The convex mirror, sometimes called a bull's-eye mirror, first became popular in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. The style was called regency in England and named empire in France, but the design of the mirrors and frames was very similar. The American federal style was a direct outgrowth of the two European styles and varied mostly with its emphasis on patriotic symbols.
Artists and designers in both Europe and America were inspired by the classical designs associated with Greece and Rome. Regency, empire and federal furniture styles were characterized by use of columns, stylized plant representations and delicate ornamentation. All authentic antique mirror frames were made of wood and gilded with gold leaf. Some were inlaid with ebony. A few were given octagonal frames, but the most common shape was round.
To the traditionally round shape of the convex mirror, ornamentation was added to the top, bottom and sides. Even though the eagle eventually became an American symbol, older European mirrors were frequently topped with eagles in all sorts of poses. Presumably Europeans appreciated the eagle for the same reason that Americans found the bird admirable: its strength and independence.
Above all, convex mirror designs are symmetrical, both from side to side and from top to bottom. The ornamentation on the sides of the round frame is the mirror image of the other. It may involve all sorts of natural or stylized flowers and leaves, sheaves of grain, bundles of olive branches, candle sconces and more. The eagle or other elaborate design tops the frame and may be accompanied with a small shelf. The bottom of the frame is ornamented and perfectly balanced with a hanging shape also based on neoclassical ideas, but representations of animal or human forms are rare except for the eagle.
Federal-style mirrors combine all the characteristics of the European designs but are most often topped with eagles which had, by the end of the 18th century, become a symbol of American independence and tenacity. Often federal designs included symbolic representations of the 13 original colonies in the form of balls, feathers or stars. Other symbols, like spears or arrows, may represent the fight for independence.
Genuine or Not
Genuine antique federal mirrors are still occasionally found at flea markets or garage sales, but buyers are much more likely to find the plastic replicas produced from the mid-20th century until the present. Original frames are likely to be worn or damaged but may be restored by a reputable artisan, or they may be used as they were found. Evidence of age does not diminish the appeal of an antique. Genuine mirrors in good condition are likely to cost several hundred or even thousands of dollars.
Karen W. Waggoner is a retired teacher and lifetime scribbler. She has published short stories, essays in anthologies and periodicals. Waggoner is the author of the memoir, "On My Honor, A Navy Wife’s Vietnam War." She is a graduate of Stetson University, the University of Connecticut and Christian College for Women.