What Is an Epergne?
An epergne (pronounced EH’-PERN) is a table center piece that was introduced in Europe in the early 1700s. Generally made from silver, the most popular style had a dominant column or large raised bowl in its center. Stylized branches or arms extended out from the center column, with each of these branches holding smaller dishes or bowls at their ends. These dishes held sweet treats for dinner guests, or were decorated with flowers to add beauty to the dinner table or sideboard. Some epergnes even had candle holders fitted on the center column that could be removed as needed. Later versions of epergnes were made of glass or a combination of glass and silver.
The earliest epergnes were called “surtout” by the French. They were generally made of metal, often silver, and were used to hold items like cruets for oil and vinegar, and salt cellars. A variation of the surtout that came along a little later was known as the “fruitier”. As the name suggests, this vessel was used to hold fruit sections that were dusted with sugar and other sweets, and was brought to the table by the hosts or servants after the table had been cleared of the dishes and serving utensils from the main meal.
During the Georgian period (1714-1837), many continental silversmiths made their way to London, often settling in Clerkenwell where there was a vibrant community of gold and silversmiths and watch makers. These talented craftsmen worked alongside native English silversmiths creating beautiful items for use in fine homes. Toward the end of the 18th century, glass was introduced into the design of epergnes, and early 1800s English epergnes were often made of silver or silverplate with the dishes or bowls being made of glass.
Silver and Cranberry Glass Epergne
Victorian Era Epergnes
Leave it to the Victorians to take things to a new level. During the Victorian era (1837 to 1901), glassmakers began crafting beautiful epergnes that were made exclusively of glass. These epergnes were somewhat less expensive than their more elaborate silver cousins, so they were found in other than just the wealthiest homes. Usually made of ruby or green glass, they were often known as "a housemaid's nightmare" and for good reason. Even when new, these things were very delicate, and dusting or moving them often resulted in disaster.
Wealthy Victorians loved to lavish their dinner guests with fine food, wines and desserts. The table setting was a big part of spoiling guests, and only the very finest linens, china and silverware would do. If a smaller table was being set, one large epergne was placed in the center of the table. If a longer table was being set to accommodate many guests, epergnes were strategically placed the length of the table.
During the later Victorian period in America, the Gorham Company was the best known of the American epergnes makers, producing beautiful and elaborate epergnes made of silver.
Design and Color
Glass epergnes usually have a tall central flute or column that is surrounded by shorter flutes. Fancier glass epergnes have stems made of glass that hold small glass baskets. In these flutes and baskets were placed flowers and bonbons or sweetmeats. During the later years of the Victorian era, the influence of Art Nouveau meant that the glass flutes on epergnes took on more of a lily shape, the lily being a very common subject in Art Nouveau decorative pieces.
The ruby glass (now called cranberry glass) was created using traces of gold oxide. Ruby glass was layered on top of clear glass to make it appear lighter in color. Cranberry colored glass was very popular in Victorian England.
The glass used to make green and yellow-green epergnes contained uranium, and depending on the amount of uranium added, the glass often took on a very opaque look. This opalescent glass became known as “Vaseline glass” during the 1920s because of the resemblance to that popular petroleum jelly. Using uranium in glass production began in the mid-1800s, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s when glassmakers began experimenting by using other additives to the glass that the Vaseline look was created. Vaseline glass also existed in the cranberry shade.
In 1905, the Fenton Art Glass Company was established in Ohio, and from roughly 1907 through the 1920s, Fenton produced lovely glass objects using iridescent glass known as “Carnival glass”.
The best way to test Vaseline glass to determine if it is genuine is to shine an ultraviolet light on it. If it is genuine, the uranium will cause the glass to fluoresce under the ultraviolet light. Many antique buyers use a hand-held light to verify a piece is real before buying it.