Mirrors are another thing that we take for granted today. They are everywhere – not just in our bathrooms and bedrooms, but as decoration in buildings, in lifts and in other places, as well as in our homes. We use them to make rooms seem bigger, or in small chips to add glitter and brightness to all sorts of things.
In the Regency era, it was rather different. Mirrors were another thing that
was mostly limited to the very wealthy.
Early mirrors were made of polished metal, or sometimes obsidian or stone, (going back many centuries) but even that required having enough wealth to afford one.
Glass mirrors with metallic backings were experimented with for many centuries, but no reliable and effective process was developed until around 1835, when a German chemist developed the process to lay down a very thin layer of silver on one side of a glass sheet, using a chemical process, to create the first mirrors of the style that is common today (although today’s mirrors use a thin layer of aluminium).
There were silver backed mirrors from around the 1600s, but they used larger amounts of silver, which was not as evenly applied, and produced a much less effective mirror. Another metal backed mirror was invented by the Venetian glassmakers in the 1600s – they coated the back of a glass plate with mercury! It produced a beautiful undistorted reflection – but was difficult to create and had obvious (but unknown to them) health risks!
In Regency times, mirrors made from polished steel were available, and some small glass mirrors, with metallic backings of various kinds. The larger mirrors found in some aristocratic homes were amazingly expensive, and possessing one, or more, was an ostentatious statement of wealth. Each of those mirrors was either backed with manually applied silver leaf, or with a tin/mercury amalgam, which was also hand worked to get a thin flat layer. The metal was applied to the back of the mirror, usually then painted on the back to protect it, and the whole enclosed in a frame to make sure the layers stayed in place. These methods also meant that mirrors were rather heavy!.
So – next time you casually glance at a mirror to check your hair, spare a thought for our Regency heroes and heroines, trying to look their best for a Ball, with minimal mirrors available!