Country Antiques: : Looking Glasses

Although early Colonial American craftsmen busily copied, adapted, duplicated and imitated many European products, it was not until the late 1700s that Americans began producing a glass good enough that, when silvered, resulted in an acceptable reflection. Until then, looking glass had been imported, and woodworkers made the frames from domestic woods.

So precious were good mirrors that some early looking glasses were made with protective frames. They were constructed with a pivoting cover, or with side rails that held sliding wood covers to protect the fragile product. In the event of “seven years’ bad luck,” broken pieces (“fractures”) were not discarded. If the fragments were large enough, improvised frames would be made to conform to the shapes of the pieces, and a new mirror was born. As moisture robbed old glass of its silvering, a thick tin amalgam was added to the back of the mirror. That backing, too, invariably darkened and spotted with age.

Since large pieces of glass were not produced, long mirrors were often fashioned from two pieces butted together.

As tastes became more sophisticated, the rustic country mirror frame took on citified manners. The styles of Chippendale, Queen Anne and William & Mary were dressed up with applied molding, scrolling, fretwork and veneered surfaces. One popular, Dutch-style looking glass during the 1700s featured an angular glass piece in an arched frame attached to the top of the main mirror. Inserts of this kind were frequently painted in a flower motif. Called “courting mirrors,” they were often given to young ladies by their suitors.