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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall...

Anyone who had watched Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" remembers the wicked Queen, obsessed with her beauty, uttered those words... "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" Of course, the mirror was magic and responded, so we know that mirrors were seen by some as a portal to a spirit world. Mirrors were sometimes involved in religious observances; however, their primary function was for humans to look at themselves. With a mirror like the one shown below on your wall, your fancy can take flight.

This mirror (pictured above) once hung at Montpelier, but not during the Madison's ownership. It is an antebellum piece (with a reproduction incorrect period bow). The Carson's owned Montpelier during that period, and lore is that this mirror was one of two that hung in the drawing room. It was the Carson's who brought Dolley's remains back to Montpelier and had the markers placed on James and Dolley's graves. This mirror was purchased by Helen Marie Taylor and has resided at the Museum since being purchased. It remains on loan from the Helen Marie Taylor Trust.

We humans have been interested in our reflections for a long, long time. It seems that human interest in, or perhaps obsession with, mirrors date as early as 6200 B.C. (in Turkey). Many of the earliest man-made mirrors were fashioned from obsidian, like the one shown below featured in Smithsonian Magazine (November 2020).

The Chinese used reflective jade as a mirror. Egyptians crafted mirrors of polished copper. Egyptian paintings and carvings show the upper classes combing their hair and applying thick red, green, yellow and black cosmetics in front of mirrors. Later, the Greeks and Romans developed small glass mirrors, and their ability to critique and primp became even more precise. Men began curling their hair and fretted about baldness. Romans would even use mirrors “to look at themselves having orgies,” says Mark Pendergrast, author of Mirror Mirror. With all this sex and primping, mirrors were associated from early on with vanity and self-obsession... (Clive Thompson, "Smithsonian Magazine.)

Mirrors during the Middle Ages were somewhat rough, crafted from blown glass, they were small and frequently convex. It was the Italians who developed the creation of the mercury-backed glass and tin (1507) resulting in a reflective surface resembling the Modern Era mirror. The process of creating mirrors in the 16th and 17th centuries was very expensive. Some aristocrats would sell land, usually poorly producing, to purchase a mirror.

The mirror shown to the right is a 17th century piece. Don't worry, it is resting atop of a box, not setting on the ground. It is a beautiful example of silk-on-silk needlework and Trapunto quilting. Known as the pictorially name of "stuffed quilting", Trapunto quilting was developed during the 13th century in Italy. The stuffing creates a raised or three-dimensional effect on the surface of the fabric being worked. This mirror is another artifact belonging to the Helen Marie Taylor Trust and is part of the Collection at Bloomsbury.

There a several interesting academic writings about the psychology of mirrors and the elevation of individual over community, however, I'm not delving into that today.

Until the late 19th century mirrors continued to be a costly luxury item. This may help you appreciate why it was appropriate and/or acceptable to gift a used mirror. In December 1830, this shaving stand (pictured to the left) was given by James and Dolley Madison as a wedding gift to their neighbors, Mary Scott Newman and James Butler Newman. The shaving stand was donated (4/16/1980) to the Museum by Mrs. Barbara Dinwiddie, the great-granddaughter of James and Mary Scott Newman.

We have another mirror to share, this one built into the medical cabinet of Dr. Lewis Holladay, for whom "Holladay House" is named. The cabinet stands just over five-feet tall, so, the mirror might be high enough for a gentleman to check his neck wear or his mustache and/or beard. This cabinet dates to the 1920's-30's and was donated to the Museum by members of the Holladay family in 2022.

As the 1890s ticked off to the 20th century, manufacturers were finaly able to make large mirrors cheaply and production erupted and mirrors became affordable, no longer a luxury item. It also kicked off the wildly successful compact mirror; usually with face powder and/or rouge (blusher). We have several compacts from the 1920's-40's, all donated by Ms. Louise Jordan in 1992.

Hope you enjoyed this abbreviated look at mirrors.


Smithsonian Magazine

Helen Marie Taylor Trust


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