From ancient myths to classic literature to urban legends, mirrors have long played a role in numerous cultures throughout time, space and history. They have served as an inspiration for painters, authors and designers, and made appearances in works of art from Yayoi Kusama’s infinity mirror rooms to the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White. From the 21st century all the way back to the ancient times, mirrors have served as a valuable resource for many in performing the daily ritual of self-admiration. Yet many people hardly ever stop to think about the fascinating history and science behind the common everyday object.
Thousands of years ago, bronze mirrors appeared in ancient China, Egypt, the Islamic World and either Rome or Greece. Collections in art museums like the Cantor Arts Center, Metropolitan Museum of Art and the RISD Museum among others hold ancient bronze mirrors that date as far back as the fifteenth century B.C.
Centuries later, artists such as René Magritte incorporated mirrors and windows into their paintings while artists like Albrecht Durer and Parmigianino made historical self-portraiture where a mirror was obviously used in making the paintings, according to Professor Nancy Troy, a Stanford professor of art history.
Usually made through the process of silvering, where a thin layer of silver or aluminum is applied onto the back of a piece of clear glass, mirrors are extremely smooth, even under the microscope. According to “Physics 9 Edition,” a textbook by John D. Cutnell and Kenneth W. Johnson, instead of scattering light, mirrors are able to send the light that hits it back in a specific direction in a process called specular reflection. The smoothness of the mirror and its ability to be a good electrical conductor so that the light reflects instead of penetrates are all factors that contribute to helping a mirror create a reflection.
Today, there are many types of mirrors out there. Some mirrors have been designed for fun, and some for function or fashion. According to Dave Stellman, owner of Palo Alto Glass, the types of mirrors found in the average house can range from low-iron mirrors to mirrors with frames, mirrors with beveled edges, mirrors made from silvering standard clear glass and mirrors of different thicknesses.
But standard mirrors are not the only types of mirrors that people interact with daily. Concave mirrors, convex mirrors, funhouse mirrors and one-way mirrors can also serve practical and fun purposes. Convex mirrors like side mirrors in cars can help make something close look farther than it really is. Funhouse mirrors can distort the figure standing in front of it. One-way mirrors let a person see through to a room beyond while the other person only sees their reflection, and concave mirrors are especially useful for putting on makeup and magnifying matter placed close to them.
For sophomore Elizabeth Wong, mirrors are useful when it comes to doing her hair and brushing her teeth. However, the thing she said she uses mirrors for the most is when she does her makeup.
“I really like the magnified mirrors as they help a lot when I want to focus on tiny details,” Wong wrote in a text message.
Sophomore Jasmine Kapadia said mirrors are especially helpful when it comes to doing skincare and making sure she applies products in the right places.
“I use mirrors a lot in my daily life,” Kapadia said in a text message. “They’re a crucial part in my daily routine.”
As something that most people frequently interact with, mirrors have an impact that goes beyond just reflecting people and items. According to Stellman, the placement and design of mirrors can change the visual perception of the room.
“Mirroring a wall in a room makes the room look twice as large, and can help bring extra light into a dark space,” Stellman wrote in an email. “To expand and brighten a space we mirror full walls. For decorative use frames or beveled edges can be added.”
For Kapadia, one aspect of mirrors that she also appreciates is how mirrors come in cool shapes and borders and can be artistic pieces as well. She said vintage or antique mirrors are one example of this.
“People buy those because the borders tend to be super ornate, and usually made out of brass or silver,” Kapadia said. “They also come in various sizes so people use them as decorative wall art in their homes.”
Kapadia, who visited a mosaic shop in Morocco last year, said mirrors in Morocco are often unique.
“In Morocco, people make handmade mosaic borders for mirrors, and those are often custom-made and regarded as a family heirloom or prized possession after purchase,” Kapadia said.
But despite the amount of history, culture and use around mirrors, they are often overlooked as an important household object.
“I don’t really think about them too much, I just accept them as something that’s always there,” Kapadia said.
Mirrors can be found everywhere. Frequenting homes, restaurants and schools alike, they are common everyday objects that most people never stop to think twice about. Throughout the centuries, the presence of mirrors has changed and evolved, but what makes a mirror a mirror has remained the same. And perhaps that is what makes them so unique.