Antique Mirrors: A Brief Social History of Mirrors

A mirror in the Wallace Collection, London, 2021.

Have you ever looked in the mirror and asked yourself, “Where did mirrors come from, anyway?” Perhaps not regularly, but it does turn out that mirrors have a fascinating history that extends back thousands of years, far beyond antique mirrors.

“Let us be grateful to the mirror for revealing to us our appearance only.” – Samuel Butler, poet, 1835-1902

Of course, the silvered-glass mirror as we know it today isn’t thousands of years old – it dates back to Germany about 200 years ago (more on this below). But antique mirrors have existed for much longer. According to a 2006 issue of the journal Optometry and Vision Science, it was about 8,000 years ago that the first mirrors were manufactured in what’s now Turkey. These antique mirrors were made of ground and polished obsidian, also called volcanic glass.

Given the extensive history of the mirror, let’s hone in a few key periods in the evolution of the fragile object, and explore how that evolution parallels with humans’ sense of self.

Antique Mirrors: Important Advances Throughout History

6000 BC

Experts believe the first mirrors used by humans were not objects, but pools of dark, still water. In order to reflect well, mirrors must have flat surfaces, and a surface roughness that’s smaller than the wavelength of the light reflecting in them. 

“The very first mirrors most probably were quiet pools of water and rock or clay containers of water,” claims vision scientist Dr. Jay Enoch. But by around 6,000 BC, the people of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) used polished stone, including obsidian, to manufacture mirrors. 

4000-1200 BC

Ancient copper mirrors were created by the people of Mesopotamia in 4000 BC, and later in ancient Egypt in 3000 BC. Archaeologists discovered polished stone mirrors from Central and South America dating back to 2,000 BC. 

During the Bronze Age (3300-1200 BC), more cultures around the world began crafting mirrors out of bronze, silver, copper, and other metals. One particular group, the Kerma people of Nubia, were particularly skilled at mirror manufacturing.

Bronze mirror manufacturing emerged in China around 2000 BC, and the Qijia culture can be credited with creating some of the earliest bronze and copper mirrors.

100 AD

Common metal mirrors remained the norm throughout Greco-Roman antiquity, and through the Middle Ages in Europe. But they often tarnished, required polishing, and bronze and stone mirrors particularly had low reflectivity. Such defects demanded a new mirror material: glass.

During the Roman Empire, silver mirrors were still widely used, even by maidservants. Glass mirrors were first mentioned in books during the first century AD, when Roman author Pliny the Elder included them in his encyclopedia, Natural History, but before they were commonly used. This literary mention paralleled the discovery of soda-lime glass and glass-blowing.

Roman Mirror with Handle, 100-200 AD.

Roman Mirror with Handle, 100-200 AD. Sold for £938 via TimeLine Auctions (February 2018).

Pliny the Elder claimed that artisans in Sidon (modern-day Lebanon) produced glass mirrors during this period, coating them with gold leaf or lead. Glass, after all, was much more reflective than previously used metals. However, this claim hasn’t been supported by archaeological evidence. Our findings can only confirm that glass mirrors were used as far back as the third century AD.

300 AD

Early antique mirrors made of glass were crafted by blowing a glass bubble, and cutting off a small circular section of about 10-20 cm in diameter to create a concave or convex surface, often coated with molten lead (often with imperfections that distorted the image!) But because glass mirrors were poorer in quality, small in size, and higher in cost, solid-metal mirrors like those made of steel remained most widely in use through the late 19th century.

European Middle Ages & Renaissance

Eventually, glass mirrors did become more widely used in the Middle Ages, thanks to advancements in glassmaking across France, Germany, and Italy (Venice). By the 11th century, Moorish Spain was also producing quality glass mirrors.

Fire-gilding developed at the start of the European Renaissance, resulting in an even and very reflective tin coating (tin amalgam) to be used for glass mirrors. The molten-lead method that predated this new technique had produced more thermal show to the glass. In the 16th century, Venice became the center of using fire-gilding for mirror production, and it remained the leader in this technique for another century.

Venetian mirrors soon became the optimal choice for royalty, who decorated their lavish palaces with them. The Countess de Fiesque reportedly traded a whole wheat farm for a Venetian mirror, and considered that a good bargain. But by the end of the 17th century, French workshops had discovered the secret to the Venetian technique, and started to mass produce them. Industrializing the process made mirrors more affordable to all.

The Industrial Revolution

During the late Industrial Revolution, the ribbon machine helped mirror makers produce glass panes in large quantities. In France, the Saint-Gobain factory became particularly important as a manufacturer of modern-day glass mirrors.

The silvered-glass mirror, the type of mirror commonly found across the world today, was invented by German chemist Justus von Liebig in 1835. His process involved applying a thin layer of metallic silver to one side of a clear glass pane. Liebig’s silvering process was adapted for mass manufacturing, and led to even wider availability of mirrors to all. 

How the Antique Mirror has contributed to our sense of self

Alongside the emergence of the mirror as an object and piece of art, its wide variety of materials over the centuries, and its more recent mass production techniques, we wonder how exactly the ancient mirror’s purpose evolved over time. Furthermore, we wonder how the mirror led to a transformation and discovery in terms of our own perception of ourselves. The answer to both lies in the region and culture in which mirrors were created.

As Katy Kelleher, author of The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, writes, “…no matter what they’re made of, mirrors are objects of mystery, obsession, and fear. They’re simple yet complex. They’ve been used for purposes both sacred and profane. We love them, yet we’re loath to admit it.”

Spanning worldwide literature and mythology, science, art, and culture, below are a few key meanings behind the mirror that may have led to a newfound perception of the self, self-loathing or self-loving, or to magical or religious beliefs.

  • Mirrors with an evolutionary purpose. Some scientists suggest that as humans, our attraction to mirrors lies in our evolutionary attraction to reflections. According to this theory, we are drawn toward reflective things due to their resemblance to water, which gives us life. According to a 2003 UC Davis study, infants, for example, are more likely to be attracted to shiny plates rather than dull ones.

    Reflection (What does your soul look like), Peter Doig.

    Reflection (What does your soul look like), Peter Doig. Sold for $10,162,500 via Christie’s (November 2009).

  • Mirrors used for religious meaning. It is believed by scientists that the obsidian mirrors dating back 8,000 years ago were most probably used as objects to predict the future in a religious sense, or understand the spirit world. Later, for the Olmec people in Mesoamerica, mirrors were used as religious items perhaps linked to the sun god, as they had the ability to bring life-giving flames.
  • Mirrors for admiring ourselves. According to his 2003 book Mirror, Mirror, author Mark Pendergrast writes that humans first discovered their own reflections after torrential seasonal rains in Africa, in pools of still water. However, we don’t really know how we first discovered our own reflections, and, subsequently, when we “fell in love” with looking at ourselves. And looking at ourselves, or admiring our own beauty, has historically been both good and bad.

    Back to Civvies, 1945, Norman Rockwell.

    Back to Civvies, 1945, Norman Rockwell. Sold for $1,696,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2006).

The famed Greek philosopher Socrates urged young people to look at themselves in mirrors. If they were beautiful, they would become worthy of that beauty. If they were ugly, they would learn how to hide their disgrace. On the contrary, the Greek story of Narcissus warns of the consequences of becoming too in love with oneself, detailing the events of the god who too often stared at his own reflection in water.

As Kelleher writes, “We’ve all felt fascinated by the image of our own selves, captured in silver or water or glass. The way we look matters, whether we want it to or not: It alters our job and mating prospects, contributes to our quality of life. We value different human bodies differently, and the ugly truth is that the ones that fit the prevailing culture’s definition of beautiful are evaluated at a higher worth. There’s both a power and a survival necessity in seeing yourself the way the world sees you.” That new purpose for mirrors that emerged ridded the mirror of its fascinating, magical, spiritual meanings and made it a bit more mundane (and ugly). 

But Kelleher later adds that looking in the mirror, especially for women, became a survival technique as more women got their hands on them. “In reality, a woman [looking] in the mirror is practicing. She’s seeing herself how men see her, how society sees her. She’s assessing her value and figuring out how to enhance her worth, her power.”

Mirage, Salvador Dalí.

Mirage, Salvador Dalí. Sold for £829,091 via Christie’s (February 2006).

  • Mirrors as magical objects. Some cultures around the world have their own beliefs around reflective surfaces. After all, they allow you to see something you normally wouldn’t – maybe they can predict the future, or maybe connect you with spirits or ghosts of the past. According to the Wiccan’s Dictionary of Prophecy and Omens, the ancient Greeks used mirrors to “catch the light of the moon, and, gazing into it, were able to see visions of the future.” Elsewhere, in Mesoamerica, mirrors made of iron ore, magnetite, or obsidian were used as both decoration and magical means. Ancient Mexicans wore stone mirrors both to start fire, and to exhibit status. The Mayans later buried mirrors with their elite dead, believing them to be mystical devices for predicting the future. In Taoism, mirrors help priests practice magic.
  • Mirrors for physical observation and spiritual protection. The ancient Chinese had a different use for mirrors. They enjoyed the light-enhancing properties of these objects, and crafted them with patterns and pictures of animals, plants, and symbols meaning “sunlight.” Mirrors were used as totemic objects, and also had magical or religious significance. Burying mirrors with the dead would, according to the Chinese, deter evil spirits and protect families from misfortune. Even today, mirrors are an important part of the Chinese practice of feng shui, having an effect on the energy of a room.
  • Bonus: Mirrors to reveal the terrifying. Mirrors haven’t always led us to become fascinated with or in love with ourselves. In the 1970s, an anthropologist introduced mirrors to the isolated Biami people in Papua New Guinea. The tribe reportedly were terrorized by their reflections, not fascinated.

The Meaning of Mirrors Today: Supporting and Subject of the Arts

Today, the meaning of mirrors, suggests Kelleher, is changing. For one, it’s an object that embraces and supports the art and power of makeup. YouTubers and Instagram influencers of today are using mirrors to apply makeup, not just to conceal their imperfections, but also to sustain them with a career.

Elsewhere, mirrors are being used as subjects in contemporary art to take on new, or spotlight old, meanings. Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos, for example, created a 17-foot-tall sculpture of a carnival mask from baroque-style mirrors. I’ll Be Your Mirror (2018) is confrontational, and is meant to remind viewers of “how little information a mirror actually provides.” Mirrors are juxtaposed with a mask to show that mirrors, like masks, “only reveal what the wearer wants to reveal.” 

That same year, ceramist Jen Dwyer created Rococo-style mirrors and combined them with antique symbols, pairings which the artist says are meant to represent patriarchy.

Antique Mirrors at Auction Today

Today, many types of antique mirrors remain in demand by collectors. One antique mirror of provenance that recently sold for a record price at auction in March 2021 is Karl Lagerfield’s Paris studio mirror. The antique gold mirror was made back in 1948 by French ironworker Gilbert Poillerat, and sold for $238,000 at a Bonham’s sale. 

More recently, a mirror made by the famous Parisian designer Line Vautrin surprisingly sold for €127,000 at a French TV auction in June 2021.

Looking to start or add to your collection of mirrors today? Explore the mirrors coming up for sale on Invaluable.