The Fascinating History of Mirrors: Reflections Through the Ages

In Western society and beyond, people who look in the mirror too often are generally considered vain or prideful. 

In reality, mirrors have vital links to our development and sense of self. They’re even used in psychology to help people with painful body image issues. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re constantly checking out your reflection in the mirror or if you hardly ever glance at them. If you’re curious about the long and winding history of the mirror and how it became such a large part of modern-day society, this article is perfect for you.  

By the end, you’ll know all about the history of mirrors and how these legendary tools have shaped the human experience, for better and worse. 

Life Before Mirrors

While you probably cannot imagine what a life without mirrors would look like, our ancestors lived and died in a world where mirrors didn’t exist. Many of them likely went their whole lives without ever seeing their reflections. 

Can you imagine that? Countless humans lived and died without an idea of how their faces looked.

It might seem strange, but early humans lived in a much different world than we do now. However, there were some reflective surfaces that our ancestors could use to see their faces mirrored back.

How Did People See Their Reflections Before Mirrors?

All you need to make a mirror is a flat surface with some form of reflectivity. 

The earliest rudimentary mirrors used by early humans would have come from nature. They would have seen themselves in ponds, lakes, and rivers as long as the waters were calm enough to form a flat surface.

The first in-home “mirrors” were probably simple pools of water collected in a dark-colored piece of pottery. 

Narcissus with his reflection in water

Ancient Mirrors

As human society evolved, manufactured mirrors emerged. 

The first real mirrors were carefully handcrafted and polished stones. Naturally occurring volcanic glass like obsidian made it possible to produce these new reflective surfaces as early as 6000 BCE. 

Two thousand years later, the ancient Mesopotamians invented the first copper mirrors. Ancient Egyptians also preferred copper mirrors to stone ones. 

You can find polished stone mirrors across the Atlantic too. Ancient Central and South American cultures were crafting them as early as 2000 BCE. 

Pretty soon, most ancient cultures around the world started using mirrors made of metals like silver, copper, and gold. In China, bronze mirrors were coated with silver starting in 500 BCE. Three hundred years later, the first handheld mirrors emerged in China during the Han Dynasty. The Romans used a metal called “speculum metal,” which was a mixture of tin and copper, to make their mirrors

It wasn’t until the 1st Century CE that glass became a common material used in mirror-making, thanks to the development of glass blowing by Syrian craftsmen.

The Early Modern Mirror

As the ancient world faded into history and glassmaking evolved in the Middle Ages, glass mirrors evolved too. In the 11th century, antique mirrors were all the rage in Moorish Spain and spread across the continent over the next few centuries. The first mirror-making factory was established in Nuremberg, Germany in 1415

By the 16th century during the Renaissance, the Venetians had perfected a glass blowing method used by the Germans and the French. Glassblowers from Venice began using lead and mercury glass for better clarity. Plus, it was much more pliable than regular glass. 

Venice became the epicenter of European mirror production, and that monopoly was fiercely protected for over a century. After that, their secrets got out, and soon the Venetian method spread through glass workshops across Europe. 

Many different wall mirrors

The advent of the Industrial Revolution made it possible to ramp up glass pane production on a larger scale.

Pair that with the invention of silvered glass in 1835 by Justus von Liebig, and soon the masses could get their hands on affordable mirrors like never before. The first mass-produced mirrors were made by French company Saint-Gobain in the 19th century.

A Brief History of the Makeup Mirror

Mirrors were prized by the wealthy for many reasons. They provided homes with more lighting and made rooms look larger through their reflections. Mirrors were popularized by the ruling classes that could afford such luxurious items. 

Later on, mass production techniques made mirrors accessible to the general public. These affordable mirrors boasted many different styles and designs made from various materials, including nickel, tin, silver, chromium and aluminium.

Wealthy people endorsed mirrors in popular publications about social etiquette, fashion, and household decor. These publications matriculated down through the lower classes, who sought to emulate their privileged counterparts with mirrors of their own. 

Most manor homes in the early 18th century had portable dressing mirrors for both women and men. The modern vanity layout we know and love first appeared in the late 1700s. The term vanity mirror eventually replaced the term dressing mirror. In modern times most dressing areas with mirrors are called vanities or vanity tables. 

Vanities perfectly encapsulate how the mirror evolved alongside the notion of applied beauty and how that relationship changed as mirrors became a more commonplace household item. 

Makeup brushes in front of a vanity mirror

Popular cosmetics were being developed and then sold en masse. The makeup usually found its way to women’s vanity tables, right in front of their mirrors. 

By the 20th century, the vanity mirror was in high demand. Soon vanities were being mass produced on a larger scale. In the early 20th century, vanity mirrors were mass-produced in many different styles and designs to fit individual tastes. 

How Are Mirrors Made?

Glassmakers begin with highly-reflective sheets of clear glass. Then a layer of metallic silver is deposited on the back of those sheets. The first modern mirrors were made using the wet deposition method created by Justus von Liebig in 1835. The modern process of copper electroplating was invented in 1844 by British chemist John Benjamin Dancer.

The exact method has undergone a few updates since then, and more sophisticated ingredients, like silver nitrate, come into play now. Most modern glass mirrors are also copper free, a copper coating being traditionally used to protect the silver on a mirror. 

Copper-free mirrors resist corrosion much better, and cutting out copper from mirror making is much better for the environment. 

Cosmetic mirrors come in handy when someone is applying makeup. They’re concave so that the reflecting surface curves inward instead of outward. 

Concave mirrors work by showing an enlarged image of your face to help you see closer details. This magnification feature is a must-have for most makeup applications. 

The Vanity Mirror Market

Vanity mirrors are a little different than most standard mirrors we know and love. The manufacturing process is highly detailed and carefully monitored. That way you can seamlessly apply lipstick to your lips, eyeshadow to your eyes, and all sorts of makeup to your magnified skin. 

Vanity mirrors can come in different shapes and sizes as well. You can find 

As long as the mirrors feature lights and magnification, they’re considered makeup mirrors or vanity mirrors. Typically they’re used by people that need to apply makeup or style their hair. 

Vanity mirrors are popular, and in 2018 the retail sales of makeup mirrors climbed to over $60 million in the United States. Most households have at least one handheld or tabletop mirror and two or three wall mirrors. The average person in the United States spends about $600 on mirrors annually. The modern mirror industry is worth billions of dollars, with China being the largest producer.

Why Are Vanity Mirrors So Expensive?

Modern mirrors are made in many styles

You can find some cheaper vanity mirrors, but they’re usually smaller and made of low-quality materials.

Large vanity mirrors and custom-made mirrors are more expensive because of many factors. Craftsmanship, LED lighting, support structures, and installation can drive the price up.

Lighted vanity mirrors also need a power source. It can be rechargeable, battery-powered, or plugged into an outlet. This technology will also make the mirror more expensive.  

Mirrors in Culture and Art

Since their invention, mirrors have always been objects of fear, wonder, and mystery. These simple tools have taken on some of the most complicated roles in our collective consciousness, familiar to both the profane and sacred. 

There’s no culture on Earth that mirrors do not touch. They’re entwined with literature, art, mythology, and science. 

They fill our homes, schools, churches, and everywhere in between. They’re revered, reviled, and used as vessels for some of our most familiar symbolism and superstitions. Mirrors take on religious meanings and have since the dawn of man. 

Ancient mirrors were most likely used to try and predict the future or as tools for contacting the spirit world during religious rites and rituals. Mirrors reflections could be used to light flames and fires from a distance, tying them into magic and mysticism. 

Some cultures thought the reflection inside a mirror represented portals to spiritual realms. Others believed mirrors could reveal hidden images and even connect you to deities. Some cultures used them to stargaze and tied mirrors in with the practice of astrology – mirrors were used to make the first telescopes after all. 

The Mayans and the Chinese buried mirrors with their dead and believed mirrors could show glimpses of the future. Taoist priests used mirrors to protect them from spiritual warfare and deter evil spirits.

Famous Vanity Mirrors in Literature

The following are examples of some of the most recognizable mirrors in fiction and literature. There are lots of mirrors to choose from, but these three have left a lasting impression on audiences for more than a century.

It’s no coincidence that they were all published in the 19th century when mirrors became a widespread part of society for both the rich and the poor. 

Famous MirrorsSourceCirca
The Magic MirrorThe Brother’s Grimm1812
Alice’s Looking GlassLewis Carroll1871
Dorian Grey’s MirrorOscar Wilde1890

The Magic Mirror

Everyone knows the Magic Mirror from Snow White. The Evil Queen uses it to find the fairest maiden in the land. As long as the image is her face, she is satisfied. When the image changes to that of her beautiful step-daughter Snow White, she begins to plot the girl’s untimely death. 

The mirror is the Evil Queen’s strongest weapon against Snow White. It shows her where Snow White is located several times, and it’s unable to lie to her. Eventually, it’s the mirror itself that leads the Evil Queen to her death at Snow White’s wedding to Prince Charming. 

Alice’s Looking Glass

In the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, our beloved heroine returns to Wonderland, but this time she doesn’t fall down a hole. Instead, she climbs through a mirror into a world inside it. 

Inside the looking glass, everything is reversed, including logic, poetry, and even physics. Alice must use her wits to find a way out of this topsy-turvy world, and the theme of reflection runs heavily throughout the book. 

Dorian Grey’s Mirror

In a famous and controversial novel by Oscar Wilde, Dorian Grey is a young, handsome socialite who dabbles in hedonism. His friend Basil makes a painting of him, highlighting all his physical blessings for posterity. 

Dorian wishes for the portrait to grow old in his place, and miraculously his wish comes true. The painting ages with every foul deed Dorian commits while he remains young and attractive. His reflection in the mirror never changes, but his portrait slowly rots and withers away. 

History of Mirrors in Art

Mirrors have also been used in the art world for centuries. They symbolize self-admiration, reveal hidden objects or subjects, and sometimes force a new perspective on unwitting viewers. Mirrors can also act as a tool for an artist to display their painting prowess. 

When self-portraits were first introduced, mirrors were essential as artists needed mirrors first before they could paint themselves. Self-portraits helped many famous artists depict human features without access to models. 

Without mirrors, many of the famous self-portraits by beloved masters that we recognize today wouldn’t exist. 

Mirrors have also stood as symbols of truth, illusion, the supernatural, and emotions. They were often seen as a feminine symbol, and the image of a woman staring into a mirror is a common trope in art history. 

Mirrors in Pop Culture

Mirrors are just as prevalent in popular culture as they are in history, literature, and art. There are lots of tropes and ideas we associate with mirrors that indicate just how much they have saturated our societies and popular entertainment. 


It’s a common detail that these supernatural creatures cannot see their reflection in a mirror. This trope ties back to the symbolism of the mirror representing the human soul. Vampires are undead, so they possess no soul. Likewise, they have no reflections in the mirror. 

Bloody Mary

This familiar urban legend also acts as a rite of passage for many kids. Groups of them enter dark bathrooms and chant “Bloody Mary” 3 to 5 times. The legend goes that after she’s summoned, Bloody Mary will appear and scratch or bite those who called on her. 

Scene from candyman - looking into his mirror.
Looking into Candyman’s mirror

In other iterations of the legend, she may even maim or kill her summoners. Bloody Mary is a soul trapped behind the mirror and wants to wreak havoc on anyone who dares to invoke her name.

Other Mirror Myths and Legends in Popular Culture

Here are a few more beliefs surrounding mirrors in popular culture:

  • Two mirrors facing is bad luck 
  • Newborn children shouldn’t look in mirrors
  • Mirrors act as scrying tools for witches

There’s also the belief that you shouldn’t fall asleep in front of a mirror because your soul could get trapped inside it by accident. And some cultures break the mirrors of the dead to avoid them coming back to haunt homes. 

Mirrors are also used in lots of horror films and have helped to create some of the most chilling, iconic movies of all time. 

Candyman1998This story piggybacks off the Bloody Mary legend, only it’s set in urban Chicago and involves a vengeful spirit named Candyman. Candyman murders anyone that summons him using a mirror. 
Mirrors2008Mirrors is a horror film that deals with haunted mirrors. The ghostly mirrors in an old department store reflect horrifying scenes caused by a malevolent supernatural force on the other side. 
Poltergeist III1988In this horror sequel, mirrors show scary illusions and act as portals to the afterlife. 
Oculus2013Tells the story of a haunted mirror that can make people hallucinate and often convinces them to commit acts of violence against their friends and loved ones. 

A Final Word

When you think about it, mirrors are a very simple concept. They reflect images of the world around them simply by reflecting light.

After you dig a little deeper into the history of the mirror, meanings, uses, and symbolism behind mirrors, you realize it’s not so simple after all. Mirrors have become such a common part of our lives that it might be easy to forget how they changed the world. 

Looking into a mirror can be a wonderful experience, or it can be a terrible one. It can fill us with pride or disgust. It can scare us, inspire us, make us laugh, and make us cry. As humans, we long to know ourselves and see ourselves, just as we want others to know and see us. 

So the next time you sit at your vanity mirror and inspect your face in the warm LED light, be aware you’re just the latest in millennia worth of humans to search for answers within the mirror’s reflective surface.

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