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Ancient Mirrors And Modern Looking Glassed

Recently someone said the "mirror" was the modern looking glass. Actually metal mirrors have been rescued from buried cities and graves thousands of years old. Mirrors were valued toilet accessories before glass was discovered, let alone the trick of facing glass with reflective metal to make "looking glasses." The Egyptian word for mirror meant "something to reflect the face."

A medieval monk wrote of copper, bronze, silver and marble mirrors and said glass faced with lead was also used but would not work if the lead was removed. The Sumerians made fine bronzes in 3000 B.C. In Chicago's Natural History Museum a bronze mirror from Babylon, crusted with the green of buried centuries, looks so modern one wonders if it wouldn't work again if polished with the sponge and pumice powder the ancients used to keep it bright.

Massive silver plates held in slots mirrored the whole figure in the centuries before Christ. Demosthenes is said to have used one to practice his gestures. Cleopatra made her toilet before one.

Suspicious Domitian, last of the twelve Caesars, lined his walking gallery with polished stone so he could watch for assassins and avert death. But Louis XIV's Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, built for beauty, was of "looking glass" and probably ushered in the age of mirrors in home decoration.

Mirror Superstitions

Mirrors have always been associated with ceremony, and with good or bad luck. They were buried with the dead to "light the grave." They lit altar and home fires, forecast for the sick and pronounced the dead, for many an early physician held a mirror to the face of the quiet ill to "catch the breath mist" if the patient lived. The Greeks let a mirror down the well till it touched water then drew it forth quickly to see what was forecast for the sick one.

The Chinese associated the mirror with the heavens as it caught the "suns fire" for the cooking fire, and the "moons water" (dew). Some Chinese mirrors were made with a deep rim to hold this dew.

Breaking a mirror anciently was bad luck, for it "broke the connection with the gods," and no fire could be drawn from the sun for home or altar until the mirror was replaced. So, though ancient Sidon made mirrors of glass faced with tin, or silver, they were too easily broken to gain favor till late medieval times.

The Hand Mirror

The hand mirror, generally round or oval and slightly convex plates of highly polished metal, usually had handles of ivory, bone, wood or metal. Both back of mirror and the handle were carved, inlaid, or jeweled. The Classic mirrors of Greek, Etruscan and Roman, often had figures of goddesses for handles, Aphrodite being a favorite. Saxons copied the Roman forms, but rather than incised figures of human, bird, animal or flower forms for decoration, they commonly used interlaced arabesque lines.

Chinese bronze mirrors had no extended handle. A knob at center back let a holding cord or sash through. The mirror backs, and those of the Indian and Japanese, were beautifully engraved and often inlaid with mother-of-pearl, jade, amber and enamels.

Exodus says the mirrors of the Israelite women at the tabernacle were gathered to make a bronze laver, so we know they wore their mirrors to church. European women also did, and a French medieval moralist shames church goers with mirrors hanging at their waists and fears "soon every citizen's daughter and female servant" will wear them.

German 14th century "bull's eye" mirrors were made by coating the inside of a glass globe with a mixture of antimony, resin and tin. These were then cut into convex, round mirrors "like a bull's eyes" for women to wear or carry.

American Indian mirrors of polished obsidian, iron pyrites, copper, bronze and silver, were in use when the Spanish came. Sometimes a "nugget" of pyrites was cut through and polished. Sometimes slices were set in cement on small stones. Holes were pierced for cords so they could be hung about the neck.

Venetians developed glass mirrors in the 15th century and sold their looking glasses world wide. People still buy "real Venetian mirrors."

Box Mirrors

Mirrors in cases have been important throughout history. Early Greek mirrors were two circular plates, generally hinged together, and decorated outside, but the interior lid was polished for "looking." A Chinese mirror two thousand years old was found in a lacquer toilet box in a Korean grave. It lay in its own tray above a section holding comb, cosmetics, hair ornaments and jewelry. Our make-up boxes today have a mirror in the lid.

Pocket mirrors, great favorites in early Europe, were small polished metal discs fitted into shallow boxes-the forerunners of our modern compacts. Larger mirrors had more elaborate cases. Fashionable late Renaissance mirror cases were often of carved ivory showing romantic, hunting, or domestic scenes. Gold, silver, enamels, fancy woods, and inlaid, carved, or jeweled cases met the buyers' tastes.

America's "courting mirror" was our early boxed type. Some say the swain who came many miles horseback to see his girl used it at a handy "crick" before he rode up to the front door. Others say the sweetheart carried it to her huskings and quiltings. Generally these looking glasses were about 12 by 16 inches, with pine frame and box, and bright paintings in the arched glass top.

Looking Glasses Are Modern Mirrors

The Venetians produced the modern looking glass by blowing long hollow "sausages" of glass which they split lengthwise, flattened and beveled. On a stone or iron table surrounded by a trough they smoothed out tin foil, cleaned and quickened it with mercury, then covered it with enough mercury to float the glass which was next slid on and weighted down. The table was then tipped to drain off the excess mercury. The metal dried to the glass in a day or two. The finished mirror was about two and a half by three feet. One was set above another to make a full length mirror.

The French learned to pour the pot of melted glass onto a cast iron table, roll it, cool it in the annealing oven, and "silver" it into a plate glass mirror or pier glass. Actual silvering was not used until the mid-19th century.

When mirrors took to frames, furniture styles dictated material and lines of those frames. France's Louis XIV, XV, and XVI, the Empire, the Nouveau, and Moderne all produced "period mirrors." In England Charles I and II, Queen Anne, Chippendale, the Classicists-Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and the Adam brothers; finally Victoria, all gave their names to mirrors due to frame styles. Cut glass artists and painters in oils left their decorations on 'tops and sides. These came to America with colonists and in trade.

But America had her Constitution Mirror of Revolutionary fame-a flying eagle or urn filling the broken arch at the top of the frame. Her Empire mirror, generally framed in mahogany veneer, often had the top third of the glass painted with the Frigate Constitution or some pilgrim or Indian scene. Girandoles were bull's eye mirrors about a foot in diameter usually, and in gilt frames topped by an eagle and having candle holders at the sides. Overmantel mirrors were popular during the 18th and 19th centuries, often framed in wide veneers, elaborately carved wood, gilt, and even gilt and plush.

Period framed mirrors, courting mirrors, girandoles, box mirrors, and compacts are all highly collectable.

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