My glasses are never to be found where I think I have left them, usually they turn up on the top of my head. A few days ago they were very illusive and took an age to find. Whilst hunting for them I began to think about how I would manage the simplest of everyday tasks if spectacles had not been invented. I certainly would not be able to embroider, write or read.
Before spectacles were invented the short sighted endured a world that was clear only to within a few feet from where they stood. Those affected by presbyopia (typically brought on by the aging process, that’s me) had to stop working, writing, reading, and using their hands for skillful tasks at a relatively young age.
Just imagine what life would be like not being able to see images clearly !
The art of making a pair of spectacles was a significant achievement that has had a great impact on our lives. They developed because of the work of artisans, like glassmakers, jewellers and clockmakers. Monks, mathematicians, physicists, microscopists, astronomers, and chemists all played a part in their development.
In ancient times, someone noticed that convex-shaped glass magnified things. Sometime between the year 1000 and 1250 crude mechanical grinding technology began to develop regarding rock crystal reading stones. English Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon in his 1268 ‘Opus Majus’, noted that letters could be seen better and larger when viewed through less than half a sphere of glass. He recognized that this could assist weak eyes or the vision of aged persons.
Eyeglasses were invented by an unknown person sometime between 1268 and 1289 in Italy. They were not really an invention as such but instead a clever “adaptation” of something used earlier.
Two similar glass discs were made by blowing small glass balls and then punching out round pieces using a cool copper pipe. Each glass was first ground on its back surface and then surrounded by a crude frame and given a handle. Technically, glasses were formed when two of these were connected together at the ends of their handles by a rivet. creating the world’s first glasses. The earliest eyeglasses were worn by monks and scholars. They were held in front of the eyes or balanced on the nose.
By the time of the Renaissance, glasses began to become more fashionable with guilding encircling rock crystal, and even gems. Still, they were considered a sign of old age and spectacles were worn only when absolutely necessary.
The invention of the printing press in 1452, the growing rate of literacy and the availability of books, encouraged new designs and the eventual mass production of inexpensive eyeglasses.
By the early 16th century, spectacle peddlers were a common sight on the streets and throughout the countryside of Western Europe. People would rummage through baskets filled with German-made single-wire metal and also leather-framed spectacles. The purchaser would try on several pair until finally selecting the one of his/her preference.
Single lenses were often used for distance vision by young fashionable myopes who suspended them from a neck-cord. In France these were “Les Encroyables”, upper class men who may have even exhibited a bit of arrogance when wearing this visual aid.
Miniature ornate pocket-sized telescopes (spyglasses) were also used by some men and women especially to view other people at the theatre.
Monocles were introduced by the German Baron Philip Von Stosch around 1720, but didn’t reach the height of their popularity until the 1880’s. The golden era for monocles then followed on into the early 20th century. Aristocrats commonly used monocles as a status symbol and fashion statement.
Until the 17th century, optical aids were primarily the province of men. However, with the invention of the lorgnette, women became much more involved in the world of eyeglasses. Early lorgnette designs consisted of a pair of eyeglasses with a single, long handle. In 1830, a French manufacturer designed a hinged bridge with a spring, which allowed the eyeglasses to be folded.Feminine interest in the lorgnette inspired many new designs, including the “jealousy lorgnette which was constructed for one eye only and resembled one half of a fair-sized modern opera glass. Besides having a lens at each end, the jealousy lorgnette contained an oblique mirror through which, when looking into it from a hole hidden in a decorative part in the side of the device, one could see who was behind or to one side of the viewer.
During the 18th century, Madame de Pompadour was never without her ornate jealousy lorgnette and Madame du Barry carried a jealousy lorgnette studded in diamonds.
Marie Antoinette is credited with inventing the “fan lorgnette,” wherein the hidden lorgnette was placed within the fan itself. Women flirted through these hidden lorgnettes.
The first spectacles did not have side arms. London optician Edward Scarlett was credited with perfecting temple spectacles – those having short, stiff side pieces that pressed against the temples above the ears. This innovation facilitated the easy putting on and taking off of the glasses and didn’t interfere with a person’s long hair or wig.
Bifocals, were invented by Benjamin Franklin, in 1784. They were made by halving lenses of differing powers and positioning the segments together with a straight line across the middle. The upper portion was ground for distance vision while the lower portion was ground for the near vision.
He was certainly wearing them and able to order them from local opticians by the mid 1780’s. Franklin wrote to London philanthropist George Whatley in May 1785, “as I wear my own glasses constantly, I have only to move my eyes up or down, as I want to see distinctly far or near, the proper glasses being always ready.”
There are few portraits from the Georgian and Victorian era depicting ladies wearing glasses probably due to vanity, young ladies and matrons alike preferred to use an eyeglass of some sort.
The improved plastics in the early 1900’s heralded a new era in frame styling. During the 1930’s sunglasses became especially popular and by the 1950’s spectacles had become a fashion accessory in Europe and North America. Eyeglass wearers demanded stylish, comfortable, and functional designs exhibiting both variety and elegance. Glasses have become an added refinement by which people can enhance their personality. Individuals can look smart and also discreet in a variety of designs and colors.
The hunt for my glasses certainly led to a very interesting journey into the history of spectacles.
“When it is all summed up, the fact remains that this world has found lenses on its nose without knowing whom to thank.” – Vasco Ronchi, Florence, 1946.
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