The spectacular history of spectacles

spectacular history of spectacles

Theodore Roosevelt lookin’ good!

Glasses are one of the most important fashion decisions that we make. After all, they’re worn on the most prominent part of your body, making them the ultimate statement piece. And if you’re like me, they are a necessary addition to daily life. While you might initially be drawn to a loud pair, you can’t just go with what you fall in love with in the moment. After all, spectacles are the one thing that has to go with everything. Color. Shape. Size. It’s a big order for such a small accessory. But then again, spectacles become an extension of your personality. The selection process takes time. Every year when I get ready to look for a new pair I’m equally stressed and excited. After all, it’s a big commitment and there are so many options to chose from. As with any other fashion choice, I have a taste for vintage (or vintage-inspired) styles. To steady my confidence, I decided to do a bit of research. Join me for a peek into the spectacular history of spectacles.

Ancient times

The Romans get the credit for first discovering that a shard of glass could improve magnification. (Not surprising given their massive technological legacy.) The first spectacles are credited to 13th century Italy. (Although many suspect the inspiration for these early glasses arrived by way of China.) At any rate, most scholars agree that monks were the original beneficiaries of this breakthrough in optometry. If you’ve ever seen an illuminated manuscript, you can appreciate the need for perfect vision. Over the centuries, developments continued in the field of glassblowing, but the techniques were still rudimentary. Discs of glasses were housed within rough wooden frames or straps of leather. Sounds a bit bleak to us who rely on our glasses, but for monks who were spending many candlelit hours with quill in hand, these early spectacles were a big blessing!

The Renaissance to the Revolution

While the taunt “four eyes” may be a common playground phrase today, glasses were considered the sign of someone being “too cool for school” in the Renaissance. This was an era when scholarly pursuits were highly prized, so naturally wearing glasses was a sign of intelligence and sophistication. They were a status symbol and a must-have accessory for any gentleman. Thanks to a rebirth in portrait painting, bespectacled patrons could capture their scholarly looks for posterity. Italy, as the birthplace of many an artistic movement, also held onto its reputation for eyewear design during this time. Glasses remained a boutique purchase and challenging to wear. During the first five centuries since its creation, glasses were either hand-held or perched precariously on the nose. When you consider how thick these early lenses were, resting them on your nose was no easy feat.

spectacular history of spectacles

Looking stylish in 1403

It wasn’t until the 1700s that designers used the ears as a way to hold the frames in place. This development took place when the world was on the eve of a massive shift – the time for global exploration was dawning and the world of spectacles was branching away from its Italian epicenter. Across the ocean, an English instrument maker by the name of Benjamin Martin was about to provide the next big evolution in spectacles. Martin, his sight starting to fade, required a lighter and more precise lens for his work as a craftsman. When what you want isn’t available in the marketplace, makers do what they do best: they make. The combination of his poor eyesight and talent for bending materials to his will was a boon to society. His visual glasses (sometimes called Martin’s margins) begin to address the problem of stability, but focus more on the glass itself. These spectacles were the first to offer a more precise and lighter-weight feel. Martin’s well-heeled musical clientele soon started to visit his shop to place orders for spectacles of their own.

You could call the 1750s the turning point for the eyewear industry. This was when the craze for glasses went worldwide and braved the streets of the new world. Benjamin Franklin, that ever-curious inventor, added bifocal lenses to the mix of options during this time. Everyone was taking up the cause for innovation. We can thank the Germans for the invention of scissor spectacles (which I feel is one of the more interesting developments to come out of this heyday). The French promptly took this clever mechanism and transformed it into beautifully crafted accessories which were worn by the aristocracy. The ladies who lunched wore them as a pendant of sorts and, much like during the Renaissance, spectacles remained the calling card of the rich.

But just as the power structures tumbled during this time of revolution and upheaval, glasses became available to a greater audience. The time was the 19th century and the reason was the Industrial Revolution. All manner of things could suddenly be mass-produced and that included spectacles. Suddenly glasses, while still expensive, were not exclusively for the nobility.

Check out some great time lapse videos of eyewear shapes over the decades here

The Jazz Age

At the end of the 18th century the field of optometry was still developing. Scientists were experimenting with colored lenses as a way to correct certain vision problems. This field of research provided the inspiration for modern sunglasses. In fact, we can thank sunglasses for elevating spectacles to the realm of modern fashion. It all started in 1929  when the American businessman, Sam Foster, created the first pair of mass-produced sunglasses. This trend, which traces its roots back to strolling the boardwalks of Atlantic City, swept the nation (and especially the cinematic crowd). As starlets stepped into center stage in a burgeoning Hollywood, sunglasses found their way into the spotlight as well. America was crazy for celebrity culture and the fashion industry took note. This was the age of excess and glamour. Not since Renaissance times had glasses held such a coveted position.

From war heroes to hip cats

During WWII sunglasses found their way from the boardwalk to the blue skies. In the 1930s the United States Air Force faced an opponent that wouldn’t retreat: the sun. America was taking to the air to defend hearth and home, but pilots were struggling to keep the sun out of their eyes. Bausch & Lomb were tasked to solve the matter. The challenge was actually two-fold: prevent glare and retain mobility. Their final product is, in a word, iconic. The aviator frame remains the epitome of cool all these decades later. For anyone just starting a vintage eyewear collection, consider this your cornerstone.

spectacular history of spectacles

Image by Chris Phutully

During the war, plastic came onto the scene as a “wonder material.” Spectacles, like so many other consumer products, embraced this new scientific achievement. From the mid-1940s onward, large plastic frames have been in circulation. Models from this time are known for their clean lines, sweeping curves and geometric details. Personally, this is the style I gravitate to. The original guys and gals who donned these spectacles were usually part of artistic communities or bookworms (my type of people!). Time marched on and design faithfully marched alongside to translate mood into medium. The optimism of the post-war years reached into every manner of product and the eyewear design of the 1950s & 60s was no exception. Hope for the future was almost tangible. This was the era of big frames, oversized and exaggerated shapes. It’s no wonder the cat-eye style first burst onto the scene during this genre, its popularity fueled by some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Just think to the opening scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – can you be more chic than Andrey Hepburn in that moment? The large frame look continued into the 70s and 80s, as personal style came into its own. Spectacles remained another way to express one’s mood, beliefs, or even sense of self.

Studying this spectacular history of spectacles reveals a few things: firstly, that the desire to see our world more clearly is an inherent part of being a human; secondly, that we’ll never miss a chance for self-expression; and lastly, that glasses have always been symbolic. The spectacles from ancient times through now have represented the academic community just as loyally as the glamour squads of any era. Glasses are a testament to human ingenuity and our desire to design thoughtful solutions to everyday challenges. Each pair you wear gives you a front-row seat to history – so tell me, dear reader, which style speaks to you? Share with us in the comments!

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