Mirrors – A Short History

“Man wishes to see himself because he is vain, and he’s afraid to see himself since, being vain, he cannot tolerate the sight of his flaws.” Pierre Nicole, Jansenist Theologian, 1669.


Narcissus by Caravaggio, 1597-1599.

There’s been a lot of talk about mirror fasting and what it means to go without looking at one’s own reflection on a daily basis. Many who do it talk about freeing themselves from constantly checking their appearance – and not just their physical appearance. Autumn Whitefield-Madrano of The-Beheld.com, who completed two month-long mirror fasts, realized “exactly how much of my energy was going into appearing…to be interested, appearing to be womanly, appearing to be a professional lady, appearing to be pretty. No wonder I’m exhausted.”


The discussion of mirror fasting tends to concentrate on the person doing it and their reasons for doing it, whether for greater awareness of their own relationship to the image that looks back at them, or – for their detractors – a fuller expression of their narcissism. But what about the mirror itself? Why does it hold so much sway over us? And why does it greet us at every turn? What happened between looking at ourselves in a pool of water and worrying about the ubiquity of reflections ruling our inner lives? Let’s take a look at the history of the mirror:


Early Mirrors


Archaeologists have found mirrors that date to around 4500 B.C.E., in Egypt. These mirrors were made of polished minerals – selenium, slate, and mica – and were used for both personal grooming and religious use. Mirrors held potent symbolism for the ancient Egyptians – they signified both the sun god Ra and the love and fertility goddess Hathor. And as the Egyptians – the wealthy ones at least – were heavily into makeup and wigs, their mirrors were beautifully crafted, prized possessions that were buried with them.


Mirrors made of metal turned up around 4000 B.C.E., in what is now Iran. The Ubaidians and Sumerians of the Persian Gulf left written records that frequently mention mirrors made of copper and bronze. Later Hebrew folklore commends the Syrian Jews for their skilled metalwork, as the Bible scolds women for admiring themselves in mirrors. And by 1000 B.C.E. mirrors were being made all over the world.


How Do I Look?


In Ancient Greece and Rome, mirrors became a bigger part of life. Along with philosophers and natural scientists using mirrors for contemplation and experimentation, ordinary Romans were using mirrors to make sure they looked good. Large metal mirrors lined the walls of the Roman baths, and the mass-production of tinned bronze mirrors meant that ordinary citizens could spend more time grooming themselves. But that didn’t stop the wealthy from having mirrors made for customized uses: during the more decadent days of the Empire, revelers could get drunk from goblets whose mirrored insides reflected their increasing intoxication, and at least one wealthy Roman had his personal chambers lined with concave, enlarging mirrors so that he could better see himself and his paramours!


In Asia, silver mirrors dating from about 700 B.C.E. turn up in Kazakhstan, and the Chinese became experts in the craft soon after, creating mirrors from polished jade, and bronze. The Chinese associated mirrors with the soul, and created giant ritual mirrors to assist people spiritually and bodily. Mirrors were inscribed with wishes for divine sight or great health, and many were buried with their owners to give them light in the afterlife. Japanese mirrors were dedicated to the Shinto sun goddess Ameterasu-Omikami, whose vanity led her to come out of hiding and return her light to the world. Later, as mirrors became more common, they were used for more secular, grooming uses, though they were still handed down through generations as treasured heirlooms that contained ancestral spirits.


Smoke and Mirrors


In the New World, the Aztecs fashioned mineral mirrors whose perfect curves could concentrate the Sun God’s energy into fire within twenty to thirty seconds, and they also incorporated mirrors into their clothing and headdresses. Their god Tezcatlipoca’s name means “Smoking Mirror”, and when Hernando Cortez arrived in 1519, he was mistaken as the retuning god partially because his spectacles’ reflective surfaces resembled the god’s mirrored, flashing eyes. But mirrors were not used much for self-reflection in the New World – one Native American visiting Europe commented on their custom of looking at themselves in the mirror every morning: “Were they afraid they had lost their souls during the night?”


In Europe, the mirror was reinvented. In Murano, Italy, the process of backing hand-blown glass with reflective foil was invented, and the resulting mirrors were so clear and brilliant that the artisans of this craft were forbidden to travel or reveal their secrets. France’s King Louis XIV managed to bribe and smuggle experts in anyway, and had the Hall of Mirrors installed at The Palace of Versailles to announce that France would now be producing mirrors. Having a hall of mirrors at the King’s palace did more for the business – it assured that ambitious courtiers would rush to order their own mirrors to keep up with the new trend.


Vanity as Virtue


My mirror and my reputation do not lie.” Roger de Rabutin, Comte de Debussy (1618-1693)


The arrival of the glass mirror into French society created another phenomenon: that of vanity as a good thing. Catholic theology had posited vanity in Europe as a sin of selfishness since before the Middle Ages. But the development of the BonnĂȘte Homme – the society gentleman whose dress and manners must always be impeccable – created an expectation that vanity and dress are a matter of being pleasing to others. Thus the mirror – and vanity – became part of civility and refinement.


Modern Mirrors


In the twentieth century, mirrors got a new boost: new techniques for manufacturing large panes of flat, clear glass were developed. This technological development didn’t just add to the number of actual mirrors; shop windows were made larger so that customers could see reflections of themselves along with the goods they coveted, projecting their intended ownership. Large mirrors were also installed into beauty parlors and barber shops. But business owners didn’t stop there: giant mirrors were installed into movie palaces and dance halls to reflect both patrons and the glittery decor.


As in France, the new ubiquity of the mirror coincided with a broader cultural change: in the Roaring 20’s, vanity and self-indulgence became the new trend. Women started wearing obvious makeup and bobbed their hair, and men pomaded and preened themselves – all in front of the mirror. Vanity tables were sold through Sears and Roebucks, and the first face-lifts were being performed. By 1930, the cosmetic industry brought in $2 billion a year. And men were wearing makeup too: their barbers were happy to powder an alcoholic nose or apply rouge to sickly cheeks – all in front of giant mirrors.


As worrying about personal appearance became the norm, it wasn’t just cosmetic advertising and movie star glamour that encouraged people to look into mirrors: high schools and 4-H clubs were teaching students how to beautify themselves. And even those who shunned normalcy weren’t immune to the mirrored reflection – 50’s greasers, 70’s hippies, and 80’s punks all needed mirrors to perfect their rebellion.


So what can we make from the current ambivalence about mirrors?


Erin O’connor as Narcissus by Nadav Kander, 2004.


We have a lot of things that are over-concentrated in modern life: some of these are distillations of nature that we know are potentially dangerous, like sugar, alcohol, or cocaine. Others are harder to trace: social media and cable news can probably be traced to gossip, and iconic female images used to be confined to religious or sexual spaces. And these modern versions are often treated as good things – without the admission that their effects can be overwhelming.


Taking a break from any one thing in our life that’s too concentrated – whether it’s sugar, FaceBook, or mirrors – can provide insight into how that modern phenomenon may be ruling our life more than our ancient wiring can handle. And it’s not just mirrors that are ubiquitous, or even media images of perfect women. It’s talk about those media images, and whether or not we should try to conform to them.


Paradoxically, both vanity and introspection are uniquely human forms of self-reflection. And when we find one or the other overbearing, it’s not a bad idea to ease up and look at what this really means. Stepping outside the noise about our appearance – especially the internal noise that echoes through our heads – may help us come closer to our own position in all of this discussion about self-image. And for those who’ve been deep in the discussion, it may even be necessary.



Mirror, Mirror: A History Of The Human Love Affair With Reflection by Mark Pendergrast.

The Mirror: A History by Sabine Melchoir-Bonnet.

Man As Art by Malcolm Kirk, commentary by Andrew Strathern.

Nadav Kander.


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