The Mirror: A Reflection on its History

So if you had to take a guess, how long would you say mirrors have been around? Keep in mind, of course, that the vanity of fools is an ancient tradition. 500 years? 1000 years? 2000? Actually, it was probably around 3500 B.C.E. that humans first were capable of seeing a reflection of themselves with a device purposely designed for that. Obviously, those living near water had always had a natural mirror available, and reflective surfaces had been constructed even before then. But as best archaeologists can figure out, it probably wasn’t until some Sumerian dude in Mesopotamia figured out around 3500 that he could polish metal to a sheen and set into a wooden handle that people everywhere began regularly gazing lovingly at themselves.

Fast-forward to the ancient Greeks and around 328 B.C.E. An actual academy was developed for imparting the wisdom of crafting a mirror. Legend has it that Archimedes, the great Greek mathematician, utilized enormous mirrors to reflect the sun back onto Roman ships as they attempted to invade Syracuse; supposedly, the heat cast by the mirrors set the Roman ships on fire. Click here to listen to an NPR story about an attempt to recreate this legend. Ancient Greek mirrors came in two distinct varieties: the box mirror and the disk mirror. The latter presented a magnificently polished surface on one side with a back that was either engraved or decorated in relief. The box mirror was sort of a locket; opening up like a clam to reveal a mirror on one side and a cover on the other. These polished metal mirrors remained the rule of the day until 1300s.

Although glass had been used to make bottles and jewelry for well over a millennium, it wasn’t until some Venetian glass blowers turned their skills toward making mirrors that the glass mirror replaced the metal mirror. It took some time, however, because glass couldn’t be sand-polished to high smoothness like its metal counterpart. In fact, each glass mirror has to be meticulously created. Even so, the result was often an outlandishly distorted image which, due to the rarity of glass mirrors, did nothing to decrease their popularity. In fact, just like Hummers today—which are, let’s all admit it, the ugliest vehicles ever seen on the road—were presented ostentatiously as an unmistakable sign of affluence among the Venetian elite. It wouldn’t be until three centuries later that glass mirrors could be produced that gave a realistic reflective image. Frenchman Bernard Perrot patented his new smooth rolling method in 1687; finally allowing glass mirrors that didn’t horrifically distort. By the way, one of the many origins that surround the idea of receiving seven years of bad luck if you break a mirror dates back to the Venetians as well. Clearly, as you can see, these new glass mirrors weren’t cheap. In order to protect them, wealthy Venetians would supposedly scare their servants into being careful by warning them that seven years bad luck would befall them if they broke their cherished possession. Since most of these people actually did possess the power to see to it that their servants could experience seven years of “bad luck” I tend to think this origin story might have some meat to it.

And now for actual useful information. If you want to keep your bathroom mirror from fogging up whenever you take a hot shower, try cleaning it with shaving cream. After wiping the cream off, you should get a fog-free mirror for up to three weeks. If that doesn’t work—and you’re up to it—try rubbing Spam on your mirror. Yes, you read right. Some people swear by Spam as a way to make a bathroom mirror fog-free.

For cleaning your mirrors without leaving streaks, try coffee filters instead of paper towels. Since coffee filters are lint-free, using them tends to leave your mirror with a fresh and sparkling appearance unmarred by those irritating streaks.

And if you notice a scratch in your mirror, try this little secret. Place a small piece of aluminum foil over the scratch and then cover that in clear nail polish and allow it to dry. Voila! A flawless looking-glass once again.