One of the most multi-functional decorative objects to collect and own, mirrors serve multiple purposes beyond just the utilitarian function of evaluating one’s personal appearance. Whether you need to create more space in a room, add light to a dark environment, or simply seek to elevate an atmosphere with an air of sophistication, a well placed antique mirror could make the perfect addition to nearly any interior. While mirrors are thought of as a commonplace object in our lives, they have a surprisingly rich history, including fascinating evolutions in the manufacturing process over time, making antique mirrors sought after artifacts on the auction market to this day.
The Surprisingly Rich History of Mirrors
Before the invention of mirrors, historians believe that people used reflections in pools of water to evaluate appearance. As far as back as 6,000 BC in Anatolia (modern day Turkey), humans were thought to have created some of the first mirror-like objects by polishing stones to create a flat, reflective surface, most likely out of volcanic obsidian. Other ancient civilizations used polished metals to produce the same effect. Some metal-backed glass mirrors, much like the ones we use now, were first produced around the first to third century AD in ancient Rome.
Over time, the proliferation of mirrors coincided with technical developments. With the invention of glass blowing, mirrors also became increasingly popular, though initially reserved for the wealthy. One of the most distinctive early styles was the Venetian Renaissance mirror, created by coating one side of glass with tin and mercury. It wasn’t until the invention of silver-backed glass mirrors and subsequent mass production capabilities that the objects started to become a staple in middle class households.
How to Identify an Antique Mirror
Antique mirrors are commonly made of glass coated by silver, gold, or chrome. Outside of the use of tin and mercury in Venetian antique mirrors, which causes a mirrors to develop a crystalline appearance as it ages, there are other telltale signs of a mirror’s age. Modern manufacturing of glass has largely eliminated bubbles and other impurities from being captured in panes, so seeing bubbles often indicates the mirror you are looking at is an antique. Other imperfections like inconsistent glass thickness or waviness could also indicate that the mirror is old, though it isn’t always a guarantee the piece is an antique. If there are no imperfections, however, it’s more likely that the mirror is a modern recreation, even if it otherwise looks like an antique mirror.
Because antique mirrors are generally backed by a very thin sheet of reflective metal, like silver or gold, you can expect to notice some level of oxidization over time. Due to the accumulation of moisture seeping between the glass and the sheet of metal, oxidation will most likely be visible towards the bottom of the mirror. Any micro scratches or abrasions will also result in some amount of oxidization. Oxidization typically resembles dark blotches on the mirror, and is very rarely uniform. In some modern reproductions of antique mirrors, oxidization is applied to add to an authentic appearance.
Caring for Antique Mirrors
If you do choose to purchase an antique mirror, it is important to embrace imperfection. Though some grease smudges, fingerprints, and dust can and should be cleaned off, antique mirrors are often very prone to damage during cleaning. When dusting your mirror, do your best to be gentle, taking care not to abrasively rub the frame as this may cause chipping. Additionally, clean the glass of the mirror, but take care with the back, as this may wear off or scratch important metal coating. If a light cleaning of the glass and a little bit of dusting just won’t do, there are certainly ways to restore an antique mirror while maintaining its’ integrity and charm. Sometimes, the frame, especially if it is wood, requires a bit of refinishing. If the mirror is extremely blotchy, it’s possible to strip the silvering on the back of the glass and resilver it, though this can be a very delicate procedure and is probably best left to a professional.
Different Types of Antique Mirrors
There are many different kinds of antique mirrors on the market. Among the most common are antique handheld mirrors. The first metal-backed mirrors created in Lebanon and Rome were handheld and often only a few inches in diameter. As humans learned to make larger panes of glass, the size of handheld mirrors increased as well. Standing mirrors, where you can see your whole body, did not become common until the 1700s due to glass manufacturing restraints. These full-length mirrors were initially free-standing.
Some of most popular standing full-length mirrors are Parisian cheval mirrors. Cheval mirrors are distinguished by their four feet, hence the name “cheval” which means “horse” in French. They’re typically held up by two posts on either side of the mirror and often feature a swivel. True to the Rococo style, these framed mirrors are generally round and decorated using natural patterns. Ranging from intricate and ornate to minimalist and organic, their frames can be made from both wood and metal. Antique cheval mirrors usually start at a few thousand dollars.
- Baroque style mirrors can be identified by their gold or silver gilding. The carvings are usually ornate, often featuring feathers, flowers, angels, and fruits.
- Georgian mirrors, alternatively, feature little to no ornamental decoration, aside from perhaps the top of the frame. Even so, Georgian decorations are primarily geometric and aim to produce symmetry.
- Gothic mirrors are typically even more intricate than Baroque style antique mirrors, though they generally do not feature any gilding. Instead, they use dark wood, often coming to a point at the top of the mirror.
- Neoclassical mirrors are mostly rectangular and are often gilded, but instead of intricate carvings and iconography, they often reflect column-style architecture.
- Regency mirrors also feature some gilding and often use natural mahogany, but use significantly thinner frames than other styles. They also often feature columns as well as flowers and natural iconography.
Antique mirrors come in all shapes and sizes, and can be a great piece to add to any home. There are countless styles to compliment any kind of interior, and the right mirror can also serves as a statement piece. Not only do they add a sense of style to a room, but antique mirrors also carry with them the rich history of glassmaking and architectural style throughout the ages. Despite—or perhaps even because of—their imperfections, antique mirrors are beautiful and unique items and can be incredibly rewarding to collect and own.
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