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The History of Mirrors

Superstition and folklore have been woven into the history of mirrors for centuries Superstition and folklore have been woven into the history of mirrors for centuries

After being in the antique business in New Orleans for 28 years , I appreciate  the beauty of mirrors in how they enhance a home. From early looking glasses and frames to the modern ones,I realize they represent the best of the art world-design ,craftsmanship, function, diversity,mystery and romance-all in a small package!

Some facts about mirror plate and their frames might make them equally as fascinating to you.

During the Middle Ages, frames began as mere borders between works of art, usually painted on the walls of churches. As art became transportable, first on wooden panels and then on canvas, frames defined their boundaries and protected their edges. Only in relatively modern times is the frame considered to impact the art it enclosed. The opposite holds true for mirrors and their frames. Mirror plate was so costly and so fragile, the frame was considered enormously important, both in design and function. Frames were created by artists, adhering to the design trends of the time and using the same elements as in furniture design that signal, for example, the difference between a Louis XVI and an Adam's piece. The use of symbols and emblems were charmingly incorporated into mirror frames, often hinting at their provenance. Because mirrors were created not only for personal use, but also to reflect and increase available light, gilded frames predominated because their surfaces are also reflective. However, other decorative finishes abound in even the earliest of pieces-- such as veneer, lacquer and japan, metalwork, papier mache and beading.

As frames evolved, so too did mirrors. To give an idea of how long the concept of a "mirror" has existed, polished obsidian (black volcanic glass) was used by Mexicans as early as 4000 B.C. Polished gold, silver and bronze were used as mirrors by 3000 B.C. In 250 B.C., Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, is reputed to have set fire to the Roman fleet by using a "mirror" to deflect the sun's rays. However, it was not until the 14th c. that mirror plate, as we know it, became available because of the inability to produce flat, colorless glass. Each country or region had it's own closely guarded method of producing glass plates suitable for mirrors, based on available raw materials and artisan skill. Basically, the glass blower made a sausage. The ends were cut off, the remaining cylinder cut along its length and opened up flat. The size of the plate was obviously small. This is why you see split glass in early frames. Because the finished plate was so costly, even in small early frames it was common to use pieces that had broken during the polishing process. In 1687, a Frenchman invented the casting method whereby molten glass is poured on to a flat metal surface with low sides the thickness of the finished plate. The size of the plate could be increased; however this method was not available outside of the important art centers until well into the 18th c.

The newly made glass plate was then laboriously ground and polished, requiring hours of skilled labor. When the glass was ready, it had to be backed to make it reflect, a process called silvering. The glass was covered with mercury and laid upon a meticulously hammered bed of tin. It was weighed down to remove the excess mercury, finally tilted and dried. With luck and skill, a mirror plate was formed without spots and blemishes, breakage or a myriad of pitfalls. This method of silvering continued until 1835 when a German invented a new method of backing mirrors by depositing a thin film of real silver, much to the delight of mirror makers whose antecedents had been sickened by mercury poisoning.

Superstition and folklore have been woven into the history of mirrors for centuries. The church was against them, Narcissus has been getting bad press for ages, breakage means bad luck, on and on. In spite of this, they were coveted and cherished. Initially, only the rich and famous could own them. For example, in 1680, the cost of a 3 X 4 foot mirror was $40,000 in today's currency. But as technology improved and the prices lowered, they became available to more and more economic groups. The frames began to represent individual's tastes as well as the court's. The diversity of what is available today is marvelous.

I invite you to New Orleans to visit shops with these "works of art" that constantly evolve because the canvas is YOU; and if you look over your shoulder in an antique mirror you might get a glimpse at those reflected before you!!

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