A monumental giltwood mirror from about 1840, which has now been installed in Bartow-Pell’s entrance hall, may be the largest known documented New York mirror of the first half of the 19th century. This splendid piece was recently given to the museum by Richard T. (Dick) Button from his fine collection of American Classical furniture and decorative arts. (And yes, Mr. Button is also the legendary Olympic figure skater.)
The giltwood frame is an extraordinary 97 inches high (about 8 feet) and holds a single piece of mirrored glass. Its seven-board wooden back bears three large oval stencil marks in ink: From/Hudson & Smith/Looking Glass/Manufacturers/119/Fulton & 2 S Ann St./N-Y.
The firm of Hudson & Smith was active in New York City from 1838 to 1852. Horace R. Hudson’s partner was John C. Smith, who is listed as a gilder in New York City directories. The pair’s 1845 advertisement in Sheldon & Co.’s Business or Advertising Directory offers “looking glasses, looking glass plates, picture frames and curtain ornaments, wholesale and retail.” According to BPMM board member, Curatorial Committee co-chair, and classical decorative arts expert Carswell Berlin:
The firm of Hudson & Smith formed as early as 1838 and appears for the first time in Longworth’s City Directory in 1839 as “looking glass” makers at 119 Fulton Street, where they would remain as a looking-glass maker, at least until 1852. By 1857, Trow’s City Directory lists Horace R. Hudson as an “Agent” at the same address. By 1862, Hudson is no longer listed.
This is one of the largest—if not the largest—known documented New York mirrors of the first half of the 19th century. Hudson & Smith does not appear in Betty Ring’s “Check List of Looking-glass and Frame Makers and Merchants Known by Their Labels” (Magazine Antiques, May 1981), 1178–1195, so it can be inferred that mirrors marked by this firm are extremely rare and unknown as recently as 1981.
Hudson & Smith, like some of their American competitors, may have used imported looking-glass plates from factories such as the Royal Mirror Glass Manufactory of St. Gobain in France, whose agents had operations in New York City starting in 1830.
This magnificent piece could have been used over a mantelpiece or as a pier mirror. A fashionable young couple in New York debated this very topic in an 1845 novel, Evelyn: A Tale of Domestic Life by Anna Cora Mowatt, when they “had an animated conversation . . . concerning the arrangement of a large mirror which they had just purchased” for their handsome house. “‘We must have it placed over the mantel-piece,’ said Mr. Merritt. ‘I bought it exactly to fit there.’ ‘No, no,’ returned Evelyn. ‘I do not like glasses over mantel-pieces; it must be placed between the windows.’” After much discussion, the besotted husband “acknowledged himself conquered,” and his wife put the mirror where she wanted it. And in 1839, the influential Scottish designer and writer J. C. Loudon (1783–1843) expressed his views on pier mirrors. He wrote, “In the pier between the windows should be a large looking-glass filling up the whole,” placed over a “marble slab . . . [with a] gilt stand supporting it. . . . On the slab might be china vases filled with flowers.”
Bartow-Pell is also the delighted recipient of a brass solar lamp from the Button collection. The lamp was made in England about 1830 and comprises a base with patinated and bright finishes and a frosted glass shade. Solar lamps—so named because their light shone brilliantly like the sun—used a tubular wick and central shaft to increase air flow, resulting in a brighter flame. As such, they resembled Argand lamps, but advances in the design of the font and burner allowed solar lamps to burn less expensive fuel.
Lamps such as these were often used on center tables or on pier tables. Americans frequently imported lamps and other household objects from Britain, where there was a thriving metal industry, especially in Birmingham. For more information on 19th-century brass lamps, click here.
These superb new acquisitions from the Button collection help us to refine our period rooms so that we can better tell the story of the Bartow family and interpret their stately former home, which was built between 1836 and 1842. And isn’t it wonderful that our dramatic new mirror reflects the elegant beauty of the mansion’s classical entrance hall?
Margaret Highland, Historian