( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE heavily freighted ships that came into the harbor in the days of Salem's commercial prosperity brought in their holds many valuables, including mirrors, several of which are to-day found in Salem homes. Not a few of these are ancestral heirlooms, closely interlinked with interesting family histories, and their depths have reflected the faces of many old-time belles.
Even in the earliest days of the colonies, mirrors formed a part of the household accessories, for our Puritan ancestors, scorning as they did all pretence of personal vanity, did not forbear to glimpse their appearance before they wended their way to service on Sabbath morn. Proof positive of their use at this time is to-day in existence in the form of inventories that list the prices and tell odd, descriptive stories concerning them, as, for instance, a record of 1684 that speaks of "a large looking-glass and brasses valued at two pounds, five shillings."
The origin of the mirror is shrouded in mystery and the time of its invention uncertain, but there is no doubt that rude reflectors were made to serve the purpose in South Europe and Asia, at least three hundred years before the Christian Era. These were made of metal, varied in shape, and they were considered necessary toilet accessories. All were highly polished, and several showed handles elaborately wrought.
Small mirrors of polished iron or bronze were used by the early Chinese, who wore them as ornaments at their girdles, attached to a cord that held the handle or knob. Who knows but these may have been forerunners of the "vanity case" in use to-day !
Small circular placques of polished metal known as pocket and hand mirrors came into vogue between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries. These, too, were worn at the girdle, and placed in shallow boxes covered with a lid. The cases were of ivory, beautifully carved with representations of love, romance, and, less frequently, of the hunt.
Looking-glasses when first used were fastened to the wall like panels, but in the fifteenth century they became movable. These earlier mirrors show a great variety of shapes, and were made of different kinds of polished metal.
The Venetians undoubtedly made the first looking-glasses, having been the ones to discover the art of coating plates of glass with an amalgam of tin foil and mercury. For over a century they guarded their secret well, and it was not until 167o that the art became known in England through the keenness of an Englishman named Lambert.
Salem merchants sent their ships to Venetian ports, and an occasional mirror of this make is found here. One of these is owned in Salem. It is about a foot and a half in length, its frame of gilt surmounted by a cornice and gilt pineapple, with claw feet.
The introduction of glass mirrors gave rise to a new industry, — the making of mirror frames. In this occupation, cabinet-makers found a new vent for their skill, since by far the larger number of frames were made of wood. Of course, there were a few odd frames made, such as those of glass fitted together at the joints with gilt molding, but the majority were of wood. The different styles are characteristic of certain periods or designers, and it is upon the frame rather than upon the glass that one must rely for value, as well as for date of manufacture.
Previous to the Revolution, the colonists manufactured little furniture, and were dependent upon England, Holland, Spain, and France for their house furnishings, including mirrors. Many beautiful specimens thus found their way here, and many are still to be found in colonial homes. One such is owned in Salem. This is a Bilboa glass, an especially fine type, one of several still preserved in New England, principally in Marblehead. There is a popular legend that these old glasses were brought from the Bay of Biscay by sailors for sweethearts at home, though some authorities insist that they were imported from Italy and paid for with dried fish. However this may be, they are certainly excellent illustrations of the early crafts-men's skill.
The distinctive feature of the Bilboa glass is a column of salmon-colored marble on either side of the gilt frame. This marble is glued or cemented in small sections to the wood, and in some cases strips of marble form the border around the frame. It is ornamented on top by a broken arch surmounted by an urn. Grotesque and grinning heads top the columns, and a narrow bead molding surrounds the glass and decorates the lower part in scroll design.
The earliest type of looking-glasses came into vogue in the first half of the eighteenth century, during the reign of Queen Anne of England. The frames of simple wood gave little hint of the extravagant decorations that were to follow, the only ornamentation being gilded wooden figures and squat urns, which were occasionally used.
Owing to the extreme difficulty of making large pieces of glass, and also because it was not deemed prudent to waste the smaller pieces, many of the Queen Anne mirrors were made of two pieces of glass arranged so that one plate overlapped the other. Later, these parts were joined by strips of gilt molding. Several of these mirrors are still in existence, one of the earlier type being owned by Mrs. Walter L. Harris of Salem, showing a simple glass with gilt figure ornament.
One of the finest mirror designers was Chippendale, who wrought out Chinese patterns, his schemes showing a wonderful weaving of birds, flowers, animals, and even human beings. One design, typical of his work, shows a flat wooden frame cut in graceful arches, with a gilded eagle perched on top with outspread wings. Gilt rosettes and flowers, as well as ornaments strung on wire, were frequently used by him, and are considered characteristic of his type.
It was customary for the frames to rest on a pair of mirror knobs, which were fitted to the lower edge of the frame and screwed firmly to the wall. These knobs were often made of brass, but the most fashionable ones were of copper overlaid with Battersea enamel, and framed in rings of brass. Among the most quaint designs which were carried out on these mirror knobs were heads of prominent persons such as Washington, Lafayette, and Lord Nelson. Bright-colored flowers and landscapes, the American eagle, and the thirteen stars, representing the original colonies, were also frequently used, as were the queer designs of the funeral urn and weeping willow, that seemed to especially appeal to our ancestors' taste.
By the year 1780 American mirror manufacturers had evolved a style peculiarly their own, and the glasses made at that time were known as Constitution mirrors. The frames were not unusual in design, generally being made of wood, in more or less elaborate shapes, but they were original in their decoration, especially in their tops. These generally were graced by the American eagle, the newly chosen emblem of the Republic, executed either in plaster covered with gilt, or in wood. A good example of the Constitution type is shown in the Lord house at Newton. The top shows the usual eagle decoration, though the cornice is over-hanging, fixing the date of manufacture early in the nineteenth century. This mirror is especially historic, having belonged to the brilliant Revolutionary hero, Henry Knox, General Washington's most intimate friend.
Another handsome mirror of the same period is one that was originally in the Harrod mansion at Newburyport. It was one of the few things saved when the house was burned at the time of the great fire in 1812. This mirror now hangs in the home of a lineal descendant of the Harrod family in Salem. It is in perfect condition, and shows the eagle top and draped sides.
The overhanging cornice came into vogue early in the nineteenth century. A mirror characteristic of this date is shown in the living room at "High-field," the Byfield home of the Adams family, built by Abraham Adams in 1703. It has a gilt frame of the ordinary picture type, and on account of its association is most interesting.
A specimen of the same period is shown in the Lord house at Newton. This is decorated with the figure of a goddess sitting in a chariot drawn by two rams. The frame is of fine mahogany, with handsomely carved columns, simply ornamented.
Other types of mirrors popular in the days of our forefathers were the mantel mirrors that came into favor early in the eighteenth century, first in England and later in America. Their greatest period of popularity was from 176o until the commencement of the nineteenth century. Many of these glasses were oval in shape, though the majority consisted of three panels of glass separated only by narrow moldings of wood. This style was probably originated by some economical cabinetmaker who, in order to avoid the heavy expense which the purchase of large plates involved, designed these. They were most favorably received upon their introduction, and many of the old glasses to be found at the present day are of this style.
One of the most valuable of these three-piece mantel glasses is that in the drawing-room of the Pierce-Nichols house on Federal Street at Salem, the frame of which has attracted the attention of antiquarians all over the country.. It was made for a bride, who in 1783 came to be mistress of this old home, and it shows a finish of gold and white harmonizing admirably with the surrounding white woodwork, exquisitely carved by Samuel McIntyre, the noted wood-carver. Its principal features are slender, fluted columns twined with garlands, which fancy is repeated in the decorations of the capitals. Above the glass are two narrow panels, one of white ornamented with gilt, and the other of latticework over white. Just beneath the overhang of the cornice is a row of gilt balls, a form of decoration that came into style during the latter part of the eighteenth century, and which continued to characterize a certain class of mirrors for several decades.
Late in the nineteenth century mirrors known as bull's-eyes and girandoles came into vogue. These were circular in form, the glass usually convex, and they were made by Chippendale, the Adam Brothers, and others. The fact of their being con-vex rendered them impractical for common use, though it allowed for elaborate framing, and they were employed rather for ornament than for use. Looking up the old definition, we find these glasses alone have the right to be called mirrors, and that all else save "circular convex" should, properly speaking, be termed looking-glasses.
One good example of this type was in the George house at Rowley, Massachusetts, now demolished. It showed a heavy gilt frame, surmounted by an eagle.
Originally, there were shown in Hamilton Hall, at Salem, two fine examples of girandoles, with glass pendants, which in the midst of lighted candles reflected myriad sparkles. Interesting, indeed, would be the tales they could tell of fair ladies in powder and patches, and courtly gallants who in the long ago gathered in this famous hall to tread the measures of the minuet ! These girandoles were the gift of Mr. Cabot, and they are now replaced by simpler examples, the originals having been given to the Saltonstall family, in whose possession they still are.
Of the late colonial looking-glasses, there are two general types, the earlier dating back to about 1810 and characterized by an overhanging cornice, beneath which pendant balls or acorns are frequently found, with frames of wood carved and gilded, or painted. Further decoration is found in a panel beneath the cornice ornamented with various designs, such as a horn of plenty, floral subjects, or classical scenes.
In the later type, the cornice has disappeared, and the frame as a rule is more simply ornamented. The upper panel, however, has been retained, and almost invariably it shows a painting of some sort. Until within a comparatively few years, it was not a difficult matter to secure mirrors of this type, but the recent fad for collecting old furniture has caused many of the best specimens to be purchased, and, in consequence, really good colonial mirrors are rapidly becoming scarce, and one is a treasured possession.
The Kittredge house at North Andover, Massachusetts, shows several fine examples of this later type, and other examples are to be found in the Lord house at Newton, and in several Salem residences. These show a great variety of panels, ranging from pastoral scenes to horns of plenty, and from ships to simple baskets of flowers.
It is interesting to note, in connection with these old-time mirrors, the influence of the period reflected in the framing, and also how graphically the frame depicts the social life of its date of manufacture, and the country in which it was designed. There is a marked flamboyancy in the Venetian designs of the early eighteenth century, changed in the middle of the same century to a heavy splendor and inartistic grandeur. England, slightly earlier, gave examples of fruit which many think were designed by Gibbon, but which materially lack the freedom of his work.
Scrolls and angles, arabesques and medallions, belong to the second half of the eighteenth century. Many such came to New England, and one of these mirrors is still seen in a Salem home. Its decorations hint of the influence of the Renaissance, and it shows medallions decorated with grotesque figures on either side of the upper panel.
Perhaps as interesting as any of the old mirrors is the Lafayette mirror, one excellent example of which is seen in the Osgood house at Salem. This is small in size, surmounted with a painting of Lafayette, and is one of a great number designed in compliment to the beloved Frenchman's visit to Salem in 1784. It is known as the Courtney Mirror.
Many of the fine old specimens to be seen in Salem were brought to New England at the time of the old seaport town's commercial glory, about the period of the Revolution, and previous to the restrictions following the War of 1812. These were halcyon days in Salem, "before the great tide of East India trade had ebbed away, leaving Derby Street stranded, its great wharves given over to rats and the slow lap of the water among the dull green piles."
Probably there are few of these old-time mirrors but have been connected with interesting traditions and events, and it seems a pity that their histories have never been compiled, but have been allowed to pass unrecorded, leaving the imagination to conjure up scenes of joy and sorrow that have been reflected in their depths. Still, for all their unwritten stories each and every one possesses a glamor of mystery that makes the work of collecting them most fascinating. The personal note so prevalent in nearly all workmanship of past centuries is particularly noticeable in the looking-glass, and perhaps it is this very attribute more than anything else that lends so great a degree of charm and attractiveness to them.