Mirrors through the Ages

“Mirrors through the Ages,” Friend, Sept. 1992, 48


Mirrors through the Ages

Study and learn (D&C 90:15).

Do you have black hair, brown hair, or blond hair? Blue eyes or brown? Is your nose long and thin or is it short and turned up at the end? Of course you are familiar with your own face, for no doubt you have seen it hundreds of times in mirrors.

Today’s mirrors are made of smooth, flat glass coated on the back with a thin film of silver. When you look at the front of the mirror, you see through the glass but not through the silver. Instead, the silver catches your image and returns it to you.

Long ago there were no mirrors. Boys and girls grew to be men and women without ever seeing their own faces clearly. If they were lucky, they might live near a quiet pool of water where they could catch a glimpse of their reflections from time to time.

Then people learned how to polish metal and dark stones to make them shine and give them a reflection of themselves. In ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece, hand mirrors and wall mirrors were made from polished metal. These were elaborately decorated, but because the surface wasn’t perfectly smooth, the image seen in the mirror was usually blurred or distorted.

When men finally tried making mirrors from glass, they used black glass and backed it with foil. But that reflected the light rather than allowed it to pass through the glass. Later mirrors, or looking glasses, were made of blue, green, red, or amber glass. Although the variety of hues might be interesting, they did not give one an accurate picture of color.

At last a nearly colorless glass was created in Venice, Italy. Small sheets of it were cut from circular disks and backed with a foil of tin and mercury. These mirrors reflected color fairly accurately, but because they were still not completely flat, the images remained distorted.

Mirrors were rare and expensive; only the very rich could afford one. Wealthy people wore tiny ones dangling from their belts as ornaments or had pins made of them to fasten to plumes on their hats. Everyone in Venice longed to have a mirror and worked very hard to be able to pay the price.

Soon people in France wanted mirrors too. But although France had glass factories, the French people did not know the secret of making mirrors. They suggested that Venice send glass workers to France to teach them the process, but Venice refused to do it.

An exciting discovery was made by French mirror makers after they had finally learned about the tin-mercury foiling. Up to that time, all flat glass had been cut from disks of blown glass. Now France discovered how to make plate glass by pouring liquid glass onto an iron table and rolling it flat. With this new and better method of casting, French glass workers were able to produce an outstanding quality of mirrors.

Until about one hundred fifty years ago, mirror-foiling was considered dangerous because inhaling mercury fumes could cause serious illness. Then men began backing mirrors with silver. This was done by covering plate glass with liquid made from silver nitrate and varnishing the surface. Later, a silver solution was sprayed on the glass. The silver backing was safer to use and gave a brighter image.

Mirrors at fairs and fun houses can make people look distorted and funny—much like the original mirrors of ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece did. Now special types of mirrors are used by dentists and doctors, and in microscopes, telescopes, and periscopes. All these help man learn more about God’s wonderful world.

Illustrated by Dick Brown