Back to Main Page

                    Miniature Mirrors Program   


                                                       Miniature Mirrors Program

The pocket mirror in American served several definite purposes around the turn of the last century, some commercial, some social, all aesthetic. Most used as souvenirs, these tiny looking glasses span ages, from the sterling silver ones of the 1880’s to the celluloid of the 1930’s. Filigree and embossed brass, tin and even walnut are some of the varied textures.

Twentieth century advertisers attracted attention to their wares by distributing utilitarian gadgets embellished with clever slogans and eye-catching illustrations. Popular giveaways included tin trays, hand-held fans, and calendars adorned with images of beautiful young women and cherubs. Equally handsome, though less common, were celluloid-backed pocket mirrors. In vogue from about 1900 to 1930, these close cousins of the pin-back button relied on the magic of chromolithography to portray a positive image of a product or service. Oval, round, or rectangular, the mirrors ranged from about 1-1/2” to 5” wide and tucked neatly into a best pocket or purse.

As early as 1868, a patent was issued for an inkless, embossed brass-top shell mirror. Often backed by a paper disc, another brass design, or even a coin replica, the brass-edged shell was the first commercial object to include a small pocket-size mirror. Its wide rum was often pierced with holes to hold a number of straight pins, thus protecting a third function: it served as advertisement, pocket mirror and pin holder as well.

Less costly to produce, the silver or nickel-plate embossed shell mirror soon followed. In later years, aluminum was sometimes used.

A natural successor was the extremely inexpensive paper-disc mirror, attached to a pasteboard circle or oval and held in place by a thin tin edging loop. Extremely fragile and susceptible to damage, the paper disc was soon covered by a think sheet of glass. Even these proved delicate and permitted limited freedom of color and design.

The introduction of clear celluloid around the turn of the century, brought a radical change. Textured papers and other fabric-like surfaces, sometimes a metallic gold-like foil, appeared. Again, everything changed, when the think sheet of celluloid was placed over an intricately printed, colored lithographic image, held in place and backed by a small mirror, with everything clamped together by a metal ring or framing loop called a “collet.” This allowed the celluloid to encase the mirror completely, providing a rim upon which the manufacturers’ name could be printed. John Wesley Hyatt was the American inventor who, in his search for a substitute for ivory, experimented with cellulose. In 1870, he obtained a patent for “celluloid,” the first successful synthetic material and the precursor of all the plastics we use today. (Prices of ladies’ toilet sets and individual pieces are based on materials used, complexity of design, age, and condition.)

Mirrors were manufactured primarily using mercury as the reflective coating, although silver was occasionally was used. The best mirror frames and handles were decorative silver or silverplate. A guide for collectors of items produced during the year 1837-1901 (Victorian: the time when Victoria was Queen of England).

Silver toilet sets came in a variety of configurations and decorative designs, ranging from simple embossed or engraved floral patterns to such high-relief molded figures as Cupids or Venuses. (These latter versions usually date from the Art Nouveau period at the turn of the century.)

Rich or poor, the Victorians looked upon possessions as a sign of achievement. They always bought the best they could afford.

Victorians received their share of promotional influences – these often took the form of functional “giveaways” – items such as ashtrays, pencils, ink pens and blotters, storage bins, doorstops, coin banks, bookmarks, calendars, clocks, fans, paperweights, tape measures, shoe horns, and the last but not least, pocket mirrors. Condition if of primary importance, with mint or near-mint examples often bringing premium prices. Other factors in determining value include type of item; size, shape and purpose; materials; age; manufacturer or imprints; and supply and demand.

Basically, the more on the mirror, the more it cost to make, and thus the great its value; the more art, more color, more wording…more information.

Price ranges: $15-$100+. The average being $45.00.

Pocket mirrors can be grouped into categories by:

1) Type of material 2) Subject 3) Location 4) Specific design elements

By Materials:

1) Embossed metal shell, brass, nickel, or silver-plate, aluminum
2) Paper-topped
3) Glass covered paper
4) Textured paper under celluloid
5) Fabric-like material
6) Celluloid (over chromolithograph or photograph)
7) Other materials (tin, wood, leather, & rubber, rarely seen)
8) With handles: rigid or folding
9) Mirrors as container tops (compacts)

By Subject:

1) Animals, birds, creatures
2) Celebrations, expositions, World’s Fairs
3) Entertainment
4) Famous people
5) Farm equipment
6) Food, beverage, tobacco
7) Geographic areas
8) Military
9) Organizations, associations
10) Products, services
11) Social causes
12) Sports
13) Transportation

Although this listing seems inclusive, it omits several categories of possible interest to a collector of pocket mirrors.

I. Advertising

1. Illustrated. Products specifically for use by: women, men, children
2. Product categories
3. Birthstones encircling field
4. Related circumferential: clock faces, calendars
5. Animals
6. Reflection- related: (“the lady on the other side is requested”)
7. Shaped image – entire mirror is the product
8. Inverted image – “Naughty Nellie”
9. Theatrical
10. Transportation – ships, boats, etc.
11. Political
12. Geographic
13. Buildings
14. Holidays
15. Good For’s: good for specific amount in trade.
16. Recreation
17. Music

II. Pictorial

1. Wedding portraits
2. Family ceremonies
3. Personal documents
4. Personal portraits
5. Manipulated – dexterity games or toys, with tiny beads, dice, etc.    
    (“Naughty Nellies” reveal risqué image when inverted.)
6. Paperweights

Authenticity – your best guarantee is to patronize reputable dealers.

Condition – brown stain, called “foxing” is rust.

Value, Desirability “Saloon” instead of “bar” or “tavern” on an early mirror. “T” (for Territory) after Western State names (Arizona or California, Alaska and Hawaii), are very rare and valuable. Western state names are more desirable than those of Eastern states, and even Midwestern state names are preferable to those in the Northeast.

A 7-digit phone number (pre-area codes!) is a sign of the 1940’s. Basically, the more on the mirror, the more it cost to make, and thus the greater its value; the more art, more color, more wording…more information.

Identification & Research

1. Period telephone directories are available in larger libraries.
2. Bride/Groom portraits: style or gown, head-dress, hairstyles etc. – cue for
    their decade.
3. A date may be discovered, with a magnifying glass, on the face or edge of
    the mirror.
4. A patent date may be several years earlier than the actual date of the
    mirror.                                                                                                                             Back to Top