“Do you have any information on the history of brewery and distillery branded mirrors? No one I’ve spoken to seems to know exactly why or how they started, or why they dropped off.” — Nathan, via Twitter
It’s often hard to pinpoint the exact moment a trend began but we do know, first, that the popularity of glass as a building material and for decoration in particular increased after the Great Exhibition of 1851, the centrepiece of which, the Crystal Palace, used glass with great extravagance.
We also know that techniques for cutting designs into large sheets of glass took off at around the same time leading to early examples of brewery-branded glass panels and mirrors, with only relatively simple designs, in the 1850s and 60s. A technique known as ‘back-painting’ became popular in the 1870s and brought colour into play. (All of that according to Inside the Pub, McDunnet & Gorham, Architectural Press, 1950.) By the end of the 19th century a look and feel that had been the preserve of private homes and exclusive clubs was the preferred style for grander city pubs. But decorative glass was still relatively expensive, which brings us to the kind of branded mirrors Nathan has in mind.
In his essential book Victorian Pubs, published in 1975 and revised in 1984, architectural historian Mark Girouard suggests that branded pub mirrors really became ‘a thing’ from the 1890s:
The publican who wished to economize in the considerable outlay required to line his pub with decorated glass could go in for advertising mirrors, which were presumably paid for or subsidized by the breweries and distillers whose names they bore. These lettered mirrors, though not as luscious as the painted glass panels which preceded them, were sufficiently decorative, and survive in much larger numbers. They were a speciality of the Brilliant Sign Company which established itself in Gray’s Inn Road [in London] in 1893. It stall of scrolled and gilded mirrors, advertising all the leading brewers and distillers, was a familiar and regular feature and the Licensed Victuallers Exhibition for many years.
In other words, fancy glass and mirrors became a kind of sponsored decor.
As to when this kind of mirror dropped off… Well, did they? There was definitely a trend away from the display of ‘vulgar’ advertising materials and towards plainer pubs from World War I until the 1960s but there nonetheless seem to be plenty of examples of pub mirrors from that period. Here’s one from Usher’s of Trowbridge, noticeably more restrained than Victorian examples, that must date from the 1920s or 1930s:
When new pubs were built in the post-WWII reconstruction phase up to the early 1960s they tended to have pointedly modern designs which eschewed any hint of the Victorian, but that really only lasted for a decade or so before a Victorian revival kicked off. Pub designers such as Ben Davis and Roderick Gradidge regarded mirrors as essential for creating atmosphere and Davis, who designed pubs for Ind Coope from the 1950s onward, said in his 1981 book The Traditional English Pub that by “using large framed mirrors we can penetrate walls, make solid screens transparent and given an impression of complexity”.
When the supply of genuine antique examples recovered by brewers from their own defunct pubs or from architectural salvage yards began to dry up, they began producing pastiches. That’s why you see Tetley mirrors absolutely everywhere, most of which we’d guess (corrections welcome) date from the 1970s or even early 1980s, but which people often take to be much older.
Although small souvenir-sized mirrors for big international brands are available, mostly pitched at the so-called ‘man cave’ market, breweries these days don’t generally go in for producing mirrors, especially not huge ones. One exception is Bristol brewery Dawkins whose founder, Glen Dawkins, makes his own DIY pub mirrors which can be seen on display at, for example, the Hillgrove Porter Stores. Until the next revival of Victorian style arrives, sweeping away the minimalism and industrial chic of the past couple of decades, we can’t imagine that changing.