Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
The idea of personal mirrors as tools for self-monitoring presupposes that a great deal of people have access to them. At least in the developed world, this is an empirical truth because mirrors are visibly commonplace. But how did this come to be?
Reflective surfaces made of polished obsidian are the oldest "mirrors" in the archaeological record, dating back as far as 4000 BCE. The first evidence of mirrors as grooming tools dates to the 5th century BCE, in illustrations of elegant Greeks gazing at hand mirrors (these illustrations are found on antique pottery). These mirrors, made from a polished metal disk attached to a handle, did not contain any glass. The first real glass mirrors in the record are from the 3rd century AD, consisting of extremely small (a few square inches) concave or convex metal surfaces with glass coatings. The size and style of these early mirrors leads many archaelogists to believe that they were used as jewelry or amulets rather than for personal grooming (Melchoir-Bonnet 12).
This image is of an ancient Roman lead casting for a mirror, which would have had a glass coating over the convex surface. It dates to the 2nd-3rd centuries AD.
This is an example of a polished metal reflective surface made of bronze. This piece never had any glass component.
There were several critical issues that posed a challenge to glass mirror production throughout the ages. The most important obstacles were in creating untinted and uncolored glass, making large panes that were uniformly thin and flat, and finding a way to apply molten metal to the glass without inducing thermal cracks and breakage. Techniques of plane glassblowing and silvering were so elusive that successful methods were not reliably developed until around the 12th century AD. Different metal alloys and glassblowing techniques were common throughout different periods, but in the 13th - 15th centuries a surge of technical development yielded a clearly superior process, rooted in Venice, Italy. By the mid 1200s, there were accounts of the thriving glass making community in Venice, and this place was the epicenter of mirror making for several hundred years (Melchoir-Bonnet 19).
The Venetian industry exported its mirrors to royalty and private bourgeois clients across Europe in the late 1500's and 1600's, for equivalent prices in the range of several hundred to several thousand British pounds. Venetian mirrors were often worth more than fine art from high-renaissance painters like Raphael, which speaks to the valuable luxury of these items during this time (Melchoir-Bonnet 30). Although the Venetian industry sought to keep their techniques somewhat of a trade secret, competition from abroad eventually led to the rise in technical capacity of glassblowers from a range of cities and cultural centers throughout Europe. The high cost of mirrors, however, would keep them accessible only to the wealthiest bourgeois clients for some time to come.
There are many reasons for the bourgeois use of mirrors in European history. One interesting explanation, at least in France, was that the spread of the mirror in that region was contingent on Louis XIV's 1689 decree that all private silver be confiscated to melt into coins to pay for military campaigns. As the rich had to let go of their fine jewelry and interior decorations made of the precious metal, mirrors became a replacement. Furniture, wall hangings, and other decorations became venues for mirrors as upper classes sought new ways to differentiate their homes and living spaces (Melchoir-Bonnet 71). Part of the allure of mirrors was that they provided additional lighting, as well as a perceived extension of space, both of which corresponded to a general artistic focus on light and optics during the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. The domestic mirror thus became popularized by the bourgeois classes, which cultivated the trend toward common domestic usage as the technology became more affordable.
One of the most notable causes of more widespread mirror production was the difficulty of shipping them (due to fragility). Instead of consolidated mirror production in a small number of sites, it was safer and more quantitatively productive to spread mirror fabrication across a more diverse geography. Mirrors as personal grooming devices were simultaneously endorsed by the bourgeoisie in publications on household decor and social etiquette, which eventually reached the hands of the middle and lower classes as they aspired to more wealth and the privileged lifestyle that comes with it (Melchoir-Bonnet 96). Thus an increase in production and distribution capacity, coupled with the trend-setting social influence on the part of the bourgeoisie, made mirrors more accessible and desirable for the middle class.
The popularization of the mirror is therefore, in part, a direct result of class-based hierarchies of social imagery. The following section of this project will discuss the concept of social psychology and its implications for the creation of image hierarchies, namely the ways that images are a source of power and identity formation in social exchanges.
Back to the mirror project page.