According to myth, the beautiful Narcissus once gazed into a pool of water and fell in love with his own reflection, a self-obsession that would ultimately doom him.
Although we can thank this cautionary tale for the inspiration of the term narcissism, it seems a little unfair for us to accuse a Greek youth of being fascinated by his own appearance. After all, humans have been obsessed with their reflections for millennia, and this obsession would lead to the development of one of the greatest inventions in the history of our species: the humble mirror.
Like Narcissus, early humans probably first became familiar with their reflections by seeing them in a pool of water. Although they probably did not use this discovery for shaping or introspection, at some point they would have realized that they were looking at themselves.
This is not a trivial ability: being able to identify your reflection as You and not some other creature is unusual in nature — of course, some animals such as elephants, dolphins and other primates can pass through the so-called mirror test, but that’s a pretty short list. And among the people, recognizing their reflection as Yours reflection—in short, having a basic sense of oneself—is a fundamental aspect of cognition and an important part of human development.
From a modern perspective, the invention of the mirror must seem inevitable, almost preordained. But like so many other inventions, the development of the modern mirror as we know it was a long, imperfect and sometimes expensive process. Let us pause now to consider the history of the mirror and what its evolution has meant ours evolution.
Early obsidian rock mirrors
Obsidian mirrors found at Catalhoyuk (Credit: Zde/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)
Humans have known how to make glass in one form or another for about 4,000 years, but we’ve known how to polish naturally occurring glass for much longer. The earliest known mirrors were just that: polished glass—specifically, the volcanic glass known as obsidian. Found in graves in Catalhoyukone of the oldest cities in the world (located in present-day Turkey), these hand-sized objects date from around 6000 BC.
These prototype mirrors were highly polished and shaped on one side, revealing not only a surprisingly reflective surface, but also an impressive level of skill and technology for the people of the period.
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Early metal mirror from Egypt. (Credit: Andrea Izotti/Shutterstock)
As humans got better at working with metal, several civilizations came up with the idea of hammering bronze or copper, then polishing the surface until it was reflective—or at least as reflective as polished metal could be.
Some of the oldest surviving examples include bronze mirrors made in Egypt around 2900 BC, although metal mirrors of roughly the same vintage have been found in China, India and elsewhere. The Greeks and Romans also loved their mirrors, and the rich could afford to have theirs covered in silver.
When were mirrors invented?
Example of a Venetian mirror (Credit: Margarita R. Padilla/Shutterstock)
By the 1st century AD, humans had apparently advanced the art of glassmaking and glassblowing enough that someone finally had the idea of creating a really good reflective surface by covering the back of a piece of glass with lead or even gold.
Roman writer and naturalist Pliny the Elder records that such mirrors were made at the time and they exhibited highly reflective surfaces. However, no archaeological evidence of early glass mirrors would be found for another several hundred years. Even then, the specimens found from this era were probably used as jewelry, since they were probably too small to stare at their own reflection or use for grooming.
While the art of quality glassmaking faded with the decline of the Roman Empire, it would enjoy a revival. Around the end of the 13th century, Italy — specifically Venice and Fr Murano — will become known for the quality of its glass. By 1500, Venetian mirrors were the gold standard of glass mirrors, coveted for both their size and quality, and coveted throughout Europe and beyond by those who could afford such expensive luxuries (which at the time were mostly nobles and royalty).
Over time, fine glass mirrors became somewhat more affordable, but were still expensive and prized possessions for the middle or commercial classes who began to acquire them. Some manufacturers used an amalgam of tin and mercury, which, although cheaper, was toxic and dangerous. But a lot examples survive and you can still find antique mercury mirrors being sold at auction today.
When did mirrors become widely available?
It wasn’t until the 1830s that the modern, affordable mirror as most of us knew it finally appeared. In 1835 a German chemist, Justus von Liebigperfected a method of applying silver nitrate to glass, which by chemical means was converted into a thin, reflective layer of silver.
This process resulted in a highly reflective surface that adhered well to the glass, creating a striking, stylish and affordable mirror of almost any size. When you hear someone talk about the process of “mirror silvering” today it dates back to von Liebig’s innovations. But silver isn’t really used in mirror making these days – aluminum is the metal of choice.
Why do we love mirrors?
Today, mirrors are everywhere, no longer a showpiece or a luxury item, but now an object to the point of obscurity. Apart from their many scientific, industrial and even mystical uses, we can find mirrors almost everywhere: in our bedrooms and bathrooms, our cars, our purses, and even online when we enter a video chat and see ourselves reflected on the screen.
We take mirrors for granted, and yet: Try to imagine a world where mirrors don’t exist—or at least aren’t widely available. It really wasn’t that long ago when people didn’t have an easy way to see themselves reflected back at us.
Scientists and philosophers have devoted a surprising amount of time and thought to the power and influence of mirrors on the human psyche. And the overarching impression is that our civilization, and indeed our very existence, would be quite different if we didn’t have mirrors around.
As a best-selling historian Ian Mortimer noted in his well-regarded book, Millennium: From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed in a Thousand Years, mirrors changed humanity’s idea of what it means to be an individual. “The very act of a person seeing himself in the mirror … encourages him to think about himself differently. He began to see himself as unique,” Mortimer writes.
Let that sink in for a minute. Because before mirrors became widely available, Mortimer and others argue, we thought of ourselves as relatively insignificant individuals, mere components of a society, humming among the masses. But in redefining our personal sense of identity, mirrors both enabled and literally reflected a modern sensibility to humanity and individuality so ingrained in our species now that it would be hard to imagine civilization today without it.
Think about that the next time you look in the mirror and think how far we’ve come because of what a simple mirror can show us. Perhaps Narcissus was right after all to be so fascinated by his own reflection.
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