The Proper Etiquette Rules for Silver-gilding the Late Victorian Silver Card Table
Where would Jane Austen’s dashing gentleman, Willoughby, have placed his calling card when no one was at home to receive him? The likely answer would be: his card was left on a card table or receiver in the entry hall. Before business cards were a norm, middle- and upper-class people carried calling cards in the Regency Era (1811 – 1820) and Victorian Era (1837 – 1901). Calling cards had become central to social etiquette when visiting a house due to widely circulating books of proper etiquettes and manuals of politeness. Silver card tables and receivers, consequently, became popular household items on which the cards could be placed. Often, wealthy or influential people purposely displayed a card table or receiver stacked high with calling cards to show off their extended social circle [1]. This is no different from Instagrammers boasting numbers of followers on their accounts.
“I was not fortunate enough to find yourselves and Mrs. Jennings at home. My card was not lost, I hope.”
-  John Willoughby to Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility (1811), Chapter 28
The Silver Card Table featured in this article is one example from the late Victorian times (fig.1). It is a gorgeous silverware belonging to the
Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute
that was featured in the Meriden Britannia Silver-plate Treasury: The Complete Catalog of 1886 – 7 as no. 7700 [2]. The work arrived in fair condition at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, compromised by dense layers of tarnish and losses in the silver plating. The article will focus on how the areas of loss in the original silver electroplating were compensated with silver-gilding. The goal of the treatment was to minimize the disfiguring surfaces that could distract visitors, whether museum-goers or house guests, from visually appealing fine workmanship in the Silver Card Table
History of the Meriden Britannia Company will be briefly chronicled. Then, the materials and techniques used to fabricate the Silver Card Table will be described, before discussing the Table’s condition. Finally, the silver-gilding treatment will be explained in steps.
The Meriden Britannia Company was founded in Meriden, Connecticut in 1852. The founders were originally makers and sellers of Britannia metal, an alloy of tin, antimony and copper. Silverware became more popular than Britannia ware with the innovation of the silver electroplating in 1856 [3]. The company then went on to become the world’s largest silver firm in 1876, after winning awards at the American Institute Fairs and the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia [4]. In the same year, the company expanded to develop a new division, the Meriden Flint Glass Company, to supply quality glass to the parent company to incorporate glassware in their product designs [5]. The Silver Card Table’s ornamental top was originally protected by a beveled plate glass in the catalog [6]. At its highest point, the Meriden Britannia Company employed over 900 people [7]. In later years, the Meriden Britannia Company became a division under the International Silver Co. in 1898. The headquarters still remained in the same city, so Meriden became known as “The Silver City” [8]. The trademark of the Company ceased in 1938 [9].
FIGURE 1. Silver Card Table, Before Treatment
The Silver Card Table is composed of four separate silver-plated brass pieces: a ring, a bowl-shaped top, a three-legged stand and a winged female figure. The figure sits within the frame of the stand, and the top contains a decorative blossoming dogwood branch, a popular symbol of affection in the Victorian times. Each piece is fabricated from tubular, sheet and cast components that were soldered together, except for the female figure who appears to be cast. The separate sections were then joined together with screws and nuts.
Hit the arrows to see different details of the techniques used on the Card Table.
These details are sourced from before treatment images.
All four pieces are electroplated in silver, except for the interior of the bowl-shaped top, which was given a gold wash. All surfaces are chased with floral motifs. Nickel was detected in the silver-plated surfaces with non-invasive and non-destructive x-ray fluorescence analysis (XRF) (fig.2). One advertisement from the Meriden Britannia Company stated that their “[g]oods [were] plated on… the Nickel Silver, silver soldered ware being especially recommended for Hotel, Steamship, and Club use, and all places where hard usage is required.” [10].
Aside from heavy tarnishing and loss in the silver plating, the Silver Card Table was in good structural condition. The areas of wear to the base metal were mostly concentrated on the three-legged stand, along the high points of the side decorations in the base plate, legs and capped tubular posts.
The Meriden Britannia Co. mark states that the Silver Card Table was “Quadruple Plated,” indicating the number of coatings received by the base metal in the electroplating process. The more silver is used in the electroplating process, the longer the silverware will last. However, in the case of the Silver Card Table, polishing and wear have taken toll of much of the silver plating. Series of white, green and pink corrosion products were evident along the decorative elements, and the areas of wear revealed the underlying yellow metal.
The uneven tarnish on entire silver-plated surfaces was disfiguring. Tarnish occurs as a result of chemical reaction between silver and sulphur-containing gases in atmosphere; silver reacts with sulphur to precipitate as silver sulphide. With growing thickness of silver sulphide on silver, the surface will lose sheen and become discolored, from yellow through brown to black. The pre-dominant color on the Silver Card Table was black, revealing the dense nature of the tarnish.
Despite its unattractive appearance, tarnish has a benefit: it helps protect silver by forming a film over the surface, thus preventing the underlying metal from being corroded or damaged [11]. Still, the Silver Card Table’s surface was visually unappealing and unfit for display. So, cleaning and polishing were needed before silver gilding large areas of wear and loss. Spot tests were performed on different areas of the Silver Card Table to ensure that majority of the silver plating was intact under the tarnish (fig.3).
Furthermore, in order to confirm that there was no intentional patination, the Silver Card Table had to be carefully examined under different light sources [12]. “Oxidized silver,” a surface finish that was popular in North America in the late 19th century was not documented in the Meriden Britannia Co. catalogs. Fire scale, reddish purple bloom from oxidation at high temperatures, was not observed. 
FIGURE 2. Silver Card Table, XRF spectrum on an area with silver electroplating
FIGURE 3. Silver Card Table, Spot tests to check the intactness of the silver plating under tarnish
The examination, on the other hand, revealed that there were different layers of coatings on the Silver Card Table. The applied coatings were compact and not brittle, so they could not be readily sampled for identification with Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy analysis (FT–IR). Instead, they were categorized on the basis of solubility with chemical spot tests. Waxes and cellulose nitrate lacquers were two examples of
suspected coats.  
As previously mentioned, tarnish on the Silver Card Stand had to be minimized before the areas of loss in the electroplating could be compensated with gilding. Cleaning was the first step to take. Cleaning The silver-plated surfaces were cleaned with a soft-bristled brush to remove loose dust and dirt that could act as abrasives on the soft metal. Then, the surfaces were cleaned in sequences with solutions of differing polarities to remove grime, coating and any remaining abrasives from the previous treatments: 1% (w/v) Orvus® WA Paste, ethanol, acetone and Shellsol® odourless mineral spirit (OMS).
Old lacquers must be removed before polishing. Agateen® Lacquer Thinner #1 was used to further minimize the previously applied cellulose nitrate coating. Under the tarnish, there were five areas where the silver plating was either peeling or flaking. The loose silver plating was temporarily stabilized in its original position with 25% (w/v) Paraloid™ B-72 in acetone, which acts as an adhesive. Polishing As explained previously, tarnish is silver sulphide. This means that the film contains silver, so every time the surface is polished, silver metal is inevitably removed along with the tarnish. There is no abrasive that can only remove the tarnish and not the metal. It is thus strongly advised to keep the tarnish removal to a minimum. Chemical cleaning with acidified thiourea is an alternative to abrasive polishing. However, it is not encouraged as thiourea is a carcinogen [13]. To avoid the risk of over-polishing the Silver Card Table, the cleaned, degreased surfaces were polished with precipitated calcium carbonate in a 1:1 (v/v) solution of ethanol and deionized water (fig.4). The chalk slurry was used because it is a gentle abrasive that is still hard enough to scratch the tarnish and silver. Furthermore, precipitated calcium carbonate is sieved, so diameters of particles are small enough to result in narrow and shallow scratches not visible to the eye [14].
FIGURE 4. Silver Card Table, Comparison of before (left) and after (right) polishing
The majority of the tarnish remained stubborn to removal. Localized, dense black spots remained disfiguring on the Silver Card Table. These areas were polished with SILVO™ Silver Polishing Wadding. It is strongly discouraged to use commercially available silver polishes because they contain undesirable components that act too quickly and aggressively, thus removing more metal than desired. However, in rare cases, conservators resort to using commercial silver polishes with careful consideration and cautious application. In the case of SILVO™ Silver Polishing Wadding, which contains tarnish inhibitor and ammonia, the Silver Card Table had to be rinsed with Shellsol® OMS and ethanol to remove residues that could hasten tarnishing in the near future. Tarnish inhibitor in commercial polishes are not reliable because they cause silver to tarnish unevenly. Furthermore, they make it difficult to apply a lacquer, which was the next step of the treatment for the Silver Card Table. As for ammonia, it dissolves copper, which is in the base metal under the silver plating, by forming soluble copper-ammonia complexes; they react with the gases in air to form disfiguring green copper corrosion products. After the tarnish was minimized, the Silver Card Table was intensively rinsed to avoid redeposition of tarnish.
Lacquer was used as an isolating barrier to protect the existing silver plating from possible abrasion during burnishing in the silver-gilding steps. The cleaned and polished surfaces were thoroughly degreased with ethanol and acetone. It is an important step in order to avoid coating failure which can readily be observed as iridescence in the coating. A 1:1 (v/v) solution of Agateen® Lacquer #27 in thinner #1 was thinly brushed on the surfaces. Agateen® Lacquer is a crystal-clear cellulose nitrate coating that was specially designed by Agate Manufacturing Company for use on indoors silver where color and surface quality are very important [15]. Even though conservators question the long-term stability of cellulose lacquers after 20 years, Agateen® Lacquer levels better than Paraloid™ B-72 or B-48N, which are popular conservation-grade acrylic polymers. The acrylic coatings, no matter how carefully applied on the silver surfaces, will always produce bubbles and irregularity in the coating, which will cause serious spot corrosion over short periods of time [16]. Also, it was observed that Agateen® Lacquer is much less permeable to sulfur-containing gases and vapors than the acrylic polymers which is a desired property for the previously heavily tarnished Silver Card Table [17].  
Major areas of loss in the silver plating were reintegrated with Barnabas™ Blattgold imitation silver leaves. Imitation silver leaves are made of aluminum and were used instead of pure silver leaves because they are semi-gloss and have gray tinge to them, the characteristics of which were a better match to the Silver Card Table’s original nickel silver plating. A thin brush of 15% (w/v) Aquazol® 500 in ethanol was applied on the large areas of loss as a size (fig.5).
Aquazol® 500, poly(2-ethyl-2-oxazoline), was chosen as the gilding size because of its versatility and use in the field of conservation: its chemical stability, thermostability, transparency, solubility in polar organic solvents and good aging properties. Aquazol® has been used by conservators as a less labor-intensive, more controllable and more reversible alternative to animal glue in traditional gilding preparation [18].
FIGURE 5. Silver Card Table, Applying size on an area of loss in the electroplating
Ethanol was used as the solvent vehicle for two reasons: to avoid disturbing the original water-sensitive, corroded brass surfaces and to quicken the build-up of silver leaves to reach the thickness of the original silver plating. Because ethanol evaporates quickly, it is recommended to work with Aquazol® 500 in small areas to reduce the risk of failure when applying a leaf. When the gilded surfaces were dry, they were burnished with an agate. Similar to the traditional gilding, there is a time frame during which the surface can be burnished to achieve the maximum sheen, which is usually within few hours after the application of a metal leaf [19]. In the case of the Silver Card Table, the gilded surfaces were left to dry completely to achieve a mild sheen observed in the original electroplating (fig.6).
FIGURE 6. Silver Card Table, Comparison of before (left) and after (right) burnishing the applied silver leaf
The gilded surfaces still remained brighter than the surrounding, so GOLDEN® Mineral Spirit Acrylic Matte Varnish with UVLS (MSA), 3-parts varnish to 1-part solvent, was applied as a matting agent and as an isolating coat for the application of acrylic paints on top. A mineral spirit-based varnish was selected because a waterborne varnish is soluble in ethanol, which was used to solubilize Aquazol® 500 size layer; this would have removed the previously applied and burnished aluminum leaves. The MSA coating was left to cure for 24 hours to form a durable film with chemical resistance to ethanol. Then, GOLDEN® Iridescent Acrylics were used to better integrate the gilded areas with the surrounding colors, especially where the surface appeared uneven due to underlying corrosion in the base metal. The painted areas were gently burnished to match the surrounding lustre. The second layer of 1:2 (v/v) solution of Agateen® Lacquer #27 in thinner #1 was applied as a finish by spraying, to guarantee complete coating (fig.7).

FIGURE 7. Silver Card Table, Sectional view of a silver gilt area
The treated pieces were finally reassembled to confirm the structural integrity of the mechanical joins. The result was the visually stunning work by the Meriden Britannia Company that was closer to its original appearance (fig.8). The Silver Card Table would be appreciated at
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute
, perhaps even tempting visitors to leave their business cards on the table, even when nobody was “at home” to receive customers like John Willoughby.
I would like to express my special thanks of gratitude to Anna D’Ambrosio, President of Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY, for granting me the permission to write on the topic of the treatment for the Silver Card Table. I would also like to thank Hélène Woodard-Gillette for her supervision and guidance on the treatment, Matthew Hamilton for his photography, and Charmian Bursill, my lifelong mentor, for sharing her passion for novels by Jane Austen.
Photography Credit | Matt Hamilton and Maggie Barkovic (Cover, BT detail)
FIGURE 8. Silver Card Table, After Treatment
[1] Green, Claire. “Calling Cards and Visiting Cards: A Brief History.” In Hoban Cards (blog), September 12, 2016.
[2] The Meriden Britannia Silver-Plate Treasury: The Complete Catalog of 1886-7 with 3,200 Illustrations, p.73. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1982.
[3] Hogan, Edmund P. “Introduction.” In The Meriden Britannia Silver-Plate Treasury: The Complete Catalog of 1886-7 with 3,200 Illustrations, p.i-iv. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1982.
[4] Rosenberg, Chaim M. America at the Fair: Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008.
[5] Tobin, Diane. “Introduction.” In The Meriden Flint Glass Company: An Abundance of Glass, p.i-ii. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012.
[6] The Meriden Britannia Silver-Plate Treasury: The Complete Catalog of 1886-7 with 3,200 Illustrations, p.73. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1982.
[7] Finlay, Nancy. “Up from the Ashes: Fire at the Meriden Britannia Company – Today in History: July 16.” In Connecticut History. July 16, 2019.
[8] Dignan, Clare. “Throwback Thursday: Meriden Britannia Co. made the Silver City.” In Record-Journal. July 21, 2016.
[9] Hogan. p.i-iv.
[10] The Meriden Britannia Silver-Plate Treasury. p.2.
[11] Selwyn, Lyndsie. “Understanding how silver objects tarnish.” In CCI Regional Workshops. November 20, 2017.
[12] Holbrow, Katherine A. and Gerri Strickler. “Ornamental Finishes on Art Brass: Conservation Challenges.” In A Brass Menagerie: Metalwork of the Aesthetic Movement, p. 28 – 31. Utica, NY: Brodock Press, 2005.
[13] Wharton, Glenn. “The Cleaning and Lacquering of Museum Silver.” In WAAC Newsletter 11, no. 1 (January 1989): p.4–5.
[14] Selwyn, Lyndsie. “How to Make and Use a Precipitated Calcium Carbonate Silver Polish – Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) Notes 9/11.” In CCI Notes. February 26, 2019.
[15] Reedy, Chandra L., Richard A. Corbett, Deborah L. Long, Robert E. Tatnall, and Brandley D. Krantz. “Evaluation of Three Protective Coatings or Indoor Silver Objects.” In AIC Objects Specialty Group Postprints 6 (1999): p.41–69.
[16] ICON, the Institute of Conservation. “Care and Conservation of Silver and Plate.” In ICON 2006.
[17] Reedy. p.41–69.
[18] Shelton, Chris. “The Use of Aquazol-Based Gilding Preparations.” In WAG Postprints, AIC Meetings, Norfolk, Virginia, 1996.
[19] Ibid.