American mirrors

 

American mirrors are also a part of American antique history. Save for a hand glass valued at two shillings, the American of the early seventeenth century had little opportunity of viewing himself "in a glass darkly" or otherwise. The Venetian monopoly on the manufacture of glass backed with mercury as a medium of reflection was not broken until 1673 when the first English-made looking-glass plates were cast at Lambeth, across the Thames from London.

Three years later John Evelyn wrote in his Diary regarding a visit there: "We also saw the Duke of Buckingham's Glass-worke, where they made huge vases of metal as clear, ponderous and thick as crystal; also looking glasses far larger and better than any that come from Venice."

Of plate glass, bevelled and highly polished, these were of necessity cast in pieces of limited size. A large wall mirror of this period was probably less than two feet square. They were set in wooden frames with a slight cresting at the top. Marquetry was often used as an embellishment.

The woods were ebony, olive mooed, walnut, pine, and walnut veneered on pine. They were a far cry from the large pier and over mantel glasses of a century later, but a great improvement over the small Jacobean glasses with heavy frame.

They met with favours in England and in America. The colonists had prospered and many of them had built houses similar to those left behind in the mother country. Instead of crude wooden shutters and oiled paper, they had sent back for the diamond-shaped leaded-glass panes for their windows. Now they demanded these "larger and better looking glasses." They were far from cheap. During the last two decades of the century, inventories of the estates of well-to-do colonists in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia valued such mirrors at from two to five pounds. This was the equivalent of eighty to two hundred dollars today.

With the exception of a few crude examples, some of them homemade, there is little indication that mirrors were made here to any extent before the second half of the eighteenth century. Even then, though the silvering process might be done here, and probably was, the glass itself was imported. Although American glasshouses were early on the scene, they made neither the plate glass nor the thin clear mirror glass of a later day. After the Revolution much French glass was imported; and when in 1812 the unpopular Embargo Laws interfered, John Doggett of Roxbury, Massachusetts, gallantly stepped into the breach for his section of the country and quick silvered native window glass. A good look at a windowpane of that period with its undulations and sand pits will tell even the most optimistic what kind of mirror resulted. Yet they enjoyed an enormous sale. Was it patriotism, lack of vanity, or plain necessity?

But back to the seventeenth century colonist and his "large looking glasses" just over in the frail boats of less than two hundred tons burden. These same boats had, from the beginning, brought artisans and craftsmen of all sorts. Many of the cabinetmakers were versatile men, able and willing to do anything for their patrons from taking down and setting up beds, making and repairing furniture, to fashioning the coffins, for their last journey. One is not surprised to find among them men who knew how to resilver mirrors, copper wheel-cut a design with diamond dust, or make and carve a frame.

"Looking Glasses of all sorts," read an advertisement in the Boston News Letter, April 25, 1715, "old glasses new silvered. Done and sold by William Rundle at the sign of the Cabinet, a looking Glass Shop in Queen Street."

Mirror styles had changed. The glass was still cast in one piece of limited size, but instead of the slightly rectangular picture-frame effect of previous years, long frames with two glasses, one above the other, were in vogue. They were often elaborately carved as to frame with a double cyma curve at the top. The upper glass was usually decorated with an engraved design, inaccurately termed "diamond cut." Such a mirror was a superior and coveted wall decoration. In addition to importing them it became the fashion to remodel the old ones. Craftsmen, like James Foddy of New York, advertised their willingness "to alter and amend old looking glasses."

As time went on there were undoubtedly men in America capable of making just as fine mirrors, from silvering and cutting the glass to carving and gilding the frames, as any imported from England or the Continent. But the general public, then as now, considered an expert "someone from out of town." Consequently, those who could afford to, still looked across the ocean for the “newest and neatest fashion” in mirrors. As late as 1767 the following wail of protest appeared in the Boston News Letter as part of an advertisement: "Said Whiting does more at present towards manufacturing Looking Glasses than anyone in the Province, or perhaps on the Continent, and would be glad of Encouragement enough to think it worth while to live."

In cheery contrast is Edward Weyman of Charleston, South Carolina, who quite possibly had a more receptive lot of patrons.
He had hung up his sign there in 1755 as an upholsterer but had soon added to his trade that of looking-glass maker. Nine years later he moved to a new place of business and put up a new sign, Looking Glass Shop, stating blithely that he had brought the art "of grinding, polishing, diamond cutting, silvering and framing of looking glasses to as great perfection as in Europe."

Enterprising John Elliott wasted no time bemoaning public indifference or boasting of his own skill. The English part of his bilingual label reads:

John Elliott
At his Looking-glass Store, the Sign
of the Bell and Looking-glass in
Walnut Street in Philadelphia, im-
ports and sells all Sorts of English
Looking-glasses at the Lowest Rate.
He also new Quick-silvers and
Frames old Glasses and supplies
People with new Glasses to their own frames.

In reading his advertisements, one is struck with the rapid development of mirror making during the eighty years that had elapsed since Evelyn's visit to Lambeth. "Just imported-London," he stated in one advertisement, "a very large, neat, and genteel assortment of looking glasses," and then proceeded to list a quantity of sconce, pier, and over mantel mirrors, illustrating the whole with a dressing glass.

Not only had the size of glass increased, but the quality had improved sufficiently to enable a man to look therein without experiencing a profound sense of inferiority. The frame was influenced by the prevailing furniture styles and, like the furniture, was along simpler lines in America than in England. The Chippendale period produced the most elaborate forms, of course, both here and abroad. Out of the many varieties, two remained in favour to nearly the end of the eighteenth century. One was the oblong glass surrounded by a mahogany frame with fretted scroll top and bottom. Sometimes a gilded ornament was added, a favourite being the eagle. Mirrors of this type were made in various sizes and were available to those of moderate means.

For such establishments as the town and country houses of Governor John Penn of Pennsylvania a large oval or rectangular glass with a gilt frame carved in the most intricate and fantastic designs was much in favour. But the average eighteenth century American could not afford such elaborate pieces of household furnishings and did not want them. The Chippendale looking glass with simple mahogany frame was much more to his liking. Many a family today points with pride to a moderate-sized mirror of this type as "the looking glass our great-great-grandmother carried in her arms all the way from Connecticut" to northern New York, the Genesee Valley, or Ohio, as the case might be. It is not only a commendable example of the intrepid spirit of the pioneer American woman, but indicates how highly the article was prized.

It was not of necessity the only looking glass in a household. There were those of varying sizes known as courting mirrors. This term has drifted in meaning owing to a particular kind that came into this country about 1800 by way of the China, trade. Originally, any small and not too expensive mirror was considered a suitable present for a young man to give the object of his fancy. Hence the name, courting glass. The earliest types consisted of a small piece of glass with wooden frame, sometimes of plain pine. They date from the late seventeenth century and were probably locally produced. Some may have been homemade. During the last decade of the eighteenth century American ships began sailing to China. Among the items brought back by young swains who had gone to seek their fortunes were small squarish mirrors with frame of teak or other wood, inlaid with coloured or painted glass strips.

Curiously enough they had a crested top not unlike the wall mirror of the late seventeenth century. They were enclosed in a neat wooden box essentially Chinese in character and just shallow enough to hold the mirror snugly in place. Of course, they made pleasing and acceptable presents. The smaller ones were carried about by young women to social functions; the larger type were better suited for hanging on the wall.

Between 1790 and 1830 mirrors reached a high point of quality as to glass and of artistic achievement as to frame. And although the finest of them were still far from cheap, they were steadily becoming less of a luxury. Advertisements of men who specialized in the making and selling of looking glasses of all sorts were numerous in the large centres and could be found in small towns and cities as well.

With wall and other decorative mirrors, gilt frames were in the majority. Those in the true Hepplewhite style had the grace and delicacy associated with the name, chastely simple, but with elaborate floral ornamentation at top and bottom. This was done with wire and composition. For the top a Grecian urn flanked with flowers and foliage was often used. This reflected the classic influence as interpreted by the Brothers Adam, late eighteenth century London estate realtors and architects. Occasionally one finds a mirror of mahogany and gilt with fretted scrollwork top and bottom in the Chippendale manner, but decorated with the delicate urn finial and floral effect characteristic of Hepplewhite. It is known as a "transition" piece. That is, the craftsman who made it was still working in the earlier style but adding a few touches of the "new."

Such pieces, in either furniture or mirrors, reflect the tempo of living that existed when our antiques were new. With slow transportation and communication, changes in styles were matters of years, not days, and there was a corresponding lag in rural sections. For instance, mirrors accessible to the average collector range in point of time from about 1720 to 1830 and embrace the style periods in vogue then: Queen Anne, Chippendale, Adam, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and American Empire. Yet, except for a labelled or dated piece, the age of a mirror can be determined only approximately by its style.

Mirrors were made in the Queen Anne style as late as 1765; Chippendale designs continued in favour down to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Meanwhile Adam and Hepplewhite styles had made their appearance shortly after the American Revolution. These chaste classical designs found special favour with the newly formed republic and lingered in mirrors long after other furniture forms had taken on the succeeding styles of Sheraton and the American Empire. As a result of these overlapping fashions during the years when mirrors were produced in fair quantity, the collector has no lack of designs to choose from.
Very popular, both when they were new and as collectibles now, were the mirrors in the Sheraton manner with classic side columns, corniced top, and decorated upper panel. These are sometimes referred to as "Tabernacle" mirrors, probably because of the architectural treatment of their top. Also the pendent balls decorating the latter have been called "Nelson's cannonballs" in England; in America they are supposed to represent the Thirteen Original Colonies, in spite of the fact that mirrors are found with as many as eighteen pendent balls decorating the cornice. As with many other things, it is doubtful if the original makers of these mirrors had any of these ideas in mind.

The decorated upper panel, however, often reflected current events. For instance, there are the painted panels depicting naval battle scenes, such as the engagement between the ships United States and Macedonian, the historic encounter between the Constitution and the Guerriere, and Perry's victory on Lake Erie. Mirror panels so decorated were made during or shortly after the 1812 involvement of the United States in the Napoleonic world upheaval.

In addition to war scenes, and those of peaceful intent, the upper panel was sometimes decorated in bas-relief. Here the designs varied from classic figures to fruit and cornucopias. Decorative panels with a medallion bust of Washington, of course, reflect the year of his death and may date anywhere between 1799 and 1810.

Mirrors of the American Empire period had the painted upper panel with subject and treatment prophetic of the coming Currier & Ives prints, but the classic influence was no longer present in the frame. Instead, turned columns and rosettes on projecting square blocks at the corners proclaimed the massive quality of this style, which was soon to degenerate into obesity in the larger furniture forms. The frames of the Empire mirrors were made of mahogany, of gilt, and of gilt with black trimming. An interesting example of fine craftsmanship plus tardy style change was found not long ago in Hartford, Connecticut. It bore the label of Spencer and Gilman of that city and was dated January, 1825. Now in a private collection, its mahogany frame shows the transition from strictly Sheraton design to American Empire. There is a cornice and frieze at the top reminiscent of the Brothers Adam ; turned pilasters and square blocks reflect the Empire; and the use of brass bosses below the pilasters is typically Sheraton. Mirror glass takes the place of the usual decorated panel and is separated from the main glass by a strip of mahogany delicately reeded in the Sheraton manner. The skill with which elements from three style periods were combined to create a pleasing whole shows true artistic ability. It also shows that fine workmanship was by no means confined to the large centres.

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