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The American Courting Mirror

Where today a vanity case is one of the many things to be given young women by their suitors, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries small framed mirrors were among the few articles considered proper presents for such circumstances. As such they were called courting mirrors. Furthermore, because of the high cost and relative scarcity of good mirror glass, they were not gifts bought in the penny shop.

These courting glasses were small. Judging by surviving examples, six to eight by ten to twelve inches were the popular sizes. Before America began to trade directly with the treaty ports of China, courting glasses were the careful work of native cabinetmakers. Molded frames, finished with oil or varnish, were of maple, cherry, walnut, or pine. Made mostly in the more sophisticated towns along the Atlantic seaboard, they were simplified examples of the crested mirror frames in vogue from the late Queen Anne years to the start of the Hepplewhite period. Some were without the arched top, but had a well-cut molded frame done in high relief, a simple yet dignified design.

After 1790, when Elias Haskett Derby of Salem, Massachusetts, established direct trade between the Orient and the United States with his ship, Empress of China, many courting mirrors were brought back from Canton and other treaty ports. Today they are generally found in the coastal towns of New England. They have frames with finely beaded edges and set with narrow long panels of painted glass inlays. These frames may be of camphor wood, Chinese cherry, teak, or Oriental pine. Some may be lacquer-decorated:

Presumably, many courting glasses were brought home as presents by sailors who had manned ships in the China trade, but a good number were part of the regular cargo. To protect them during the long voyage back, they were each fitted into a small wooden box in which the framed glass was held in place with removable wooden pegs.

In their day, 1790 to about 1830, they were so highly regarded as gifts' that many a young woman kept her mirror in its traveling case and hung the choice article on the wall, box and all. With collectors, the boxed examples are the rarest of all, especially if they still retain their original lids. Boxed or not, one of these small glasses makes a colorful and interesting decoration for a guest room, especially as the quality of mirror plate is always high and gives a clear and undistorted reflection, not always found in the larger mirrors of the same date.

About the turn of the nineteenth century American cabinetmakers competed briefly with this China-trade product. The American version has a rounded molded frame faced with walnut veneer, varying in tone from dark to light, and an arched top containing a glass panel painted with a conventional design, such as a bird perched on a twig, done in natural colors. The overall dimensions are eight inches wide by a little over thirteen inches high. Carrying the imitation of the Chinese a bit further, some American courting mirrors even had a protecting box.

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