The History of Eyeglasses

  • BY Matthew Surrence

In the beginning was the word, and the word was blurry.

That’s because eyeglasses hadn’t been invented yet. If you were nearsighted, farsighted or had an astigmatism, you were out of luck. Everything was blurry.

It wasn’t until the late 13th century that corrective lenses were invented and crude, rudimentary things they were. But what did people whose vision wasn’t perfect do before that?

They did one of two things. They either resigned themselves to being unable to see well, or they did what clever people always do.

They improvised.

The first improvised eyeglasses were makeshift sunglasses, of a sort. Prehistoric Inuits wore flattened walrus ivory in front of their faces to block the sun’s rays.

inuit snow goggles

In ancient Rome, the emperor Nero would hold a polished emerald in front of his eyes to reduce the sun’s glare while he watched gladiators fight.

His tutor, Seneca, bragged that he read “all the books in Rome” through a large glass bowl filled with water, which magnified the print. There’s no record as to whether a goldfish got in the way.

cat and goldfish

This was the introduction of corrective lenses, which was advanced, a bit, in Venice around 1000 C.E., when Seneca’s bowl and water (and possibly goldfish) were replaced by a flat-bottom, convex glass sphere that was laid on top of the reading material, becoming in effect the first magnifying glass and enabling the Sherlock Holmes of medieval Italy to gather numerous clues to solve crimes. These “reading stones” also allowed monks to continue to read, write, and illuminate manuscripts after they turned 40.

Chinese judges of the 12th-century wore a type of sunglasses, made from smoky quartz crystals, held in front of their faces so their expressions couldn’t be discerned by witnesses they interrogated, giving the lie to the “inscrutable” stereotype. Although some accounts of Marco Polo’s travels to China 100 years later claim that he said he saw elderly Chinese wearing eyeglasses, these accounts have been discredited as hoaxes, since those who have scrutinized Marco Polo’s notebooks have found no mention of eyeglasses.

Although the exact date is in dispute, it is generally agreed upon that the first pair of corrective eyeglasses was invented in Italy sometime between 1268 and 1300. These were basically two reading stones (magnifying glasses) connected with a hinge balanced on the bridge of the nose.

The first illustrations of someone wearing this style of eyeglasses are in a series of mid-14th-century paintings by Tommaso da Modena, who featured monks using monocles and wearing these early pince-nez (French for “pinch nose”) style eyeglasses to read and copy manuscripts.

Tommaso da Modena

From Italy, this new invention was introduced to the “Low” or “Benelux” countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), Germany, Spain, France and England. These glasses were all convex lenses that magnified print and objects. It was in England that eyeglass fabricators began to advertise reading glasses as a boon for those over 40. In 1629 the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers was formed, with this slogan: “A blessing to the aged”.

An important breakthrough came in the early 16th century, when concave lenses were created for the nearsighted Pope Leo X. Now eyeglasses for farsightedness and nearsightedness existed. However, all of these early versions of eyeglasses came with a major problem – they wouldn’t stay on your face.

So Spanish eyeglass manufacturers tied silk ribbons to the lenses and looped the ribbons on the wearer’s ears. When these glasses were introduced to China by Spanish and Italian missionaries, the Chinese discarded the notion of looping the ribbons at the ears. They tied little weights to the end of the ribbons to make them stay on the ear. Then a London optician, Edward Scarlett, in 1730 created the forerunner of the modern temple arms, two rigid rods that attached to the lenses and rested on top of the ears. Twenty-two years later the eyeglasses designer James Ayscough refined the temple arms, adding hinges to enable them to fold. He also tinted all of his lenses green or blue, not to make them sunglasses, but because he thought these tints also helped to improve vision.

The next big innovation in eyeglasses came with the invention of the bifocal. Although most sources routinely credit the invention of bifocals to Benjamin Franklin, in the mid-1780s, an article on the website of the College of Optometrists interrogates this claim by examining all the evidence available. It tentatively concludes that it is more likely that bifocals were invented in England in the 1760s, and that Franklin saw them there and ordered a pair for himself.

ben franklin bifocals

The attribution of the invention of bifocals to Franklin most likely stems from his correspondence with a friend, George Whatley. In one letter, Franklin describes himself as “happy in the invention of double spectacles, which serving for distant objects as well as near ones, make my eyes as useful to me as ever they were.”

However, Franklin never says he invented them. Whatley, perhaps inspired by his knowledge and appreciation of Franklin as a prolific inventor, in his reply ascribes the invention of bifocals to his friend. Others picked up and ran with this to the point that it’s now commonly accepted that Franklin invented bifocals. If anybody else was the actual inventor, this fact is lost to the ages.

The next important date in the history of eyeglasses is 1825, when English astronomer George Airy created concave cylindrical lenses that corrected his nearsighted astigmatism. Trifocals quickly followed, in 1827. Other developments that occurred in the late 18th or early 19th centuries were the monocle, which was immortalized by the character Eustace Tilley, who is to The New Yorker what Alfred E. Neuman is to Mad Magazine, and the lorgnette, eyeglasses on a stick that will turn anyone wearing them into an instant dowager.
Pince-nez glasses, you’ll recall, were introduced in the mid-14th century in those early versions perched on monks’ noses. They made a comeback 500 years later, popularized by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, whose “rough and ready” machismo negated the image of glasses as strictly for sissies.

teddy roosevelt

By the early 20th century, though, pince-nez glasses were replaced in popularity by glasses worn by, wait for it, movie stars, of course. Silent film star Harold Lloyd, whom you’ve seen hanging from a skyscraper while holding the hands of a big clock, wore full-rim, round tortoiseshell glasses that became all the rage, in part because they restored temple arms to the frame.

Fused bifocals, improving on the Franklin-style design by fusing the distance- and near-vision lenses together, were introduced in 1908. Sunglasses became popular in the 1930s, in part because the filter to polarize sunlight was invented in 1929, enabling sunglasses to absorb ultraviolet and infrared light. Another reason for the popularity of sunglasses is because glamorous movie stars were photographed wearing them.

The need to adapt sunglasses for the needs of World War II pilots led to the popular aviator style of sunglasses. Advances in plastics enabled frames to be made in various colors, and the new style of glasses for women, called cat-eye because of the pointy top edges of the frame, turned eyeglasses into a feminine fashion statement.

marylyn monroe

Conversely, men’s eyeglasses styles in the 1940s and ’50s tended to be more austere gold round wire frames, but with exceptions, such as Buddy Holly’s square style, and James Dean’s tortoiseshells.

buddy holly glasses

Along with the fashion statement eyeglasses were becoming, advancement in lens technology brought progressive lenses (no-line multifocal glasses) to the public in 1959. Almost all eyeglass lenses are now made of plastic, which is lighter than glasses and breaks cleanly rather than shattering in shards.

Plastic photochromic lenses, which turn dark in the bright sunlight and become clear again out of the sun, first became available in the late 1960s. At that time they were called “photo gray”, because this was the only color they came in. Photo gray lenses were available in glass only, but in the 1990s they became available in plastic, and in the 21st century they are now available in a variety of colors.

Eyeglasses styles come and go, and as is frequent in fashion, everything old eventually becomes new again. A case in point: Gold-rimmed and rimless glasses used to be popular. Now not so much. Oversized, bulky wire-framed glasses were favored in the 1970s. Now not so much. Now, retro glasses that for the past 40 years were unpopular, such as square, horn-rim and brow-line glasses, rule the optical rack.

If you enjoyed reading about the history of eyeglasses, stay tuned for an upcoming look at the future of eyeglasses!