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The Tabernacle Mirror

The term tabernacle mirror would have been distinct news to lookingglass makers back in 1800 when this type was in style. Both to them and their clients it was a gilt-framed looking glass with classic side columns, corniced top, and decorated upper panel. The present-day name was applied much later and first in England where it was used by furniture designers to designate a niche with an enclosing door, built into a large display piece of furniture where a fine vase or other art object could be shown.

The frames of these particular Sheraton mirrors bore a resemblance to the doors of such niches and so the name "tabernacle" was given them and being distinctive, though inaccurate, it stuck. Gilt frames predominated although mahogany ones were also made. Decorative detail was elaborate if made, by a skilled city craftsman, or simple when fashioned by a man working in a country village whose clients preferred them plainer. But the frame was always architectural in design. The upper glass varied. Fine ones were skillfully done with portraits of Washington, landscapes, or scenes from famous naval engagements of the War of 1812, since these mirrors were at the height of popularity during the Napoleonic world upheaval. Simpler tabernacle mirrors had painted glass panels of flower and fruit compositions, crudely enough done to class as American primitive art.

There is such wide variety in these mirrors that their perennial popularity continues today. No matter what kind of furniture one has, urban-sophisticated or country-primitive, a tabernacle mirror can be found to match it. There are a good number still in existence. They were made for a generation or more during the first part of the nineteenth century when mirror-making was at its high point in America and when there were many skilled craftsmen devoted to making home furnishings by hand and after their own individual conceptions of the prevailing styles.

Some of the mirrors have pendent balls decorating the cornice top. They are referred to in England as "Nelson's cannonballs"; in America there has been a fanciful idea that they represent the Thirteen Original Colonies, although examples have been found with considerably more than that number decorating the cornice. It is doubtful if the mirror makers were thinking of any of these things when they made the mirror frames.

Both mirrors illustrated were made by skilled workers. The one with cornice decoration of thirteen pendent balls has a mahogany frame and dates about 1810 . It has the characteristic reeded columns of the Sheraton period and the painted decoration of the upper glass is a rather primitively executed landscape. The gilt mirror with double reeded columns and classic molded cornice has a painting in the upper panel of the famous sea fight between the Constitution and Guerriere which occurred on August 19, 1812. Made between 1815 and 1820, this mirror is signed on the back "Wi11ard & Nolan." They were Boston mirror makers and frame gilders.

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