Reflecting Life The Social Origin of Mirrors

When Robert Burns wrote these lines he was thinking of character, but had he lived in the early seventeenth century, some 200 years earlier, he would probably have been thinking of appearance. Living as we do in a society of the self and of self-image, it is hard for us to imagine a life in which we could never see ourselves as others see us. A life without mirrors (or photographs, which are another way of seeing oneself) would be for us a life of anxiety. And yet, in Elizabethan England, that was how people lived.

Until about 1660, only the wealthiest could see their own reflections, and then of their faces only. People never saw full-length reflections of themselves. The wealthy were dressed by servants, and their clothes were determined more by their social position than by their personal taste: appearance was a matter of status, not of personality. The society of the time was based upon communal standards, and our modern sense of the individual was only just beginning to emerge. One’s identity, who one really was, was determined more by one’s position in society, and less by individual characteristics or appearance. Such a society had little need of looking glasses. Checking one’s appearance before going out in public was the handmaiden’s job.

The Earliest Mirrors

The first people to use mirrors were the Romans and Egyptians, but the first European mirrors did not appear until the thirteenth century, and they were made by an ingenious process. The maker blew a large glass globe, and while it was still hot, injected it with molten lead or tin. He swirled it around to spin the molten metal onto the inside of the glass, let it cool, and then cut it into pieces to make convex mirrors.

In Tudor England, “glasses to look in” were known, but rare. A few glass mirrors were imported at great expense from Venice, where the use of tin-foil and mercury to produce a reflective surface on flat glass was developed around 1500. Glass making became so important to the economy of Venice that glass makers were confined to the island of Murano: the penalty for leaving was death.

In the sixteenth century, the only English-made mirrors were of polished steel, which were covered when not in use to prevent oxidization. They were so small that today we would class them as jewelry rather than furniture. One was described in 1598 as, “A most perfect looking-glass ornamented with gold, pearl, silver and velvet, so richly as to be estimated at five hundred ecus de soleil.” A mirror such as this would have been one of the most valuable objects in the household. In this period a “glass” could be made of either glass or steel. In 1588, for instance, the furnishings of Leicester House included “three greate glasses, one standing in a verie faire frame, with beares and ragged staves on the top, with a steele glasse in it, the other II of cristall.” Steel mirrors were small, less than twelve inches square, because steel that was thick enough to keep the surface flat and undistorted was very heavy. Glass mirrors were even smaller because the technique of producing flat glass was still in its earliest stages. Only the Venetians could produce clear, flat pieces of glass, and they charged large sums for these rare and desirable little plates.

English Mirrors

The English glass industry began during the reign of Elizabeth, but it was not until 1621 that it began to make looking glasses, and then only a few. In that year Sir Robert Maunsell petitioned the King for the right to make looking glasses, employing “strangers from foreign parts to instruct natives … in making … Looking Glasse plates and theyre foyling.” The strangers had presumably escaped from Murano, and we may be sure that their skills earned them far more in London than in Venice.

Sir Robert’s factory was moderately successful. In 1639, Lady Brianna Hartley badly wanted a good reflection of herself, and wrote to her son: “Dear Ned, if there be any good looking-glasses in Oxford, chuse me one aboute the bignesse of that I use to dress in, if you remember it. I put it to your choys, because I think you will chuse one that will make a true ansure to onse face.” We must remind ourselves not to give a modern meaning to Lady Brianna’s glass to “dress in:” she used it to dress her hair, not to robe her body. Similarly, the dressing table, on which stood a newly fashionable dressing mirror, was also used for hairdressing. Her desire for “a true answer to one’s face” became more easily achievable with the larger mirrors made later in the century. In 1684, for example, the diarist Anthony Wood tells us that Lady Clayton bought a “verie large looking-glasse” in which she could see “her ugly face and body to the middle.”

Framing One’s Face

However valuable the earliest looking glasses may have been, they were small, so their importance risked being over-looked. To avoid this, they were typically given large, elaborate and expensive frames, indeed, the frame is usually many times larger than the mirror. Today, at least if we don’t know our history, a six-inch square of cloudy glass can seem somewhat boring, and our attention goes to the elaborate and beautiful frame. But the frame is so big and so beautiful only because the boring little glass was actually so special and so significant.

Some of the finest seventeenth-century artistry surrounded mirrors. Skilled and detailed needlework that often took a year or more of a girl’s life was one way of showing the importance of the glass. Marquetry, intricate and colorful patterns veneered onto the frame, was another. Fretted, or otherwise decorated, crests extended the mirror upwards. Then, toward the end of the century, looking glasses became almost commonplace, and their frames became more subdued, often of figured walnut veneer: still beautiful, but no longer spectacular.

Society and Technology

Lady Clayton’s ability to see her “body to the middle” resulted not just from advancing glass technology, but also from a sea change in English society. In 1660 the monarchy was restored after Cromwell’s brief rule. Before then, as we have noted, mirrors were small and rare: after it both their size and their popularity increased rapidly and dramatically. 1660 also saw the establishment of the Vauxhall glass works, which really kick-started the English glass-making industry. In 1664 the Worshipful Company of Glass Sellers and Looking-glass Makers was formed and the importation of mirror glass was banned. By 1675 the Worshipful Company had as many as 85 members. The industry was booming.

There are many reasons for this. One, certainly, was technological: in a new process the glass-blower produced a straight-sided cylinder that was cut along its length and then unrolled to form a flat sheet about 12 or 14 inches wide and as long as 30 or even 36 inches. The size of plates produced by this method increased steadily. In 1700, according to an advertisement: “Large Looking-glasse plates, the like never made in England before, both for size and goodnesse, are now made at the old Glass House at Foxhall, Where all persons may be furnished with rough plates from the smallest sizes to those of six foot in length, and proportionable breadth, at reasonable rates.”

For the first time in history, people could see a full-length image of themselves. But technology only develops in response to social desire, and for the underlying cause of the boom in mirror making, we need to look at the social conditions of the time. When Charles II returned from exile on the continent, he brought with him continental tastes and fashions. London became the center of “high society”, and the social life of the wealthy revolved around balls, banquets, soirées and all sorts of fashionable gatherings. Costume and manners became elaborate and often foppish. Individuals vied to impress each other with their dress, their hairstyle and their demeanor. In such a society, looking-glasses became a necessity. You simply can’t dress to impress without a mirror.

The booming economy meant that wealth spread further through the social order. More people could afford a fashionable lifestyle, so more people demanded mirrors. They also demanded portraits of themselves. Having one’s portrait painted was as fashionable as, and comparable to, seeing oneself in a looking-glass. Peter Lely, Geoffrey Kneller, Mary Beale and many other portraitists made good livings for themselves in Restoration London. They, and the equally prosperous looking glass makers, were responding to the same social demand, and were producing equivalent products: self-images.

This new society was the beginning of the modern period. It had shaken off all the traces of medieval life that still lingered in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. No longer was the social order so tightly organized by status and rank: in the new society, the modern sense of the individual had taken root and was flourishing. A society in which looking-glasses and portraits were popular was a society of the individual.

After the turn of the eighteenth century, the mirror became a normal and well-established part of every household, just as it is today. This has made it all too easy to take mirrors for granted, and to forget that originally they were small, rich and rare. Only the wealthiest of our forebears could be granted Burns’ wish, “to see ourselves as others see us.”

Acknowledgements: The authors wish to thank the following for the use of their images:

John Andrews; Kentshire Galleries, 37 East 12th St, New York, NY 10003, (212) 673-6644 , www.kentshire.com;

Clinton Howell Antiques, 150 East 72nd St, New York, NY 10021, (212) 517-5879 , www.clintonhowell.com;

George Subkoff Antiques, 260 Post Road East, Westport, CT 06880, (203) 227-3515 , www.subkoffantiques.com;

Suffolk House Antiques, High Street, Yoxford, Suffolk IP17 3EP, UK, 44(0)1728 668122 , www.suffolk-house-antiques.co.uk.

The King’s House, 65 The Close, Salisbury SP1 2EN, UK, Tel: 01722 332151, www.salisburymuseum.org.uk

Written By: John Fiske and Lisa Freeman
Source: New England Antiques Journal