Of Mirrors and Looking Glasses

Though it may seem incomprehensible to most of us today, until the mid-nineteenth century, only a small percentage of people ever saw the reflection of their entire body in a looking glass. That was due to the fact that looking glasses, what we more commonly call mirrors today, were very expensive. Only the very wealthy could afford a looking glass large enough to see their entire reflection. Most people had to settle with a small glass, just large enough to see their face, while some people never owned any kind of a mirror at all. By the middle of the nineteenth century, new techniques were developed which significantly reduced the cost of making mirrors, thus making it possible for more people to have mirrors, including large ones.

A brief look at the development of looking glasses . . .

Humans are one of the few species of creatures on our planet who are able to recognize themselves in a mirror or other reflective surface. The only other creatures who have demonstrated that they can recognize themselves specifically in their reflections are the higher primates, elephants, orcas, dolphins and European magpies. All other animals see either a rival or a playmate when they look into a mirror. They are unable to recognize themselves specifically, they see only another member of their species. Humans have been fascinated with mirrors, or more specifically, their reflections, since prehistoric times. They were considered so important that a number of early cultures included some kind of mirror or reflective surface as part of the grave goods buried with their dead. For nearly as long as they have existed, mirrors were regularly associated with a host of magical powers, used for either good or ill. But from at least the time of the ancient Greeks, mirrors have also served a number of scientific purposes, as they did during the Regency, and still do, even today.

The very first looking glasses were probably just still, dark pools of water. At some point, early humans may have filled simple vessels with water for use as mirrors. Once they had discovered the value of being able to see themselves, principally their faces, people sought out other reflective surfaces which were more convenient to handle than bowls of water. What are believed to be mirrors, made of polished obsidian, a volcanic glass, have been found in archaeological sites in Turkey. These very early mirrors date to at least 6000 B. C. Polished copper mirrors dating to about 4000 B. C. have been found in Mesopotamia, while similar copper mirrors dating from about 3000 B. C. have been found in sites in Egypt. Polished stone mirrors have been found in the Americas, and polished bronze mirrors from China, all date to around 2000 B. C. Over the centuries, other cultures made mirrors from polished stone and various metal alloys. With the discovery of glass in the first B. C., the Ancient Egyptians made mirrors of glass backed with silver, while the Ancient Romans backed sheets of glass with hot lead to create their mirrors. However, glass was so fragile and delicate that for several centuries, most mirrors were made of polished metal. Mirrors made of metal actually provided a sharper reflection and they were much more durable.

Early glass was filled with impurities, so much so that most glass was milky rather than transparent. Much early glass was colored to obscure the defects which were inherent in the material. By the late Middle Ages, the glass makers on the Venetian island of Murano had perfected a formula by which they could produce a completely clear, colorless glass which was compared with the crystalline quality of rock crystal. Initially, to make mirrors, a large bubble of glass was blown, then spinned until it was flattened into a sheet from which pieces could be cut. By the early sixteenth century, the Murano glass makers developed a method to blow an elongated bubble then cut off the ends to form a cylinder. The cylinder was cut open and laid out on a metal plate to create "plate glass." There were many advantages to plate glass, since it had a smoother surface as well as fewer distortions and other flaws. Regardless of the type of glass used, these Venetian mirrors were backed with a metal mixture of gold, bronze and tin. In the sixteenth century, most glass mirrors were fairly small and very expensive. In fact, the cost of one of the best Venetian glass mirrors was said to be about the same as the cost of a substantial naval ship. Only the very wealthy could afford a mirror made of Venetian glass and most of those precious mirrors were carried in ornate cases, made of gold or silver, often studded with gemstones.

By the turn of the seventeenth century, the Murano glass makers had developed methods to produce larger sheets of plate glass. But, as they had done for centuries, any of the workers who attempted to share those secrets were usually killed. However, the French king, Louis XIV, wanted the technology of plate glass and mirror making for France and he was determined to get it. By the middle of the seventeenth century, Louis XIV had agents who were working very hard to acquire the secrets of Venetian glass-making. By the 1660, three senior Murano glass-makers had been heavily bribed to come to France to share their knowledge, on the condition that they were spirited out of Italy to a place of safety in their new country. It was not long before large plate glass mirrors were being made in France, and one of the very first uses of these new mirrors was the Galerie des Glaces, the great hall of mirrors, in the Palace of Versailles. Probably because the French did not murder any of their glass-makers who chose to take their skills elsewhere, by the end of the seventeenth century, other countries in Europe, including Britain, had acquired the knowledge necessary to make both plate glass and large mirrors.

From the early eighteenth century, plate glass mirrors were made in Britain. The process was very labor-intensive, so even though such mirrors no longer had to be imported from France or Italy, they were still quite expensive. Rough, unpolished plates of glass were purchased by mirror-makers. Each plate of glass was fixed horizontally to a table large enough to accommodate it, another plate of glass of a similar or smaller size was fixed in a frame and suspended above it. The lower plate of glass was sprinkled with water and fine sand. Then the two plates were pressed together and moved back and forth in all directions until both plates had become perfectly flat and smooth. They were separated and finer sand and more water was added for yet another round of burnishing. When that was complete, another round of burnishing was done with powdered emery in place of the sand. Each sheet of glass was then flipped and the same burnishing process was applied to the other side of each plate. The next step was to embed each plate of glass in plaster of Paris,which held it firmly for the final, finishing polish. A large polishing block, covered with a length of coarse blanket was charged with very fine emery powder and worked over the surface. The final step was to finish the surface with tripoli buffing compound or rottenstone. When one side of the glass plate was fully polished, it was removed from the plaster of Paris, flipped over re-embedded and the other side was given the same treatment.

Once both sides of a glass plate were fully polished, the next step was to "silver" or "foil" it on one side. This was a very delicate process which also required several steps. A large table was covered with a thin sheet of blotting paper, which was sprinkled all over with finely powdered chalk. A sheet of hammered tin foil was laid over the chalk-covered paper. Liquid mercury was then poured onto the tin foil and was carefully spread over the entire surface of the foil, often by use of a hare’s foot. If there was to be any delay in pressing the plate of glass into the liquid mercury, a sheet of paper would be placed over it to protect it from any dust. This protective paper would then have been pulled away just as the glass sheet was placed on the liquid mercury. The plate of glass was gently lowered onto the mercury-coated tin. The mirror-maker carefully placed a large, heavy weight on the plate glass to force out any excess mercury. Once the excess mercury had drained away, the glass, mercury and hammered tin foil sandwich was then covered in a thick sheet of paper to exclude all dust. The newly-made mirror sandwich, wrapped in paper, would be moved to a place where it was left to dry completely. Unlike the mirrors of today, which are typically silvered with a thin coat of real silver or aluminum, the mercury and tin foil backing gave eighteenth and early nineteenth century mirrors a somewhat darker and slightly watery appearance than mirrors which were made after the middle of the nineteenth century.

Once a plate of glass had been polished and silvered, it was ready to have the edges beveled and/or framed to become a mirror or looking glass. Even before the turn of the eighteenth century, it was understood that mirrors could be used to increase the light of candles. Many wealthy people installed mirrors in their most commonly used rooms as a means by which to increase the available light during the hours of darkness. By the middle of the eighteenth century, mirrors were also being used for decorative effect. Mirrors were installed over the mantles and on the piers between windows of grand rooms. The placement of these large mirrors had the effect of visually increasing the size of the room, as well as the added advantage of increasing the light provided by the candles used in those rooms during the evening. Because these large mirrors were so expensive, they were also an elegant statement of the wealth of the owner of the home in which they were hung. In addition to their light-reflecting and room-expanding properties, mirrors were also for personal grooming. Before the mid-eighteenth centuries, dressing tables were often made with an attached mirror or dressing glass, and by the turn of the nineteenth century, a new and larger form of personal grooming mirror, the cheval glass, was introduced. All of these mirrors were still so expensive during the Regency that only the most affluent could afford them.

The costly pocket mirrors set in gold and silver gem-studded cases of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were rare and valuable antiques by the Regency. But by the early nineteenth century, small pocket and wall mirrors were being made which were affordable for those with limited budgets. Certainly many Regency ladies of fashion had a small pocket mirror that they could carry in their pocket or reticule for use in checking their appearance while they were out and about. However, if those pocket mirrors had cases, they were typically simple wood cases which were intended to protect the mirror from scratches. Many of these small mirrors were made from the fragments of mirrored glass left over from the production of much larger mirrors. And these mirror fragments were also used to make relatively inexpensive pocket or small wall mirrors, which could be found in a number of the lower-class homes. In many cases, such folks might be able to afford only one small wall mirror, which had to be shared among all the members of the family. Most these mirrors were so small that they could only provide the reflection of the user’s face and so it was that many poor folk never saw the reflection of their entire body. The very poor could afford no mirror at all, which may explain why so many of them appeared untidy and unkempt. They had no idea how they looked, since they had never seen themselves.

The two most commonly used names for these objects during the Regency must be considered. The word mirror has its origins in the early French term mireor, which means a reflective surface, and was in use in England from at least the twelfth century. The name looking glass originated in England in the fourteenth century and remained in common usage through the end of the nineteenth century. Thought it is considered an archaic and historical term today, it was a commonly used term during the Regency. But there are shades of meaning between these two names. A looking glass was always a mirror, but a mirror was not always a looking glass. Pocket and hand mirrors, dressing glasses and cheval glasses were all objects which were used for personal grooming and thus, something into which the user looked for a purpose. Therefore, they would all have been considered looking glasses. Mirrors used to reflect and amplify candle light or to visually increase or magnify the size of a room were not intended for personal grooming and thus were not considered to be looking glasses. They were just mirrors.

There has been a correlation between mirrors and magic, or superstition, since prehistoric times. Witches, in particular, have long been thought to employ mirrors in a wide array of spells and hexes. It was believed that witches could see either the past or the future when gazing into a mirror, and could use the information they acquired in their enchantments. Witches could also use mirrors to summon spirits from other realms, which they could force to do their will. A classic example of that is the wicked queen in the Snow White fairy tale, who forced the spirit of the mirror to give her the location of the young princess, who had taken refuge with the dwarves. Curiously, though witches were thought to employ mirrors for any number of spells and hexes, the reflective properties of witch balls were used to deflect the witch, and/or anything she might conjure, when one was hung in the window of a home.

Mirrors have also been the basis for a number of superstitions over the centuries. Some of those still obtained during the early nineteenth century. When someone died, all of the mirrors in the house were to be covered, or turned to the wall, until after the funeral. This was done both to ensure the deceased made their way directly to the next world, and to protect the living, by eliminating any confusion which might cause the spirit of the deceased to linger in the home. Should that spirit become trapped in a mirror, it could remain in the home indefinitely, haunting the residents. Related to this was the belief that it was bad luck to received a mirror as a gift from a home in which someone had recently died. Should a mirror fall from the wall, it was believed to predict the imminent death of one of the people living in that home. Not all superstitions regarding mirrors were related to death. There was, and still is, the superstition that breaking a mirror will result in seven years bad luck. However, if all the pieces of the broken mirror were carefully collected and buried together, any bad luck would be averted. If a person looked into a mirror at midnight, either while eating an apple or brushing their hair, they were supposed to see the reflection of their future spouse in the glass behind them. Also associated with romance, it was believed that if a newly married couple looked into a mirror together on their wedding day, they would be assured of a happy marriage.

By the eighteenth century, mirrors had been put to a number of scientific and industrial uses. Burning mirrors were specially made for use in concentrating the sun’s rays to produce heat. They were often used for chemical experiments and tests by which substances were incinerated inside sealed glass vessels. Mirrors were beginning to be used to send signals over long distances. This use was more fully developed during the early years of the nineteenth century, resulting in the proto-type of the heliograph in 1821. The first known use of a mirror in a telescope was in 1721, when John Hadley, the English mathematician and inventor, developed a technique to make precision parabolic mirrors for reflecting telescopes. Reflecting telescopes could provide much more detailed viewing of the skies than did much larger refracting telescopes. Large mirrors were also used to significantly amplify the power of the lights placed in lighthouses to guide mariners at sea. Mirrors have sometimes been used as a tool in protecting secret messages, whereby an added layer of security was provided by writing the coded message in such a way that it could only be read correctly when reflected in a mirror.

Dear Regency Authors, now that you know something about the mirrors and looking glasses of the Regency period, might you use one to reflect some special aspect of your story? Perhaps an ignorant country girl has been sent to the manor house with a delivery and catches sight of herself in a full-length mirror for the first time. She is startled, maybe even frightened, but luckily, the heroine is on hand to calm the girl’s fears, thus garnering the hero’s attention and respect for this kind woman. Might a jealous young woman, furious that the man she wanted has just married another woman, try to prevent the couple from looking at themselves together in a mirror after their wedding, in the hope they will not have a happy marriage? Will that attempt backfire on her? Mayhap the heroine is the daughter of a mirror-maker. Has he become ill, because of the mercury to which he is daily exposed? What might the hero do to aid this young woman and her father? Mayhap the hero will have to borrow, or purloin, the pocket looking glass of the heroine, since he needs it to decipher a secret message that has just reached him. How will he explain that? Are there other ways in which a mirror or looking glass might provide some reflection in a Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to Of Mirrors and Looking Glasses

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    I’ve used covering the mirrors [and stopping all the clocks] in a Jane, Bow Street Consultant book, where the excess of hysterical grief is something of a clue. And I’ve also had a maid servant steal downstairs to see herself in one of the family’s mirrors, to see how well the fairing she has been given suits her, which led to the poor, silly girl being murdered. If gifted with a mirror from a dead person, the bad luck can be averted by giving a silver coin in return, much like giving a penny in return for a knife so it does not cut a friendship. I can see a side plotlet in which a will is read, and a mirror is left to someone with the malicious intent that they derive bad luck from it, and that written into the will “And you cannot give me a silver penny for if you are hearing this, I am dead”. Perhaps some unfortunate paid companion is the recipient, and the heroine suggests placing a silver coin in the coffin as the dead person can scarcely refute it.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The idea of the servant girl sneaking a peek at herself in a large mirror makes a lot of sense. I suspect many people at that time, who had not grown up around large mirrors, were probably fascinated or even awed by them. Too bad her curiosity led to her demise.

      I had not heard about the silver coin/mirror swap. That is a good one. I do like the idea of putting the silver penny in the coffin. I wonder, if the penny was given to the church in the name of the deceased, might that also avert the bad luck? Unless the deceased is so evil that people believe they will not respect such a gesture.

      Since coin clipping was a big problem, right through the Regency, would the gift of a clipped coin “clip” any luck it might have bestowed?



      • Sarah Waldock says:

        Goodness, I have no idea! but then, I’m not inclined to believe in things like that anyway, and if it allays the fears of the superstitious legatee, I think that would be enough …
        I know you can tell a genuinely old mirror by the red colouring of the cinnabar colouring up the back of it. A lot of later mirrors seem to be painted red on the back to imitate it!

  2. Sarah Waldock says:

    And I have just been able to use this in a story, when the heroine is impressed by the hero’s mirrors

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