The Original Selfie Craze Was the Mirror
Today’s social media obsession has its roots in the development centuries ago of the reflective material
Barry and Marlene Bogle run a farm in southern Ontario, and each summer they produce about 1.6 million shoulder-high sunflowers. It’s a gorgeous sight, so in 2018 the Bogles decided to open a side business, charging $7.50 per adult to visit the farm and take photographs among the blooms. Young women came in droves to pose for selfies in sundresses; bearded men in sunglasses would snap shots of their faces poking cheekily out of the crops.
It quickly spun out of control. Soon, thousands of visitors were arriving each day, trampling the crops as they sought the perfect selfie. Their cars clogged nearby roads, causing accidents; one car door was ripped off. It soon became clear to the Bogles that many of these smiling visitors were coming not to see the flowers, but to see themselves.
“I can only describe it as like a zombie apocalypse,” the Bogles’ son Brad, who works on the farm, told Canada’s Globe and Mail. The Bogles canceled the selfie-taking business after just eight days. Two years later, hopeful picture-seekers still visit, only to be turned away before they can ruin the flowers.
These days, selfies often get a bad rap. When you consider the fate of the Bogles, it’s not hard to see why: Pundits blame them for creating an upswell of self-regard, a culture where everyone is constantly primping for the camera and focusing on themselves while ignoring the world around them. Some academic research supports this dim view; one study published in October 2019 found that the highest levels of selfie-taking correlated with “grandiose narcissism”—an inflated sense of self. And famous models keep ratcheting up the pressure: Recently, Instagram superstars including Kylie Jenner and Emily Rataj-kowski began sharing “multi-selfies,” in which they post several snaps of themselves in nearly the exact same pose. The multi-selfie “expresses a first-world problem of the highest order: essentially, you cannot decide which of your marginally different, equally vain pictures to post so you post all of them,” the journalist Phoebe Luckhurst wrote in an article about the trend. Defenders, on the other hand, argue that selfies are a perfectly healthy way of exploring who we are.
Still, it shouldn’t be surprising that the selfie arouses such passions. Similar anxieties and enthusiasms stirred hundreds of years ago, when the original tool for self-scrutiny emerged in its modern form: the mirror.
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Judging by the archaeological record, we’ve been fascinated by our reflections for a long time. Some of the earliest human-made mirrors, fashioned from polished obsidian, date to 6200 B.C. in Turkey. Egyptians later made mirrors of polished copper, and Chinese inventors from reflective jade. Mirrors were sometimes involved in religious observance, regarded as a portal to a spiritual world.
But even back then, mirrors were largely used to assess how gorgeous we were. Egyptian paintings and carvings show the upper classes combing their hair and applying thick red, green, yellow and black cosmetics in front of mirrors. Later, the Greeks and Romans developed small glass mirrors, and their ability to critique and primp became even more precise. Men began curling their hair and fretted about baldness. Romans would even use mirrors “to look at themselves having orgies,” says Mark Pendergrast, author of Mirror Mirror. With all this sex and primping, mirrors were associated from early on with vanity and self-obsession, particularly in women. 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.
Fashion became an even sharper obsession. As the playwright and novelist Louis-Sébastien Mercier noted in the 1780s, wealthy young men would peer “in four mirrors at once to see if their breeches are tight against their skin”—a sort of “multi-selfie” before its time. In 1715, the essayist Richard Steele observed throngs flocking to a London mirror shop, where “[people] will certainly be well pleased, for they will have unavoidable Opportunities of seeing what they most like....I mean their own dear selves.” Wealthy Europeans became increasingly obsessed with how they appeared to each other, and the well-off would spend hours practicing their smiles and physical poses in the mirror.
Many devout Christians, including American Puritans, sniffed at all this self-regard. In the early years of America, “mirrors were considered, within American society, a very suspect class of objects...a kind of luxury that was somewhat shameful,” says Josiah McElheny, a Brooklyn-based artist who works with mirrors. Some countries levied taxes on large mirrors. America’s mirror taxes were so high that if a furniture maker wished to create a full-body-sized reflection without going bankrupt, he had to assemble it from several smaller mirrors.
It wasn’t until the last decades of the 19th century that the industrial world could finally make big mirrors cheaply. Production exploded, and mirrors quickly passed from extravagances for the rich to everyday devices that were affordable among an emerging middle class. In 1897, Sears Roebuck advertised ten-inch-square mirrors for only 50 cents apiece (around $15 in today’s money) and proclaimed: “No house is complete without a number of small mirrors which are handy in so many rooms.”
Suddenly, people of modest means could examine their appearance with the obsessiveness of a nobleman. They could even do it on the go: One hot commodity, mass-marketed in the early 20th century, was the compact mirror; some were tricked out with add-ons like electric fans.
In the Roaring Twenties, the business of cosmetics accelerated, propelled by a hunger for novelty and a flood of young, single women entering the workforce, newly attentive to how they appeared. Women came to apply cosmetics ostentatiously, flicking open their compacts with a flourish at the dinner table or on a public bus. “If we rouge our cheeks and powder our noses before every mirror we meet in public, there can be no turpitude in that!” Dorothy Cocks argued in her 1927 book Etiquette of Beauty.
Standards for everyday cosmetics were also heightened by movies, where professional lighting and the newfangled technique of the close-up, popularized in 1911, spurred increasingly nuanced movie star makeup. Equipped with modern mirrors that offered their own personal close-ups, women aimed to master those movie star looks themselves. Women’s and men’s use of cosmetics was “professionalizing” during this period, says Lisa Eldridge, a veteran makeup artist and author of Face Paint: The Story of Makeup. Max Factor, a cosmetics pioneer in the 1920s, urged women to stare into their mirrors at length, the better to understand what their natural look really was, and thus how to enhance it. “Nature’s work,” Factor noted, “is often incomplete.”
We were suddenly much more aware of our outer surfaces. “Around the 1920s is where a woman’s appearance is described as her ‘look,’” says Margaret Maile Petty, executive director of entrepreneurship at the University of Technology Sydney, whose academic work focuses on lighting and domestic interiors. And with a generation of men now peering into the mirror all day, beards—so prominent in Victorian times—essentially vanished in the first decades of the 20th century. In 1937, Pendergrast found, men spent as much money at barbershops as women spent in beauty parlors. By 1930, men’s and women’s cosmetics was a $2 billion-a-year industry.
McElheny argues that the mass use of mirrors is entwined with Western culture’s shift toward psychological thinking—the idea that a crucial life task is to peer into our emotions and hidden motivations. “In the late 19th century, early 20th century, because of the concept of the mirror, you couldn’t call yourself an up-to-date person or a ‘modern’ person unless you have examined yourself,” McElheny says.
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.
Just as compact mirrors did in the early 20th century, selfies on social media have propelled an explosion in technologies of self-presentation, from custom lights for taking self-portraits on your phone to photo-filtering software that airbrushes your appearance. “You just look like you have this unbelievably professionally applied makeup and perfect skin,” says Eldridge, the makeup artist. Yet when the filters are turned off, the high-resolution nature of today’s phones can be even more brutally honest than a mirror, showing every tiny flaw. Eldridge worries this enhanced self-scrutiny can be emotionally hard to bear. “It’s kind of a crazy, interesting, almost warped psychologically—quite damaging, probably—time to be a young woman or man,” she says.
Psychologists are generally less fretful about selfies than other critics. Certainly, young people with pre-existing psychological issues can suffer under the pressure of incessant self-presentation, says Alexandra Hamlet, a clinical psychologist who works with preteens and teenagers at the Child Mind Institute in Manhattan. But for those who are generally in good mental health, copious selfie-taking can be a part of natural development.
“Children, teens get to try on different personae,” Hamlet says, “in a way that can be a little bit more healthy than going out and, you know, experimenting with drugs.”
Painters have long used mirrors to reflect their subjects’ inner lives. Gaze at these startling examples. —Ted Scheinman