An Early “Looking Glass”

American craftsmen used classical designs



Thank you for sending me an image of your Federal period looking-glass or mirror. It is a nice example from the early 1800s. For centuries, mirrors have long been items of fascination. From the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus utilizing still water to see his reflection to modern technology utilizing mirrors in lasers and telescopes, the science of reflection continues to grow today.

Glass plate mirrors, as we know them today, gained popularity in the Renaissance period in Italy. Italy was known for experimenting with and manufacturing glass. These silvered reflective pieces of glass became quite the rage as not only were they used to reflect and magnify a light source, but also were used to view oneself — hence the term looking-glass. As with many advances of science, mirrors were copied and improved upon. Soon production spread throughout Europe and eventually to North America.

In the 19th century, the mystique of mirrors also made them a popular source of trade during times of exploration in South America and the westward expansion of the American frontier. At that time, inexpensive reflective glass mirrors were even traded for gold!

Your mirror celebrates the Federal period (circa 1789-1823) of furniture making in the United States. Having recently gained independence from England, American craftsman still looked to European classical design sources for inspiration in their work; however, they gave the pieces their own less-conforming design attributes and used more readily available wood choices such as American cherry and maple.

This Federal mirror is grandly decorated in contrasting burnished gold leaf. Its archetypal stepped molded cornice with hanging spherules surmounts an eglomise panel (term for reverse painting on glass) depicting American ships at sea. Concave columns with twisted rope molding flank the frame.

Its overall design relates to similar mirrors made in the Boston area circa 1810-1820.

Antique mirrors come in myriad array of different shapes and styles. They are wonderful to have in the home for both form and function, and have terrific character with their old glass and reflective qualities. We regularly have vintage and antique mirrors on display in our shop, ranging from as little as $25 to more than $10,000.

Your mirror appears to be in an excellent state of preservation, retaining its original mirror plate, backboards and gilding. I would estimate its value in today’s market at $900.

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