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( Originally Published 1963 )
Two architectural details help to identify a Sheraton mirror or one made during the years his style was dominant in this country. Both emphasize the rectilinear lines that distinguished his furniture. Most Sheraton mirrors had a flat cornice. On some rather elaborate frames, the cornice was topped by a good-sized eagle with urns or finials at the outer ends. These exceptions, as well as the majority of the flattopped, undecorated ones were set off by a row of small wooden balls under the cornice. The balls, like the frame, were gilded.
The second, easily recognizable characteristic was the superimposing of pilasters or half-columns, first along either side of the frame, then on all four sides. These were often simple rounded half-columns, but just as often they were spirally or vertically reeded. They were gilded to match the rest of the frame, painted, or painted and then burnished with gilt or metallic paints to contrast with the frame.
A distinct style that owed nothing to Sheraton and was perhaps the first to be called a "mirror" in this country appeared around 1800. This was the round, convex mirror with a heavy, circular gold frame. It is often called a Duncan Phyfe mirror, although cabinetmakers in other parts of the country turned out this style too. The convex mirror was usually small, about 24 inches in diameter, but the frame was wide and often deep and repeated the circular lines.
When candleholders were fastened on either side of the base of the frame of this circular mirror, it was known as a girandole. Some mirrors had brackets for four candles. With or without the candleholders, there was plenty of other ornament on these circular frames. They were deeply carved and usually displayed a row of small balls, rope, or other ornamental trim. An eagle usually surmounted the frame. In addition, many of these frames had a pendent finial of carved foliage at the base. These circular frames for convex mirrors were invariably gilded. They were made until about 1820 and frequently are copied today.
Perhaps even rarer than the round convex mirror is the courting mirror. The first ones were imported from China about 1800 and others were made in this country. The name came from the fact that these unusual mirrors were given to young women by their suitors. The courting mirror was small, 8 to 12 inches high by 6 to 8 inches wide. Between the finely molded edges of the wood frame were inserted small pieces or bands of glass with flowers painted on them. Often such a mirror was hung on the wall in the box into which it fitted-with the lid removed, of course.
The turn of the century also brought into wider use the shaving stand or dressing glass. This was an oval or rectangular mirror mounted on a shallow chest of two or three little drawers in which shaving articles could be stored. When the shaving stand was placed on a bureau or high chest, the mirror was at the right height for a gentleman to see himself while shaving. These stands had been made in the early 1700's, but they were little seen in this country until about 1790. Most of those that are found have an oval or shield-shaped glass indicative of the Hepplewhite influence and, after 1800, a rectangular glass typical of Sheraton. Many shaving stands or dressing glasses were made of mahogany. Other choices were walnut, cherry, maple, and pine, the pine sometimes faced with veneer.
The massive gold frame of the convex mirror, so popular in the early 1800's, indicated a trend. Rectangular frames soon lost their delicate lines and decoration. The half-round pilasters that first appeared on Sheraton mirrors became the most important part of the frame in the 1820's and 1830's. These pilasters were the basis of a style known as the Tabernacle mirror, which was made in several versions during the American Empire period (1815-40).
This strictly American style lacked the cornice of Sheraton-type mirrors. It was a rectangular mirror consisting of two pieces of glass, with the joining covered by a narrow piece of framing. The half-round columns on the four sides were spirally reeded, vase-andring, vase-and-cylinder, or spool turned, or carved with acanthus leaves. In some examples, carving and turning were combined. Square blocks or rosettes were mounted on the four corners. A country version of this mirror had turned columns and plain, square corner-blocks of wood, neither painted nor decorated. A handsome mirror in this style might well be made of cheaper wood, but this would not matter because every inch of the frame would be covered with gold leaf. Such a mirror would have rosette blocks and probably some carving.
However fashionable the Tabernacle mirror was between 1815 and 1840, more of the simple ogee-molded, or American Empire, frames probably were made. This plain style, usually rectangular and consisting of one piece of glass, was made in many sizes. These mirrors could be hung either vertically or horizontally. The frame, about 5 inches wide, had an inch-wide flat banding on the inner and outer edges, with a 3-inch ogee molding in between. The corners were mitered. Mahogany or mahogany veneer was most often used, for it was the fashionable wood of the Empire period. A few of these wide-framed mirrors were painted to look like either mahogany or rosewood. The fact that this still is probably the easiest style of mirror to find does not detract from its simple good looks.
The early 1800's brought two other types of mirror to the attention of Americans. Both the pier glass and the mantel mirror gained in popularity during the American Empire period and have been made in some form ever since. Not only were they larger than the mirrors popular during the 1700's, but also each one was made for a specific location.
The pier glass was a large, vertical mirror considerably higher than it was wide, and narrow enough to be hung on the wall between two windows. The frames of the first ones were likely to be either mahogany or a cheaper wood covered with gold leaf.
The mantel mirror was a horizontal one consisting of three panels of looking glass. The center panel was the largest and was flanked by smaller panels. Four columns usually framed the sections of glass. The earliest mantel mirrors often had upper panels of glass on which garlands or baskets of flowers were painted. By 1820, the frames displayed Sheraton and American Empire details. They were likely to be made of pine and covered with gold leaf. Mantel mirrors continued to be made during the Victorian era, and the later frames sometimes were mahogany or rosewood. The mantel mirror always has been more popular in the United States than elsewhere.
The Victorian era (1840-1900) itself made no outstanding contributions to mirror styles. Looking glass of better quality and in larger sheets became more readily available with each decade. As furniture began to be turned out in sets for different rooms, it became customary to attach sizable mirrors to sideboards, bureaus, and other appropriate pieces, thus tending somewhat to decrease the use of mirrors separately on the wall.
Before the Victorian period was too old, the cheval glass began to be popular in the United States. This took up almost as much room as some pieces of furniture, since it was large enough to reflect the whole figure. The usually narrow and simple frame was mounted in a wooden support so that the mirror could be tilted, the support itself being equipped with wheels or casters that made it possible to move the cheval glass about.
Attaching mirrors to pieces of furniture did away also with the need for mirror knobs or mounts. Few people nowadays recognize them, but it was fashionable throughout the 1700's and in the early 1800's to support a looking glass or mirror on small ornamental rosettes or disks attached to long screws or spikes, which were inserted into the wall. They were used in pairs below the mirror and helped to tilt the glass forward (an advantage when looking glasses were small). They seem especially appropriate with fretwork mirrors but were used under other rectangular ones too. The ornamental disk might be glass, pottery, or metal. Many were brass. Metal mounts sometimes framed a painted or enameled medallion or a simple pottery or glass button. Pressed glass rosettes were made in different patterns, and slipped onto spikes of pewter or other metal, where they were held in place by a screw knob. These pressed glass mounts were made in various sizes and in clear as well as colored glass. Between 1830 and 1850, matching rosettes were made in a small size for a mirror and in a larger size to hold curtain tiebacks.
All styles of mirrors during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were made by skilled cabinetmakers and frame-makers in prosperous cities.
They also were copied by traveling craftsmen and rural cabinetmakers and carpenters, who frequently erred in proportion, finish, and decoration. The style may be easy to recognize, but the skill with which the frame has been made and the proportions of the various parts differentiate between an excellent and a mediocre example. The amount of ornament and the skill with which it was applied are other factors in arriving at a current monetary value.
An antique mirror authentic in every, detail is certain to have glass that is cloudy, mottled, and blackened in spots. Replacing this with modern, clear glass reduces the value of the old mirror. So would resilvering the old glass, which is a hazardous job even when done by experts. Old glass is brittle. There is no reason why a herson should not put new glass in an old mirror, if the substitution seems desirable, before hanging it on a wall. If the substitution is made, then the old glass should be packed away carefully and saved, to be restored in the event that the mirror is to be sold.
The glass in the oldest mirrors had beveled edges. If a frame belonged to either the William and Mary or Queen Anne styles, which were fashionable in America until about 1750, one proof of its authenticity will be the beveled edges of the glass. The original glass itself certainly will not be clear now and the beveled edges will be uneven and wavy to the touch. On modern mirror glass, the bevel is smooth as well as wider. The edges of mirrors made after 1750 with fretwork frames or two panels of glass-as made up to about 1840-seem not to have been beveled. Incidentally, it is not uncommon today to find an old two-panel mirror with plain glass in the upper section, for the painted upper panel was sometimes removed by a late-nineteenth-century owner.
The looking glass in mirrors made in the eighteenth and early years of the nineteenth centuries was protected by thin backboards, usually pine and unfinished. In other words, the backs were not closed in neatly as are those of modern mirrors.