- In the Looking Glass: Mirrors and Identity in Early America by Rebecca K. Shrum
Mirrors, Looking glass, Race, Native Americans, Atlantic World
The best kind of history should make you see the world anew. Rebecca K. Shrum’s In the Looking Glass does just that. The world in which nearly every American became intimately familiar with what Shrum calls their “mirror selves” took place slowly, unevenly, and shaped, in surprising ways, how peoples across the Atlantic world practiced and constructed race, gender, identity, and magic. Combining evidence and methodologies from written sources, probate inventories, visual studies, archaeology, ethnology, and oral history, Shrum carefully presents the contours of what she can and cannot know about the historical social lives of mirrors. And by devoting serious consideration to the practices of Europeans, European colonists, Indians, Africans, and early Americans of African descent, Shrum has written an Atlantic story that does more than merely gesture at transcontinental space.
Shrum makes two main arguments. First, she argues, “Whites claimed that they alone understood and used mirrors properly. Mirrors were tools of rational enlightenment, white men claimed, that could increase their mastery over themselves and their world” (4). The enlightenment discourse of manly racial mastery existed in intersectional relation with European associations of mirrors with women and vanity. By repeatedly drawing sneering attention to the ways (real and imagined) that Native men used mirrors, white commentators claimed Native men behaved like women and women were hopelessly vain, thereby justifying both racialized and gendered hierarchies. Yet despite such claims, white Americans continued to believe in mirrors’ powers to divine the future (especially future mates) and to reflect ghosts, and “In some cases the proliferation of mirrors seems to have actually strengthened putatively premodern beliefs about reflection” (101). The second set of arguments revolve around Shrum’s insistence that mirrors remained contested objects throughout these centuries, that this white racist and sexist discourse shaped but never fully determined the ways white women, Native people, and people of African descent sought out, transformed, understood, and used mirrors in early America.
In the Looking Glass proceeds from production to circulation to use [End Page 335] to meaning. Chapter 1 explores the changing technologies of looking glasses, examining the shift from metal to glass mirrors in Europe. Shrum provides an overview of the manufacturing processes and how the production of “accurately reflective looking glasses” spread from Venice to other parts of Europe. The fact that all the mirror glass in this study was made in Europe, however, and that American craftsmen only framed or reframed such mirror glass, seems more important than Shrum has indicated. Throughout the manuscript, Shrum examines the ways that African and Native peoples “creolized” and culturally incorporated “European mirrors,” but does not do so similarly for white Americans. The Americans who claimed to be white did so partly by claiming mirrors made in Europe as rightfully “theirs” by a racial theory of ownership and civilization. Shrum could have done more to provincialize these white Americans, by showing that all these peoples in North America made claims about themselves and one another through a shared materiality flowing from Europe.
In Chapters 2 and 3, Shrum lays out her evidence on where mirrors were, who had them, and what people may have done with them. Readers are presented with fascinating details, like that by the 1660s, over 30 percent of Native people in the Connecticut River Valley likely owned mirrors, and probably closer to 100 percent had access to one (31), while only 17 percent of white colonist households in Connecticut could claim the same (43). Shrum demonstrates that mirrors were widespread in North America and Africa, that people traded, modified, and reframed them into different cultural contexts. I do, however, wish more of the methodology had been placed in notes, and that the cultural and material analyses had not been kept as separate as they were.
Chapters 4 and 5 examine how Americans developed gendered and racialized practices around mirrors. Shrum argues that mirrors helped...