R.R. has a wonderful dressing mirror she inherited from her great grandmother, who says it belonged to her great-grandmother.
That would put it about 1830, and the curly glass at the edges point to a date around that time.
At the beginning of the 19th century, glass factories began to experiment with decorative designs such as flowers made of glass, and English glazers began to see, coming from Italy, those wonderful glass flowers wired into lighting, such as on Murano chandeliers, and around mirrors.
Because this was an English mirror, it would have been set upon a lowboy, the term for a dressing table, low enough to have a tabletop under which a chair could be drawn. The boy refers to the fact it was used by men! (And by women, of course.)
R.R.’s is an English mirror, with the flavor of the Italian style. In fact, Italian mirrors had for years been at the top of the market, and installed in the best ballrooms, not the least of which was at the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
The well-to-do in the 19th century purchased mirrors with curly figured glass edging, florets, and etchings to refract the light. They were small, because the technique of rolling out a large piece of glass to be silvered for a mirror had not been “discovered” yet. .R.R.’s mirror was hand-rolled from molten glass. (That’s why you see the ripples in the glass.)
Furthermore, the back was hand silvered and on such period mirrors, you will see the silver tarnishing and flaking.
Many people love the look of old mirrors; in the town where I grew up, the wealthy lady’s house had a rumpus room with “antiqued” mirrored squares as the entire wall covering in the 1970s.
These dressing mirrors were placed on a dedicated dressing table in a dressing room or bedroom. (If it was in the bedroom, the dressing mirror and table were called the “boudoir”.)
It was the center of the dressing ritual. Ladies and gentlemen did not dress themselves. They had lady’s maids, manservants, hairdressers, wig dressers, seamstresses and beauticians to apply cosmetics. The association with the head beautician, who was in charge of both men’s and women’s powder application, gave the name to the dressing table in France: poudreuse.
Madame Pompadour believed that her dressing ritual was intolerably long and took to writing letters during the ordeal. Other more sociable nobility took the ritual as an opportunity to gossip. As far back as in the Court of Louis XIV, only the absolute best people were invited to watch the king or queen dress.
The dressing room and dressing mirror was the center of a flurry of flirting, asking for favors, passing out compliments.
The mirror reflected changes in the idea of beauty as well, because if you needed a mirror, you needed to do something to accentuate your beauty in front of it.
Thus, the mirror emphasizes the growing popularity of applied beauty, and this was not the natural look. Cosmetic makers and perfumers developed popular cosmetics beginning in the 18th century.
Other cultures had cosmetic users from the Egyptian era. (Egyptian women applied cosmetics housed in a wooden box with tiny compartments called a “commode”).
But the dedicated vanity mirror was an invention of the Romans, who carried a polished piece of bronze in their clothing.
Which brings me to the term “vanity” mirror. “Vanus” in Latin does not mean vain as we know it, but lethargic. Not until the word “vanity” began to be used as a reflection of one’s self-image, did we name the mirror used as a dressing tool the “vanity” mirror.
By the 18th century, all aristocratic manor homes had dressing mirrors for men and women, set upon dressing tables. The mirror was portable, but it had a place upon the table, and dressing tables and mirrors were not thought of as “feminine.” Not until fashion changed in the early 19th century to the more natural look for men, (who lost their wigs, powder, beauty marks, and cosmetics), did the vanity mirror become associated with the feminine idea of glamor. We see the eventual apex of the vanity mirror as “reflecting” glamor in the Hollywood Starlets of the 1920s and later.
R.R.’s 1830 mirror is not “hot” in the market because few of us sit at a vanity to dress. The value is $300, but should be more!
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.