum is usually found on rims or trim, and if you look closely, you can see brush strokes on some rims. The "Drinking Scene" seen on Tally Ho goblets was made by applying a Platinum band and then etching thru it for the scene. The Silver Maple Leaf done after the re-opening is also Platinum.

The first Sterling on Cambridge was the "Cameo and Baskets" on opaques (not sure which company did this). Their finish is not as high quality as some silver, may have been silk screened, and wears very easily. (This same pattern is seen on early Central glass pieces) The other earliest silver on Cambridge was freehand painted silver on perfumes and puff sets.

Companies known to do Silver Overlay on Cambridge were:

  • Rockwell began in 1907, located in Meriden, CT
  • Silver City located in Meriden, CT
  • Lotus located in Barnesville, Ohio
  • DePasse Pearsall located in New York City
  • National Silver Deposit located in New York City
  • King Silver plate
  • Crown Sterling

Rockwell Silver Company

Organized by Lucien Rockwell and E.F. Skinner in 1907, with Wells Rockwell as general manager, employing 6 men in a plant that was 1,500 SF. In 1913 the company was reorganized, increasing its size to 11,250 SF, with traveling salesmen all over the US. Seth Nesser was the head of decorating for Rockwell.

Rockwell is a very high quality silver. They also decorated many other company's glass, such as Tiffin, Steuben, etc.

How to determine if the silver was done by Rockwell:

  • The great detailing after the silver was applied, one of the artists took a stylus or knife and cut into the silver to make very detailed cuttings, such as the lines on the swan wings. Other companies did not do this.
  • They often signed their pieces with an acid etched shield on the bottom. The Rockwell signature coat of arms is based on an original family shield which had 3 boar heads and the motto "All for my God and my King" denoting their English origin.
  • They sometimes signed their pieces by using small enamel numbers on the bottom to denote the artist or pattern.
  • Rockwell silver is REALLY thick, high quality silver, always highly polished.

Rockwell Patterns on Cambridge

  • Rose Trellis seen on keyhole vases with rose bouquets with a trellis under it.
  • Kobe an Oriental branch design, seen on a Helio and Ebony. (Very few silver overlays were ever put on Cambridge opaques)
  • Oriental Carriage including a Rickshaw and Hut scene.
  • Antelope usually seen on vases with an intense floral around it.
  • Santa Maria (Galion) Ship Seen on a Cocktail shaker with fine detailing in the ship's sails.
  • Silver Seahorse most silver overlay on Crown Tuscan is Rockwell, and is on the Seashell line.
  • Nudes were almost always done at Rockwell. They usually have satin somewhere on the bowl or nude or foot. There were many deco and floral designs for nudes.
  • Flowered Triangle (The "V" pattern) - very deco pattern of floral in V shapes around the glass. Seen on nudes, ebony cigarette boxes and keyhole candlesticks.
  • Flying Geese Seen on nudes and water jugs.
  • Elk and Calf the Rockwell version of the Lotus "Call of the Wild."
  • Parrot seen together with enameling on an ebony covered candy.
  • Other Rockwell patterns include: Iris, Daffodil, Wild Rose, and Thistle.

I found in an article by Les Hansen that Rockwell also placed very heavy silver over some of the Ebony 3 inch and 10 inch Cambridge Swans in the 1930's, covering the entire swan except for the eyes and a patch of feathers in the middle of the wing.

Rockwell also did some unusual silver on Caprice and Satin Everglades pieces. The Rockwell silver is a much heavier silver than the more common Silver City, (who usually did the Caprice line). Rockwell typically did not mark "Sterling" on their overlay, it was assumed.

Rockwell also did some Platinum on Cambridge which they applied like a silkscreen. "Bordeaux Rose" is only seen on Carmen or Royal Blue plates. Another reverse silk screen Platinum done at Rockwell is the blue goblet with the "Catawba" grapes.

Silver City

Also from Meriden, Connecticut, they did most of the silver on Caprice and Cascade pieces, and the silver is beautiful, but not the quality of Rockwell. Silver City did their decorating up until the mid-1950's, when most of the other silver companies had disappeared. They stayed in business because no other US companies were still doing overlay. Their pieces almost always said "Sterling" in the silver.

Silver City Patterns:

  • All of the "Anniversary" pieces of Caprice
  • Partially Satinized Poppies using a combo of sterling with etching and cutting on ball jugs where the flowers are outlined in silver.
  • Lily of the Valley - pattern on Caprice.
  • A variety of "Fruit" patterns.
  • A variety of "Floral" designs on many Caprice baskets and bowls, (these floral designs included: Daffodil, Daisy, Flanders, California Poppy, Forest, Princess Rose, Queen Rose, Fern, Springtime, Chrysanthemum, Silver Leaves, Scroll and Swag, and Vintage.

Lotus Glass Company

Lotus Glass Company of Barnesville, Ohio, bought glass from every company and decorated it. Lotus is nice, but the silver is a little pebbly looking, and on close inspection, you can usually see where the silver is rather grainy. (As opposed to Rockwell which is a very thick, pure silver). But Lotus is very durable, with some very attractive patterns.

Lotus Patterns:

  • Their most popular items were Floral patterns on large vases, such as #1242 vase and ball jugs, and floral on some Carmen candlesticks.
  • "Hunt Scene in the Heart" a woman on horseback in a heart on some Carmen pieces. This is very rare.
  • "Call of the Wild" with grazing moose and calf in a circle surrounded by intense floral.
  • The sterling "Clover" pattern on Star candlesticks.
  • "Acorn and Oak Leaf".

Other Lotus patterns include: Lola, (their most popular), Avalon, Springtime Nymph, and Sylvania.

DePasse Pearsall

From New York City, they did very high quality silver decorating in the early 30's. I found in an old article by Bud Walker that they were the successor to the DePasse Mfg Co. which operated from 1915 to 1922, and the last company listing of DePasse Pearsall was in 1935. Their items were usually marked with a blue foil label with silver lettering, although many of the labels have disappeared.

DePasse Pearsall patterns:

  • The "Circle of Swans" in the center of an intense floral design usually seen on vases and decanters from a variety of companies.
  • "Peacock in a Circle" surrounded by floral seen on a ball jug from the 1933-34 period.
  • "Swans and Cattails" seen on partially satinized water jugs and matching stems.
  • "Basket of Flowers with Garlands" seen on a large Crown Tuscan vase very good quality silver and very rare.

King Silverplate

Used a red label with a Silver Crown as a signature.

Did the "Whiskey, Rye and Scotch" silver lettering on Cambridge decanters and barware.

National Silver Deposit Ware

Did the silver found on some Mt Vernon line items. They also did a few high quality scenes that are sometimes mistaken for Rockwell.

"Hunt Scene" - a man on horseback which was done on many different glass company blanks, often on decanter and tumbler sets. The barrel tumblers that go to the Cambridge set have a bird (a Swallow) with wings spread in silver, and the words "Just a Swallow" over it. These were sold as a set with the Hunt Scene decanter.

It is very likely that they were the company who did the Scotty Dogs, Bull Dogs, and other animals found on the Ebony Ashtrays.

Crown Sterling

Did a few odd lines and swirl shapes on Cambridge pieces.

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If you are aware of any inconsistencies in this article, please send the information and photos to editor@cambridgeglass.org. It is my hope that with the compilation of all the information I had available at this time, everyone will have a clearer understanding of the various companies involved in applying the fabulous silver overlay decorations that can be found on the glass we all love: Cambridge Glass!