Oh My Selfie: A Brief History of the Mirror & Individualism

How reflective glass changed the world (because it did!)

07.11.16
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We asked Kim Kardashian to teach this lesson, but she was busy filming Kanye’s next music video.

Our relationships with mirrors are messy and obsessive and complex. We feel naked without them or vulnerable in front of them. We carelessly allow them to change the emotional course of our days. Some people experiment with shunning them, others meditate by staring into them and most of us have attempted to immortalize our mirrored gaze with a photo. Some might argue the latter is a tenet of modern society. The selfie. Also: the self.

Today, mirrors feel as inevitable and obvious as walls, but they have not been a thing for that long. Perfect glass mirrors weren’t even being mass-produced until the mid-1800s which — let me check my cal — was basically yesterday. It may sound boring but stay with me here, because the history of the mirror is one heavy with cultural and philosophical implications.

Evidence of the first mirrors dates back to 600 B.C. when they were made of natural metals like silver, gold, copper and bronze. They were so heavy and tiny and clouded that no one was exactly looking into them to check their teeth, so they were mostly for show. In fact, it was basically more of the same until the 13th century so I am going to zip us right on through the next 1800 years:

50 B.C.: Peeps are looking in ponds and falling love with themselves. Or at least Narcissus was. Because mirrors still sucked.

5 B.C.: Awful mirrors. The biggest ones are about five inches wide and not very reflective. No one cares about pores?

100 B.C.: The founding of the Roman Empire means the Romans start bringing shitty little mirrors wherever they settle, exposing more people to mirrors as a concept.

300 A.D.: People start making mirrors out of glass instead of metal = progress! But they’re equally curved and colored so people still basically have no idea what they look like. Which sounds nice except that everyone was killing each other and soap wasn’t a thing.

500 A.D.: Welcome to the party, silver mercury! Mercury helps glass look clearer and more reflective, but party foul: mercury is also the most poisonous metal on the planet and makes silver mirror production basically deadly. Cool.

The year 1200.

Okay, this is where stuff actually gets interesting. Over the next 400 years, the development of fine glass mirrors was in exact pace with a huge philosophical turning point: the development of individualism. Sure, there are many reasons the individual came into greater focus during this time: religious, economical, political. But many historians credit the mirror with at least partial responsibility for development of the self as an entity worth exploring.

The best mirror-makers were in Venice, Italy. In fact, from 1500 to the late 17th century Venice had a near-monopoly on mirrors. Eventually competition entered the picture. In 1678, Bernard Perrot invented cast plate glass, which made mirrors easier to produce and more widely available. By the end of the 17th century, two-thirds of Parisian households owned a small mirror.

I’m going to give you one guess as to what such a revolutionary and new concept — that is, appealing to one’s likeness easily and frequently — inspired in “conservative moralists.”

…….YEP! OUTRAGE. Humans are very predictable, aren’t we? What do they say about history? That we should learn from it? Oops, I digress.

Although a small camp of conservatives were denouncing mirrors, by the 18th century, mirrors became a mainstay of the home. This uptick paced with another cultural shift: the Age of Enlightenment. The recognition of the self as separate from the rest of humanity. Mirrors would continue to develop until they were perfected in the mid-19th century into what we think of as mirrors today.

Later, according to Sabine Melchoir-Bonnet in The Mirror: A History, psychologists like Henri Wallon, Paul Schilder and Jean Lhermitte credited the mirror with a huge psychological leap in history: “The construction of the subject was progressive and implied the conscious differentiation between the exterior world and other people. The subject, capable of objectivizing himself and of coordinating exterior perceptions with interior sensations, can then progress from the consciousness of the body to the consciousness of the self.”

Today we seem especially concerned with the self and, perhaps in the same way it first happened with mirrors, the tools at our disposal that are enabling it: phones, cameras, near-endless means to record and reflect on the self. But if the development of the mirror proved anything, it was that a renewed focus on the self can spark progress and enlightenment.

In other words: never underestimate the selfie.

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