When Walls, Ceilings and Even Floors Got Mirrors

Though many people assume that the idea of putting a mirror on the walls and/or ceiling of a room originated in the twentieth century, they would by off by more than two centuries. The French, who had first invented plate glass, had begun using large mirrors to decorate their chambers long before the eighteenth century came to an end. Regency authors who like to include some rather naughty scenes in their stories of romance might like to know that they can write of a room with a mirrored ceiling or walls, if it will enhance the scene, and be quite historically accurate.

A brief history of mirrored rooms . . .

Glass has been known and made by humans for more than 3,000 years, originating in Mesopotamia. However, those pieces tended to be translucent rather than transparent. In addition, they were fairly small, three-dimensional, and were typically blown to shape. By the later decades of the seventeenth century, British glass-makers had learned from the French how to make Crown glass, which was fairly transparent and could be used for glazing windows. The glass-maker blew the gather of molten glass he had collected on the end of his blowpipe into a large bubble. Then, by carefully spinning the blowpipe, he caused the bubble to collapse into a flat disk. When cool, this flat disk could be cut into small squares and other shapes to glaze nearly any type of window. Of course, there were some imperfections in the glass and it could only be cut into relative small panes which each had to be framed to hold them in place.

An improvement was blown sheet glass, by which molten glass was blown into a long tube shape. Before the glass could cool, the ends of the tube were cut off and the remaining cylinder of glass was sliced open with a large pair of shears and flattened on a large iron place. Though this technique made it possible to create sheets of glass which were larger than Crown glass and nearly square, the quality of the finished glass was not much better. The glass had many imperfections and flaws, such as tiny bubbles and strain lines from the blowing process. Most blown sheet glass was also translucent rather than fully transparent. As with Crown glass, blown plate glass was usually cut into smaller shapes which were framed by lead or wood in a larger window frame. Due to the flaws and lack of transparency, blown plate glass was not used in the making of mirrors.

Then, in 1688, two Frenchmen, Louis Lucas de Nehou and Abraham Thevart, developed a process by which they could cast large sheets of flat glass. The process became known as polished plate glass. Essentially, molten glass was poured onto an iron tray-like table and was quickly rolled flat by large iron rollers. The glass was deliberately rolled a little thicker than desired, since, once it had cooled, each side would be finished by grinding and polishing. The resulting sheet of glass was completely transparent and had very few flaws or imperfections. Of course, all of the grinding and polishing was done by hand, making this an intensely labor-intensive process. Therefore, the finished sheets of polished plate glass were extremely expensive. Nevertheless, "French plate" glass became known as the finest glass in the world for nearly a century. It was imported into Britain from the end of the seventeenth century, though such imports were heavily taxed so that they were only available to the most affluent.

By the early 1770s, the English had finally learned this special glass-making process. A small amount of polished plate glass was produced at a manufactory located in the town of Ravenhead, in Lancastershire, near the estuary of the River Mersey. This glass was as expensive as that made in France, but since it was made within the country, it was not subject to any import duties. It was not until 1800, with the development of a steam-powered engine which could grind and polish the glass, that polished plate glass could be made more quickly and could be sold at a slightly more reasonable price. Both French and English polished plate glass could be used to make very large, nearly flawless mirrors. Plate glass mirrors were considered to be the very best mirrors available.

One of the first uses of large mirrors in interior decor was in the second half of the seventeenth century, by King Louis XIV. At his enormous Palace of Versailles, the principal feature of the grand and imposing Hall of Mirrors, begun in 1678, was seventeen arcaded windows, each of which was paired with a mirrored arch opposite, running the length of the long gallery. This elegant and sophisticated room was so unique and remarkable that it was the talk of all of Europe for many years after it was completed. The use of so much glass, mirrored or not, was prohibitively expensive for anyone but someone as wealthy as the French king in the last decades of the seventeenth century.

Once Louis XIV had set the style, other monarchs, such as Christian V, King of Denmark, began to commission their own mirrored rooms. Christian V commissioned a Mirror Cabinet which was located just off his bedchamber, in Rosenborg Castle. Though it did not rival the grand Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, this exquisite private room not only mirrors on the walls and the ceiling, it also had a large oval mirror set into the center of the floor. Christian V shared his Mirror Cabinet with his son, who became Frederick IV. Prince Frederick’s bedchamber was on the floor below and he could climb a spiral stair case in order to reach the Mirror Cabinet from the lower level.

Some years later, the French Dauphin is known to have had a private chamber in which the walls and the ceiling were completely covered with plate glass mirrors, framed in ebony. This was certainly one of the most costly demonstrations of conspicuous consumption at the French court in the later seventeenth century. It is possible that this may have been the first instance of a mirrored ceiling in France, but there is not enough information available about the room to determine the exact date on which it was installed, or in which palace or mansion owned by the Dauphin. Therefore, it is not possible to ascertain whether or not it pre-dated the Mirror Cabinet of the Danish king, Christian V.

Though it took more than a hundred years after the construction of the Hall of Mirrors, in the years before the French Revolution, walls and/or ceilings covered with plate glass mirrors occassionally began to appear in some private homes in France, most often in Paris. In 1788, Antoine Caillot, the French author and bookseller, was invited to the Parisian home of the renowned dancer and courtesan, Mlle. Dervieux. According to Caillot, the decor of the lady’s boudoir was the most lavish and sumptuous he had ever seen. The ceiling, the walls, and even the floor of the chamber, were all completely covered with plate glass mirrors. He noted that there were a number of large, colorful cushions strewn about the room, for use in what he called "amorous combats." Caillot also reported that several other "nymphs of the theatre" had boudoirs which were similarly furnished.

Curiously, if such decor was associated with courtesans in England, it would have been considered completely unacceptable for any respectable lady. But it seems that in Paris, a number of French ladies of the aristocracy and the gentry were eager to install large mirrors in their own boudoirs, particularly on the ceilings of those rooms, once they learned of the practice. It is not clear how widely this new fashion had a chance to spread across France, since the following year, 1789, saw the outbreak of the French Revolution. Nevertheless, as more and more French aristocrats fled to Britain, at least a few of them would have brought the details of this rather risquê boudoir decor concept with them to their new home.

After 1800, when steam-powered glass polishing machines were introduced at Ravenhead, polished plate glass could be made in Britain at somewhat more reasonable prices. This innovation also helped to slightly reduce the cost of large plate glass mirrors. Therefore, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that at least a few rooms in Britain had a mirrored ceiling and/or mirrored walls by the time the Prince of Wales became Regent. Or that at least a few people installed such mirrors in a room during our favorite decade.

Though the industrialization of the polished plate glass process helped to reduce the cost, plate glass and the mirrors made from it were not inexpensive in the early nineteenth century. Therefore, only those with a significant amount of money would have been able to commission mirrored rooms. It would have also been rather costly to install these large mirrors, particularly on the ceiling. Plate glass mirrors were very heavy, so they would have had to have been firmly secured to a wooden framework, which would, in turn, be secured to the wall or ceiling. Once in place, it was also common to surround the mirror with a wooden frame, often carved or painted, which would further secure it in place. If such steps were not taken, there was always the risk that the mirror might come crashing down, possibly even on someone who was in the room at the time.

Dear Regency Authors, might a mirrored room, or just a mirrored ceiling, help to reflect the romance in one of your upcoming stories? Perhaps one of your characters is keeping a high-class courtesan, and she has a mirrored ceiling in her bedchamber. Will he decide to install one in a room in his own house? Or, might some characters in your story rent, or buy, a house which had previously been occupied by some French émigrés. Will they be shocked to discover a mirrored room in the house, or could it be that some of them will enjoy it? Mayhap the hero has married a very shy woman. Might he have a mirrored room installed for their private use, in order to help bring her out of her shell? Are there other ways in which a mirrored room, or a room with a mirrored ceiling might add something special to 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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6 Responses to When Walls, Ceilings and Even Floors Got Mirrors

  1. one tends to think of the Salon des glaces as being something unusual, so this is very interesting. I’d researched glass manufacture for windows but of course the implication to mirrors should follow … I have used a Venetian mirror, full length, as a gift worth a king’s ransom as a very sneaky manoeuvre on the part of my baddies in ‘Bess and the Paying Scholars’, fourth in the Royal Draxiers series, set in 1604, which I am about to release. I am thinking of a heroine who invests in a mirrored room when spending out the last of her money to set herself up as a modiste, so her clients can see themselves from all angles. Indeed I might put it into Felicity’s Fashions, a yet-to-be written story in the Charity School series, wherein Felicity is outfitting the mistress of a gentleman, who is tiring of his mistress’s demands, and who finds that he can also ask Felicity to help to bring out his younger sister by helping her to feel good about herself.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The Salon des Glaces, the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, was nearly unique, for more than a century after its completion, in the late 1670s. Only other wealthy royals could afford anything which approximated that grand gallery for more than a hundred years. Even the wealthy French did not begin to put mirrors on their walls and ceilings until the 1780s.

      A full-length mirror would certainly have been an extremely expensive, and rare, gift in 1604. The Venetians were very jealous of their hold on the technology of glass-making at that time. The island of Murano, where the glass-makers lived and worked, was essentially a prison. And the Venetian government sent what amounted to hit squads after anyone who escaped. If they could not be brought back, they were usually killed. No wonder the Venetians had such a lock on glass-making for so long!

      There may be problems with the plot bunny of a mirrored room anywhere but the home of someone who was very wealthy and rather unconventional. Not only was that much glass prohibitively expensive, since the concept of mirrored rooms had originated in France, they were considered quite improper. In order to attract a steady clientele, business people had to maintain an extremely proper and conservative image at all times. So it is highly unlikely any of them would spend an exorbitant amount of money on something which would seriously damage their public image.

      There is also the additional, insurmountable problem that someone working in trade, like your character, Felicity, could not bring out a debutante. Those young ladies had to be sponsored by an older woman who had an impeccable reputation, as well as great standing and experience within society, in order to ensure the younger woman’s acceptance into what was essentially a closed community. Coming out was an extension of the young lady’s education, the period during which she would learn how to dress, converse, behave and generally interact with other members of her social rank. I am sorry if that throws a spanner in the works for that story.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Looks like the mirrors are out …unless she can get a single large good quality mirror which is being sold in auction from a room of mirrors when the house and furniture is being sold up from under a bankrupt …. [and maybe the room of mirrors was the last financial straw ….]

        Oops my bad, that was careless English on my part; I was not meaning ‘Bringing Out’ but ‘bringing out of herself’ as in dressing her to look her best, chatting to her, and helping her to feel more confident under the chaperonage of whichever matron was launching her on society.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Well, if she could get a nice size dressing glass, also known as a cheval glass, that could do the trick. That is the type of full-length mirror which was set into a wooden frame, and that frame was then suspended between two pillars in a stand which allowed the mirror to be tilted to give the person looking in to it the best view. And, it would have no improper connotations.

          The cheval glass was introduced in the late eighteenth century, so by the Regency, there could easily have been at least a few older ones that could be had at a reasonable price through an auction, or from a used furniture dealer. Since many of them were made of mahogany, a very strong wood, they would still be in pretty good shape and, even if they were banged up a little, they could be easily re-finished to make them look nice in the fitting room of a dress-maker’s shop. At that time, even if some of the silvering was going on the mirror itself, there were people knew how to re-silver the mirror, as long as the glass itself was intact. Maybe a better option for your story?

          Ah, I apologize for the misunderstanding! I thought it was odd, as I was sure you knew the rules for introducing a debutante.

          Yes, I can see how a good dress-maker could do a lot to help a young woman become more confident. She could help the girl select the colors and styles in which she looked her best, perhaps over the objections of the young lady’s old-fashioned chaperone? Of course, if Felicity enjoys the support of the girl’s elder brother, that would go a long way to ensuring that her suggestions would not be brushed off.

          Regards,

          Kat

  2. gordon759 says:

    Perhaps a mirror could be the subject of an accident such as that which befell the remarkable inventor John Joseph Merlin.
    In the 1770’s he appeared at a reception in Carlisle House on his latest invention – roller skates.

    “One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skaites contrived to run on wheels. Supplied with these and a violin, he mixed in the motley group of one of Mrs Cowley’s masquerades at Carlisle House; when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction, he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely”

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