Ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Chinese forged mirrors out of metals like tin, silver, bronze, and copper. Some were made of a brittle alloy of copper and tin known as “speculum metal,” which has a highly reflective surface. Early mirror-makers polished rounded flattened sheets of speculum until they could see their reflections in the metal. These sheets were then attached to a wood, metal, or ivory handle, and adorned on the back and along the edges with embellishments. Because they were so difficult to make, only elite rulers possessed hand mirrors.
The first metal-coated glass mirrors were introduced in Sidon (a port in modern-day Lebanon) around the first century A.D. These round mirrors were usually only three inches in diameter, but at that point, the reflection was still not as clear as on metal mirrors. Metal hand mirrors spread throughout Europe during the Roman Empire.
During the Renaissance, European glass-makers figured out how to coat glass with a tin-mercury amalgam that created a perfectly reflective surface. Venice, known for its skilled glass artisans, became a center of high-quality mirror production in the 1500s. At the time, aristocrats coveted ornate hand-made matching vanity sets, which usually included a hairbrush, a comb, and a handheld mirror. The first modern mirrors appeared in 1835 when Justus von Liebig developed a technique for coating glass with silver.
In the late 1800s, hand mirrors became a must-have for every bedroom in a well-to-do Victorian home. The mirrors would be made of hand-cut and beveled mirror glass set in silver, brass, or silverplate. In France and Germany, hand mirrors with hand-painted porcelain backs became popular.