In Focus

Looking glass, 18th century, England

The following essay is from the 1989 publication: American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, by Charles L. Venable.

Large flat sheets of plate glass were not produced in America until the 19th century. Consequently, wealthy American who wished to furnish their houses with looking glasses had to import them from Europe. Although many of the looking glasses used in colonial America came from England, glasses from northen Europe were sometimes imported as well. Furthermore, unframed (or simply framed) glass plates were often imported into the colonies and framed by American frame makers.

This particular example was made in England and shipped to the colonies. Its vertical proportions, scrolled and gilt decoration, and two-part glass are all typical of middle-level English work of the mid 18th century. Also, the use of European walnut veneer and spruce in this glass is characteristic of English work. What is especially interesting about this particular example, however, is the use of yellow poplar for the top and bottom gilt ornaments. At present it is believed that yellow poplar was not exported to England, as was black walnut and eastern white pine. However, the presence of period decoration carved from yellow poplar on an English looking glass suggests that this wood may in fact have been sent to England, if only in limited quantities. It is also possible that this glass was sent to the colonies without top and bottom ornaments and that these were added by an Amerian carver. Certainly, American towns like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston had numerous carvers capable of executing such rococo elements, as well as a mercantile class anxious to proclaim their success and status through opulent furnishings.

Excerpted from

Charles L. Venable, American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, published in association with the Dallas Museum of Art, 1989), 55.