My fifth great grandmother, Mary Dashwood, wrote in her will, “ … I give and bequeath unto my said son WILLIAM HENRY DASHWOOD the following articles free and clear of legacy duty, namely:
• one peer glass
• one Venetian dwarf blind in front room, first floor
• one wainscot chest of drawers in back room, first floor
• one mahogany arm chair …”
For our family, this detailed will is a genealogical treasure trove because it names her family members plus all of this Victorian lady’s worldly possessions. This thoroughness is unusual for any will, especially one dated 1830. You may wonder what Mary Dashwood meant by “one peer glass”. It actually means “mirror”, an object with a fascinating history of its own.
Early Beginnings: Mirrors
Obtaining one’s reflection started with leaning over the edge of a still pond. It was rudimentary, definitely not an exact science, but at least revealed a really bad hair day or one huge smear of prehistoric dinner across one’s cheek. Fast forward multiple centuries, and vanity was further refined by the discovery that ground volcanic glass offered reflective properties. This was followed by gazing into polished stones and shiny metals (rock crystal produced the best effect as it resisted fading/becoming hazy). Indeed, staring into a bronze pot had its limitations, especially if it was already in use cooking that night’s stew. People longed for better.
Something had to be done to soothe the frayed nerves of renaissance maidens and handsome knights. In the fifteenth-century, the Venetians created a malleable form of glass that worked the best, yet its craftsmanship was a highly guarded secret. Venetian mirrors were a luxury item only the very wealthy could afford. The Scientific Revolution introduced us to Newton’s laws, the body’s circulatory system, microbiology and a mechanical calculator; it failed, however, to develop a method to mass-produce mirrors. In fact, demand was so desperate amongst monarchs and aristocrats that France’s King Louis XIV lured some Venetian mirror experts to help create his famed Hall of Mirrors at Versailles Palace during 1678-1684. The resulting 357 mirrors were the centerpiece of the king’s former hunting lodge now transformed into a world-envied showcase of fine art, topiary, furniture, porcelain, musical instruments and tapestry. The “Sun King” officially moved the French Court to Versailles in 1682 and at its height, the royal estate encompassed 8,300 hectares. The international importance of this palace was underscored when the Hall of Mirrors was selected as the location for signing the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, the famous document that set terms for ending World War One.
More Modern History
After a death, the Victorians covered all mirrors with black drapes to prevent the spirit of a recently departed loved one from getting trapped. Over time, mirrors have been called “standing-glass”, “looking-glass”, and even the delightfully comical “toilet-glass” referencing a lady’s “toilette” routine as she readied herself for admirers. Mirrors are hung on walls or are free-standing, and come in all sizes ranging from the end of a lipstick case to covering a large wall. Breaking a mirror is a well-known faux pas and is supposed to bring bad luck. Ever used the phrase “it’s all smoke and mirrors”? It originated in eighteenth-century theatre where an image of a frightening creature was projected into smoke, making it appear like a floating, ghostly apparition. Interestingly, the modern day mirror only went into mass production in 1835, courtesy of the German inventor Justus von Liebig. He figured out how to lay silver nitrate over glass and thus solved the burgeoning marketplace demand for mirrors.
Ever used the phrase “it’s all smoke and mirrors”?
Consider how challenging it is to get through a day in 2022 without mirrors: it’s akin to eating ice cream with chopsticks. Mirrors are staples of high school lockers and adorn the lids of young girls’ wind-up jewelry boxes containing a ballerina who twirls to music. Hairdressers use mirrors to show clients their work and optometrists use mirrors to help display letters on examination room walls. Mirrors hang on closet doors, are fitted on shoe-fitting stools, and small, elegant ones are found in most women’s handbags. Vehicles have them on both sides and on the interior of the windshield. A plethora of movies and books use mirrors to look into the future, ponder who is the most attractive and enter fantastical kingdoms. Some people enjoy the mirrored furniture trend (indeed) while others use mirrors to make spaces look larger and also to entertain bored pets.
We all do it. A random check of one’s image, literally a non-recorded selfie. Whether it’s adjusting one’s hair, lipstick, a hat, coat or tie, the mirror is an indispensable part of our day. Best friend of the vain and essential to every driver, mirrors are entrenched in modern life. The next time you check for spinach stuck in your teeth or to adjust your diamond tiara, give a silent word of thanks to all the hardworking scientists and craftspeople who made it possible. Science has allowed us to travel light years beyond leaning over a pond and hoping we don’t make a bad hair day any worse.
AND … For those family history super keeners, my fifth great grandmother’s will also makes some other interesting bequests exactly on trend for Victorian times … but that’s for a follow up blog discussing another quirky part of history.
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• Baraton, A., “Walks in the Gardens of Versailles”, Éditions Artlys, Chateau de Versailles, Published 2010, Introduction.
• https://aavbarbini.it/origins-history-mirrors/?lang=en#:~:text=Around%20the%20mid%2DXV%20century,secret%20for%20Venetian%20mirror%20makers., sourced April 27, 2022
• https://dustyoldthing.com/before-mirrors-were-invented/, sourced April 27, 2022
• https://en.chateauversailles.fr/discover/estate/palace/hall-mirrors#the-hall-of-mirrors, sourced April 27, 2022
• https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smoke_and_mirrors, sourced April 27, 2022
• https://historiesoftheunexpected.com/magazine/the-hall-of-mirrors-versailles-palace/#:~:text=With%20a%20total%20of%20357,to%20France%20to%20manufacture%20them., sourced April 27, 2022
• https://www.livescience.com/34466-who-invented-mirror.html, sourced April 27, 2022
• Joy, E.T., “Getting Dressed”, Victoria and Albert Museum, London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, Published 1981, P8.
• Last will and testament of Mary Dashwood, PROB11/1771, Public Records Office (now TNA at Kew in London), Accessed June 9, 1990.
• Lelevé, E., “Versailles: dates, facts and figures”, Éditions Jean-Paul Gisserot, Pollina à Luçon, Published 2003, PP2-9.
• Spawforth, T., Versailles: “A Biography of a Palace”, St. Martin’s Griffin, Published 2008, PP2, 33.