The (Brief) History of Glasses: Clarity in a Fuzzy World

I recently purchased a pair of glasses on the internet. The company sent me a confirmation email that mentioned some work they do around the world to help poor communities get access to glasses. While this is great, this isn’t what actually caught my attention. What caught my attention was the fact that this well reputed company had the following claim listed in their email:

A single pair of glasses given to a citizen of the third world increases their productivity by 35% and increases their monthly income by 20%
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Bryant Holt

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As someone who can’t even count my fingers in front of my face without my glasses on, I 100% believe those stats. (I would argue that the percentage is probably way higher in the Western World). Imagine if people didn’t have glasses. No way they could even read email. If I didn’t have glasses, I couldn’t do half of the things I do on a daily basis. That being said, I wanted to dive into the history of glasses and how they have brought clarity to our world!

One of the first mentions of a vision aid comes from the Roman tragedian, Seneca, who supposedly used a water globe to magnify his books. He claimed to use the vision aid in order to read all of the books of Rome. Other instances include monks using a glass “reading stone” rather than water. Legend has it that some pirates even pierced their ears hoping to access a “vision point” discussed in ancient Chinese acupuncture practice. By piercing their ears, they hoped it would increase their vision. Long story short, different types of reading aids can be found mentioned throughout history, but the concept of glasses didn’t appear until sometime between the years 1268 and 1289. They were most likely invented in Italy, but there isn't enough proof to say who invented them. Historians believe the inventor (probably monks or a glass blower) simply took two magnifying glasses and placed them together in a way that they would sit on the bridge of a reader’s nose.

The  Glasses Apostle  by  Conrad von Soest  (1403)

The Glasses Apostle by Conrad von Soest (1403)

The earliest glasses would have been worn by monks and scholars, or anyone that had to read (or could read is probably more appropriate). However, the concept of glasses started to gain some serious momentum not long after 1452. Why? Because the printing press was invented.

The printing press (Wikipedia) 

The printing press (Wikipedia) 

Literacy rates began to rise and books became accessible to the average person. So, as people started reading, or learning to read, they realized the need for better vision. (That, or perhaps, their vision started to decline from staring at tiny print). Eventually, glasses started being mass produced.

Until the 1700s, glasses were different from what people wear today. They didn’t have any side or temple pieces that went over the ear.  With no side pieces, they tended to fall off a lot and were probably quite annoying. Other glasses were more like the magnifying glasses we know today. The spectacles were built atop a handle so that you could hold them up to your eyes while reading.

The side pieces for glasses were probably invented in the 1600s, but they weren’t advertised until around 1728. Originally, instead of legs that sat atop the wearer’s ears, they were likely strings that the wearer would tie around their ears. Also, unlike today, back in the 1700s glasses weren’t always thought of as a wearable accessory. Most people tried to use glasses as little as possible, fearing people would think they were getting too old (and therefore incompetent) if they needed glasses. George Washington used scissor spectacles, but only when he actually needed to read something.

Scissor Spectacles (optometrists.org)

Scissor Spectacles (optometrists.org)

One member of the 1700s who wasn’t ashamed to sport his spectacles was none other than Benjamin Franklin. Franklin not only wore his glasses with pride, but he also invented the bifocals around 1784. He used the science behind concave and convex lenses in order to manufacture lenses that could help people see from both close up and from far away (fixing both nearsightedness and farsightedness in a single pair of glasses).

By the 1800s, unique styles of glasses continued, but many pairs of glasses started to become less unique and stylish as companies began to manufacture them in large quantities. People didn’t need to go to the eye doctor or get a prescription before buying glasses, so most of them simply bought them from traveling salesmen or from the local store. However, as the 1800s ended, people began to wear their glasses every day. It was less common for people to look at a glasses-wearer as incompetent. More and more important figures were making glasses a popular accessory. Presidents like Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge are great examples. These two presidents made the French Pince-nez, or “pinch nose” style of glasses popular in the early 1900s.

Teddy Sporting the Pince-nez (Wikipedia)

Teddy Sporting the Pince-nez (Wikipedia)

However, as Hollywood erupted onto the scene, styles of glasses started changing over night. Actors like Harold Lloyd and his Tortoiseshell spectacles were a fashion craze and temple spectacles soon owned the glasses scene (and have ever since)! Furthermore, in 1913, Sir William Crookes, an Englishman, created the glasses that would change fashion forever. His UV and infrared absorbing spectacles, known as “sunglasses” were an instant hit. Further advances to his lenses were made for pilots during WW2 (aviators, anyone?) and now sunglasses have a firm hold on the spectacle market. From a business sense, sunglasses also gave manufacturers a chance to reach consumers who have perfect eyesight (must be nice…).

From the 1950s onward, glasses have changed and styles have come in and out multiple times. People have since treated glasses like any other item in their wardrobe. You have to upgrade or people will think you are out of style— although many of these antiquated styles have come back into fashion. Outside of fashion, the actual construction of the glasses saw a lot of change over the last 50 years. Starting around 1980, the quality of lenses increased a lot. Most glasses aren’t “glass” these days, they are highly durable plastic (but calling them “plastics” seems a little awkward). Of course, contacts were also invented, but that is another history in itself!

Today, estimates suggest that almost 75% of adults use some type of vision correction. That means about 3 out of 4 people are probably wearing glasses (or contact lenses) right now. Thankfully, glasses came along and people can now see the world with near-perfect clarity. So the next time you curse having to wear glasses, remember that you should be thankful they even exist. In the meantime, let’s just hope that transition lenses don’t come into fashion.

Sources: 

museumofvision.org

glasseshistory.com