The invention of mirrors and why they matter

All the way back to 6200 BC, and probably before that, humans made mirrors. In Turkey, they polished obsidian; in Egypt, copper. Over at Smithsonian, beloved Boing Boing contributor Clive Thompson explores the technological and cultural history of the mirror. From Smithsonian:

During the medieval period in Europe, paintings of vice would include women gazing into hand mirrors while the skeletons of demons lurked behind them.

Through the middle ages, the technology for mirrors was crude: Fashioned from blown glass, they were usually small and often convex. In the Renaissance, Italians began developing techniques for making flatter glass, and in 1507 hit upon a combo of covering the back of the glass with mercury and tin to produce startlingly clear mirrors. This new technology was enthralling, but so expensive that nobles sometimes sold property just to afford one. "I had some wretched land which brought me nothing but wheat," as one countess said in an account by the early 19th-century philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon, "so I sold it and bought this fine mirror." In the 16th and 17th centuries, mirror making was so costly that it required the investment of half of France's GDP. By the time the Renaissance was in full flower, wealthy noblemen could procure mirrors so large they could regard their entire body at a glance.

It was a transformative sight. The historian Ian Mortimer believes that mirrors were central in developing the modern sense of the primacy of the individual over the community. "Mankind," Mortimer tells me, became "a valid topic of study in his own right; he's no longer seen through the lens of God's creation." Wealthy merchants and nobles began to commission more and more portraits[…]

In one sense, our smartphones, with all these selfies, are now our pocket mirrors, inspiring the same self-conscious anxieties that mirrors provoked. Yet taking a selfie is also different from peering into a mirror: The mirror is mostly private, but every time we pose for a selfie, "we're aware of its potential for publicness," says Alicia Eler, author of The Selfie Generation.

"The Original Selfie Craze Was the Mirror" by Clive Thompson (Smithsonian)

image: detail of "Roman fresco of a woman fixing her hair using a mirror, from Stabiae, Italy, 1st century AD," Naples National Archaeological Museum (CC BY-SA 2.0)