Inventing 18th Century Spectacles

Les lunettes: Five people looking through various types of spectacles. Colour lithograph.
“As long as primates have been around, there’s probably been myopia
—Dr. Ivan Schwab, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, Davis. [1]

Primate wearing snazzy spectacles. Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021.

For humans, the rates of myopia (nearsightedness) have increased alongside the invention of the printing press and later the political fallout of the Reformation. 

As literacy rates rose, so did the need for corrective lenses. Not that literacy, or rather education, is bad for the eyes—genes and nutrition also play a role. However, close work such as reading or computer use puts a strain on the eyes, contributing to vision problems.

It’s a good thing lenses and the way we employ them have advanced over the years.

Early Lenses

The magnifying glass came about a long time ago. Using convex lenses whose edges curve outward, they are used to magnify an object or focus light to ignite a fire. In 424 BCE, Aristophanes’ play, The Clouds, a character did just that.

Reading Stone. Source: Pexels

The next advancement came in 1000 CE. Quartz, beryl, or glass shaped like a stone and polished were used as reading stones. Placing these on top of text magnified letters. 

Venetian glassmakers in the 13th century produced the first spectacles. By sending these along the Silk Road, among other Italian items to sell, they brought vision correction to Asia. Unlike modern eyeglasses, these spectacles were heavy and very breakable.

Better Spectacles

Pince-nez. Source: Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin , Public Domain.

Spectacles changed very little for the next 500 years. It took until the 18th century with the prevalence of cheap newspapers and more opportunities for non-clergy to be educated, for Europeans to finally demand better and more stylish options.

Around 1700, lenses were being made round and large, staying on by pinching the nose. The French called them pince-nez

By 1730, design rapidly changed when Edward Scarlett (1688-1743), optician to King George, produced spectacles of differing strengths and with ‘arms’. [2] His spectacles could be purchased over the counter, or ground to one’s specifications. In fact, he used a set of lenses with different focal lengths to fit the right spectacles to the customer.

Whalebone spectacles. Source: College of Optometrists.

Frames of this era were typically made from whalebone, tortoiseshell, or horn. These materials were both strong and flexible.

Wig Spectacles. Source: College of Optometrists.

During the Georgian era, when men commonly worn wigs, wig spectacles came into fashion. These frames were double-hinged, jointed on the sides meant to be worn over a wig. The shape of the frame didn’t fit the head without one.

Martin’s Margins. Source: National Museum of American History.

By the middle of the 18th century, Benjamin Martin (1704-1782) invented the stylish Martin’s Margins. These were silver-framed with spring-loaded arms to stay on better, and round lenses rimmed with dark horn or tortoiseshell to help protect the eye from sunlight.

Bifocals. Source: College of Optometrists.

While Benjamin Franklin is often praised for the invention of the bifocal around 1760, they were in fact being produced in London at this time. His half split lenses, half for distance and the other half for close work. Bifocals like Franklin’s were very important to artists and craftsmen who needed the range for their work.

Lorgnettes. Source: Public Domain.

Lorgnettes came along in the last quarter of the 18th century. They were spectacles one held in front of the face with a handle that doubled as its case. To fit, the bridge of the nose folded at a hinge to slip inside the handle. They became wildly popular with theatre-goers. These are closely related to the quizzing glass in that they were a lens held by a handle, but quizzing glasses were fancier, more like jewelry pieces. They came a little later, at the dawn of the 19th century.

Sunglasses

Inuit Eyewear. Source: Public Domain.

Eyewear protecting eyes from bright sunlight goes all the way back to prehistory with the Inuit and their walrus ivory “glasses” which contained no glass at all. They fit like goggles against the eyes with slits in the middle to reduce the sun’s glare. They also helped in focusing the eyes.

Venetian Sunglasses. Source: College of Optometrists.

Some credit James Ayscough (1720-1759) with the use of modern tinted lenses for protection against sunlight, but that wasn’t his goal. He was experimenting with blue and green lenses for corrective purposes. It was the Venetians, again, who designed and used spectacles to protect the eyes from sunlight. They made green-tinted sunglasses, which had no UV protection for use against the bright glint of sunlight on water.

In Case You’re Wondering

It wasn’t until the 19th century that ophthalmologists performed eye exams. Before then, a lens-grinder offered lenses with varying focal lengths to choose from.


Footnote:

  1. What Did Nearsighted Humans Do Before Glasses? Jacewicz, Natalie. “What Did Nearsighted Humans Do Before Glasses?” NPR. NPR, July 7, 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/07/07/484835077/what-did-nearsighted-humans-do-before-glasses.

  2. What a spectacle! https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2014/11/06/what-a-spectacle/

Sources:

“The Evolution of Sunglasses – Google Arts & Culture.” Google. Accessed May 16, 2021. https://artsandculture.google.com/theme/the-evolution-of-sunglasses/AwICKXCQPV3VKg?hl=en.

Handley, Neil. “Eighteenth Century Spectacles.” College of Optometrists – Professional body for optometrists. Accessed May 16, 2021. https://www.college-optometrists.org/the-college/museum/online-exhibitions/virtual-spectacles-gallery/eighteenth-century-spectacles.html.

Magnifying Glass, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnifying_glass.

Reading Stones, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reading_stone.

“Spectacles.” National Museum of American History. Accessed May 16, 2021. https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1058664.

What a Spectacle! https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2014/11/06/what-a-spectacle/.

What Did Nearsighted Humans Do Before Glasses? Jacewicz, Natalie. “What Did Nearsighted Humans Do Before Glasses?” NPR. NPR, July 7, 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/07/07/484835077/what-did-nearsighted-humans-do-before-glasses

Images:

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