While today the concept of the physical reflection of the self and our ability to see an exact accurate image of ourselves at a glance seems such an unremarkable part of everyday life, it is interesting to think that this is only a relatively modern phenomenon.
The invention of mirrors changed the way we view ourselves as individuals, literally and figuratively, as it is the only device to provide a true reflective image of whatever stands before it, the only comparable phenomenon being photography which would not be invented until centuries afterward. Today nearly every single person in the world owns or at the very least has access to a mirror, so it is only natural that we take their existence for granted, when in fact they can serve as mysterious works of art, inciting the looker to acknowledge, recognize, and contemplate the self within its framework.
While examples of polished metal surfaces that were likely used as reflective surfaces date back thousands of years across the world, and we can surmise that even earlier people would have taken advantage of still flat bodies of water to look into, mirrors as we understand them today were not invented until the 16th century in Italy. Produced in Murano and silvered in Venice, they were then known as ‘looking glasses’, intended for personal confrontation and grooming. They perfected the method of making flat panes of clear glass from blown cylinders, a process that was first discovered and evolved in medieval Germany. Lead glass was considered ideal for its workable nature and distinctly clear quality of image.
Shortly thereafter in the Renaissance, a new technique was discovered in which the glass surface was coated with a tin-mercury mixture, providing better clarity and reducing the level of thermal shock to the glass. These mirrors were state of the art and regarded as highly luxurious, expensive items. For example in the late 1600’s the Countess de Fiesque was said to have purchased a single mirror in exchange for an entire wheat farm, which she considered to be a great deal.
"...mirrors could be owned by a broad population of people across more class levels."
By the late 18th century, further advancements in technology allowed mirrors of bigger plate sizes to be manufactured so that larger and more decorative models began to appear on the market. In 1835, German chemist Justus von Liebig invented the silver-glassed mirror, which was made by a process involving the chemical reduction of silver nitrate in order to depose a thin layer of metallic silver onto the glass. This process allowed for mass production of mirrors, enabling the emergence of affordable models on the market so that mirrors could be owned by a broad population of people across more class levels.
Much care was taken into the presentation and decoration of the mirror’s frameworks, as these items were still considered to be objects of great opulence as well as practicable. Whether it was the intricately carved and gilt designs of the late 18th and early 19th centuries or the exquisitely polished wood frames of the Victorian era, antique mirrors are not only just as useful today as they were then, but magnificent displays of the artistry and elegance of a past era. Many antique collectors today find great allure and mystery in these beautiful surfaces in which you can look into and see your very self framed by the elegance of another era. The intriguing quality of these objects and their sheer timelessness will likely continue to captivate generations to come.