Artifact Corner: Episode 25 – Historic Eye Glasses

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a pair of eye glasses. We have more than 20 pairs of eye glasses in our collections, ranging in date from the early 1800’s up to the early 20th Century. Given that all of the members of our family were all avid readers and enthusiastic letter writers, it’s not surprising they had so many pairs of glasses. Let’s explore the fascinating history of eye glasses.

People have always had vision problems, and have been searching for ways to improve that since the dawn of time. Many different cultures have realized that using certain glasses could help to magnify small things. The Roman’s noticed that glass spheres could enlarge text written on a page, and magnifying glasses became quite common in Rome. This was a very useful discovery, but meant that you had to carry this glass around with you, if you needed help reading small text. While this was a major advancement, there was obviously room for improvement. The first wearable eyeglasses were developed in Pisa, in Northern Italy, in the 1280’s or the 1290’s. Glass makers realized that they could scale down magnifying glasses and adjust the thickness of the glass to calibrate the glasses for the wearer. In 1305 a Dominican Friar named Giordano da Pisa delivered a sermon, and a line from it discusses eye glasses. He states, “It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making spectacles, which make for good vision.” This new technology allowed monks and scholars to continue their work, even as their vision changed after years of toiling over manuscripts in dim light. These early glasses perched on the wearers nose, and were made from wood, bone, or leather.

These early glasses were quite costly, and therefore the average person in the Middle Ages could not afford them, they were really reserved for the wealthy and the clergy. Over the next four hundred years, the technology changed little. The next big break through in glasses came in the 1700’s. Up until this point, eyeglasses were either hand held, or perched on the nose. This was fine if you were sitting, or staying stationary, but not practical for a person on the move. In the 1720’s sides were added to spectacles, allowing the wearer to have them on at all times. This is the first time in history that eye glasses resemble what we know them to be today. Also at this time, the glasses themselves were refined. In the past, the only classification for the “prescription” was “old” or “young.” Now, the glasses maker could change the optics of the lens. Around 1730 Edward Scarlett of Soho advertised that he ‘Grindeth all manner of Optick Glasses (and) makes spectacles after a new method, marking the Focus of the Glass upon the Frame, it being approv’d of by all the Learned in Opticks as [the] Exactest way of fitting different Eyes’.

At some point in the century, possibly as early as the 1760s, London opticians began producing split lenses. At first these lenses were for the use of artists, but they developed into the first bifocals, allowing a single spectacle frame to perform the dual functions of an aid to both reading and distance vision. The frames for glasses were also seeing a change. While wood, horn, and leather were still being used, now eye glasses were being set in steel, making them far more durable. In the 19th Century, nose spectacles, or glasses without arms, were still in use, but considered very old fashioned. Ophthalmic optician John Browning wrote in 1889 about the advances of the 19th Century. He wrote as follows;

“Invisible spectacles and folders have two advantages: they are of the lightest construction that can be made to act efficiently, and the lenses cannot come out of the frames because the frames are smaller than the lenses, rims being let into the glass, and thus rendered invisible to any one in front of those who wear them; but as they are so light they should only be of the best materials and workmanship. And here I must warn my readers against confounding these invisible spectacles and folders with the so-called ‘frameless’ spectacles and folders. As now generally made and supplied, these are a disgrace to the optician’s art. The springs, sides, and loops in these wretched things are riveted directly onto the glasses, while the glasses are frequently twice as thick on one side as they are on the other.”

Most of the glasses we have in our collection are from the 19th Century. It was an age of improvement, and attempt to correct people’s vision in a more personal way. We have many different styles and prescriptions in our collections, which is indicative of how peoples vision changed over time. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, rather than being given a single pair of glasses to last you a lifetime, you could now expect your prescription to adjust as your eyes did with age. We are so fortunate to have these great examples of a very important medical improvement to everyday life. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,