Humans have been searching for a way to get a good look at themselves for as long as civilization has existed. Anatolian peoples—inhabitants of modern-day Turkey—used ground and polished obsidian to check themselves out as early as 6,000 BC. Ancient Egyptians used polished copper, while bronze and other stones were used on other continents. But the glass mirrors, with their impeccably clear image, didn’t emerge until the early modern period, which is also when their making became an art.
Innovations in Mirror-Making Techniques
In the early days of Christianity, mirrors were banned to avoid the temptation of vanity. They didn’t exist much in the West during the period we call the Dark Ages, but experienced a reemergence with the development of new glass blowing techniques in the 14th century. By the 16th century, mirror-makers in Venice had perfected the art of the “tin mirror”—constructed by backing a glass plate with an amalgam of tin and mercury. But this was a rather unhealthy endeavor for those close to the process.
In 1835, the German chemist Justus von Liebig published an article on a new process for coating glass with metallic silver. This freed mirror-makers of the need to use mercury, and greatly reduced the occupational hazards of the craft. Modern mirrors still use similar chemical processes, but often substitute aluminum for silver.
Mirror Styles Through the Years
Early Gothic mirrors typically sported a rectangular base and pointed top, giving them a distinct churchly feel. Designers tended to use dark woods like oak for the frames, which were intricately carved. The Baroque period in the 17th century gave mirrors an oval shape and the added flair of gold and silver gilding on the frames. The Rococo movement used similar decorations but often with a rectangular glass. Woods used in these periods were oak, walnut, and mahogany.
The 18th century saw an explosion in different mirror styles. British Regency mirrors had slim oval shapes and gilded frames carved with elaborate flower patterns. Mirror makers in the Georgian tradition often designed a rectangular glass and used light woods or white paint and light gilding for the frame; they emphasized symmetry and frames would be accented with delicate and often-viney geometrics. Victorian mirrors were made from dark woods but were sometimes painted white; their ornate frames were a throwback to the Gothic period.
In the early 20th century, Art Nouveau gave a wry, almost-mocking, twist to older styles of mirror making. Frames would be elaborately carved with floral designs and sometimes womanly forms, but with an air that was slightly off-kilter and almost over the top. The age also saw a move away from wooden frames, which were replaced with pewter, black lacquer, and stained glass.
Art Deco mirrors are notable for their symmetry, wide-ranging geometries, and often the lack of a frame. This is the style that really broke, not only the rules, but the whole rulebook when it came to mirror making. From the 1920s on, a mirror no longer had to be confined to variations on the convention rectangles and ovals; it could be any shape and style its designer wanted it to be.