E.P. has a little pressed brass beveled glass mirror that she inherited from her grandmother. The repoussÄ design of the courting couple depicted gives away its date as the female is in a hoop skirt and the male is in knickers and Dutch clogs. Think of all those Hollywood costume dramas of the 1930s and you’ll know the style.
These little decorative wall mirrors were part of a dressing set that included a matching repoussÄ comb and handheld mirror. RepoussÄ is a technique of pounding the back of a pliable metal so that a relief tableau is raised; it was a popular art form from Germany and Holland. Beveled mirrors were not common as the large glass surfaces had to be hand ground and were pricey.
The “looking glass” is an amazing invention. It reflects light, which, by the wavelength recreated, is reflected back. The mirror preserves the detailed look of the original light’s reflection. Other surfaces also reflect, but not as perfectly as a modern-day mirror. E.P.’s is a silvered glass mirror, typical of its age, as it was the most common form of mirror manufacture and is coated on the back of the glass with a silver on copper film encased in the necessary waterproof coating to keep away tarnish, acid and moisture.
The earliest mirrors were of polished stone. Cultures used polished copper, dating back 8,000 years. The most gorgeous antique mirrors were made by the early Chinese (some date to 2,000 BC yet were produced until the 18th century as hand mirrors for the wealthy). These are quite tiny, reflecting only a part of the face at a glance. This is because to get a large polished flat bronze surface is almost impossible. When I look at myself in that mirror, I don’t see colors well; I see myself as a cloudy shadow, which is not a bad thing these days.
The earliest mirrors were made of a blown bubble of glass; a small circle was then cut out of one side of the big bubble. Yes, the sides will have some curve and some distortion, but the larger the bubble, the clearer the little “cut” might be. You can imagine how hard this was to achieve, therefore these little mirrors, dating before the 16th century, were no bigger than 7 inches diameter. These glass circlets were coated, in Roman times, with pounded gold leaf for only the wealthy.
The mid-19th century marks a development in the technique used to coat the back of the glass called electroplating. A pre-19th century mirror will be very small and the glass will be wavy; through the glass, you will see streaks of silver that will show tarnish and flaking. I have an 18th century French mirror that must have cost a nobleman a fortune, because it is comprised of two 6-inch-long panels of silvered glass that are joined together in one frame.
These old mirrors required bright light to see your reflection. If the room were candlelit, only the flame would truly be reflected. This fact enabled the great palace Hall of Mirrors of the 17th century to flourish in Europe, as it was discovered that a candlelit sconce when backed by a mirror would create more light. If you have seen the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, remember such a hall was worth a king’s ransom, literally. We take that for granted when we see a whole skyscraper covered in a mirrored surface today.
E.P., the history of your grandmother’s mirror includes the complex history of optics. We are inheritors of mirrors through time, as modern TVs, telescopes, surgical and scientific instruments, and digital cameras all use multiple tiny mirrors. Your mirror reflected your grandmother, and now it reflects you. This has a history throughout art. Yet the mirror itself is essentially deceiving. Think of a fun hall of curved mirrors, or try to gaze into an antique mirror. We are spoiled every morning when we look into our vast mirrors. Never before has a civilization been so aware of (yet so deceived by) our own face.
The value? About $75.