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Looking Glass

Place Made:
Date Made:
mahogany –spruce
HOA: 22 1/2″ WOA: 12″
Accession Number:
Though looking glasses were common in middle class households in the 18th century Chesapeake, this is one of the only examples with a Virginia history known to survive. Of the 325 Chesapeake inventories analyzed by Gunston Hall and George Mason University in the “Probing the Past” project, more than 300 included at least one looking glass or mirror. Looking glasses reflect the democratization of luxury goods during the consumer revolution.

While looking glasses were undoubtedly made in Virginia using imported mirrors, the majority were probably imports like this one. The use of spruce as a secondary wood confirms that this looking glass is a British import. An inscription on the backboard of this looking glass reads “this glass was brought from England by John Humber who helped to throw the tea overboard from the ship when we rebelled against England.” John Humber (b.1705) was born in England and immigrated to Virginia in the 1730s. A family history suggests that he was apprenticed to a tailor in Henrico County. Later he purchased land in Hanover County. John Humber was married to Betty Meeks and the couple had a son, John Humber (1735-1806), who married Elizabeth Christian of Goochland County. Based on the style of the looking glass, it was probably first owned by John and Betty (Meeks) Humber.

The reference to throwing “tea overboard from the ship” may refer to an incident called the Yorktown Tea Party. On November 7, 1774 a group of Virginians boarded the ship Virginia at Yorktown and threw two half-chests of tea overboard in protest. It could also be apocryphal.

DESCRIPTION: Looking glass with double-arched top. The looking glass consists of a square frame of spruce joined with dovetails. A thin mahogany molding is mitered and applied onto this frame. Evidence of gilding remains on the on inner moulding closest to the looking glass. The arched top of mahogany veneered spruce is applied to the frame with glue. The looking glass is sandwiched into a rabbet in the frame by a spruce backboard and wrought nails.

RELATED OBJECTS: The MESDA Collection also has a portrait of Elizabeth (Christian) Humber by the Payne Limner that shares the same provenance as this looking glass (MESDA acc. 5984.1)

The looking glass descended directly in the Humber family. It probably first belonged to John (b.1705) and Betty (Meeks) Humber. Then it likely passed into the household of their son John Humber (1735-1806) and Elizabeth (Christian) Humber. Then to their son William Humber (1778-1825), to his son Oliver Perry Humber (1813-1891), to his son William Hodgson Humber (1844-1914), to recent family owners.
Credit Line:
Nancy C. James MESDA Purchase Fund