Like everybody who is, um, getting on in years, I’ve had to get new eyeglasses recently. I began to wonder who invented them, what’s the history and just how collectible are the old ones so I did some research and found out eyeglass history is pretty interesting though nobody knows who really invented them.
Chances are you are reading this with the aid of eyeglasses. Virtually everybody wears them, or should wear them, at some point. They not only help you to see more clearly, they can protect your eyes from bright sunlight and, bonus, they are a fashion statement. People collect vintage spectacles for several reasons. There is the changing technology in frames and lenses as well as the fun styles from different eras; some are so ornate they are a form of jewellery. Spectacles are also historically important and worthy of serious, museum-level collecting. After all, most of us past the age of 40 would not be able to read anything smaller than a billboard at ten feet without this ingenious invention. Where would we be as a society if we all had to give up reading and doing intricate work half way through life?
Spectacles are not so much an invention as an application of something that already existed. For centuries it was known that peering at something through a transparent orb made it look bigger. A thousand years ago reading stones, crude magnifying glasses, were placed on documents to make them easier to read. It wasn’t until around 1286 in Italy that someone thought of putting two of these stones in frames, riveting them together and placing them on his face. We don’t know who that person was because he deliberately kept his invention to himself, probably hoping to make a fortune from it. He did however, show it to some monks and one of them, Alessandro della Spina, was so impressed he immediately began making his own and sharing them with everybody. That’s how you start a movement; spectacle use soon spread all over Europe, missionaries introduced them to Asia but for three centuries Italy remained the centre of production.
Venice, or specifically the Island of Murano, was the world’s top glass-making area, craftsmen there set the standard for lenses. Then in the 15th century, artisans in Florence began producing the most high-quality, fashionable and innovative spectacles in the world. The Dukes of Milan ordered them by the hundreds which meant everybody else had to have a pair. Between 1416 and 1532 there were 52 different spectacle makers in Florence. Production didn’t begin in the rest of Europe until much later and even then, on nowhere near the scale as in Florence.
Florence not only produced fashionable spectacles for nobility, they made large quantities of cheap ones that were sold on the street by travelling peddlers. They even graded them for different age groups. Customers could just reach into a barrel of spectacles and keep trying them on until they found the pair that worked best. All of this is known from documentation and paintings of people wearing eyeglasses; only a handful of original specimens from this period, known as rivet glasses, exist today.
All this demand for spectacles had been spurred on by Johann Gutenberg, his printing press made books widely available and levels of literacy increased greatly after 1450. In 1665 the world’s first newspaper, The London Gazette, started an even bigger growth in demand but there were still some problems to solve.
Although they were worn on the face, no one had yet come up with a good way to keep them there, so they were usually hand-held or perched precariously on the nose. There is no easy way to standardize spectacles; everybody’s head is different and the lenses have to sit at exactly the right distance from the eyes and at the right angle or they don’t work properly. There were many solutions attempted; different bridge arrangements to keep them perched on the nose comfortably, sometimes they were held in place with a string looped over the ears, the Chinese even put weights on the strings. It wasn’t until 1730 that London optician Edward Scarlett came up with temple spectacles, with rigid sidepieces that rested on the ears. They quickly caught on and further refinements appeared; some with large hoops at the ends, some were double-hinged, extendible and so on. The extendible ones became quite popular both in Europe and America over the next century and are very collectible today.
1725 seems to be the magic year for collectors; eyeglasses before then are rare museum pieces but, because of mass production and the explosion in popularity, later examples are more plentiful, though still not easy to find in good condition.
There is a duality about glasses that makes them far more interesting than say, hearing aids. Wearing glasses can be taken as a sign of weakness, frailty or even prissiness – ever see a cowboy wear glasses? This is how they were generally perceived in Britain and France for a long time but in Italy, Spain and China, they were always taken as a sign of higher rank, better education or someone who worked in the fine arts. People with perfect eyesight sometimes wore glasses to make themselves look more intellectual, or even fashionable. No one has ever proudly sported a hearing aid they didn’t need.
Tinted glasses, or shades, are the coolest of all. Coloured or smoked eyeglasses appeared as early as 1763 and many opticians believed they were just generally better for the eyes. They really took off (so to speak) in the 1930s when large reflective ones were developed for pilots; aviator glasses became a hot style. Another very collectible style of protective glasses was called Martin’s Margins. Popular in the late 18th century they had inserts carved from cattle horn fitted inside the rim to reduce the amount of light getting to the eyes.
As far as protective eyewear is concerned, the Inuit in Canada’s far north were way ahead of everybody. Long before the Europeans the Inuit had ingeniously developed eyeshades made of whale bone with narrow slits carved into them to protect their eyes from the blinding sunlight on snow. They were carved to fit snugly on the face and looked pretty cool too.
Changes in lenses have been important over the years; better glass and grinding techniques, the discovery of the convex lens to help people see distances and naturally, bifocals, which were invented by Benjamin Franklin, probably while he was working in London. But it’s the whim of fashion that has kept people buying new eyeglasses more often than necessary, which is good for business.
In the 1930s film star Harold Lloyd popularized tortoise shell glasses, Buddy Holly and U.S. politician Barry Goldwater popularized horn-rimmed glasses (they were props, neither one needed them), Audrey Hepburn gave us the cat’s eye, John Lennon brought back wire-rimmed granny glasses and we can thank Jackie Onassis for those face-covering giants of the 1980s.
There are now millions of unused but serviceable and very expensive eyeglasses lying around. Tons of them are gathered up by charities to be distributed to those who need but cannot afford them. Collectors can only hope that some rare 18th century set is not tossed away too.