Diana Pemberton-Sikes

Article Summary:

A history of eyeglasses, from the first reading glasses to spectacles to sunglasses.

The History of Eyeglasses

One of the easiest, fastest ways to update your look is by investing in a new pair of glasses. With 57% of the American population using some type of eyewear (I’m guessing other modern countries have similar numbers), it’s easy to see who’s kept current and who hasn’t when it comes to eyewear: the large, 1980’s style of specs are "out"; the smaller "vintage" styles of the 1990’s are "in".

If you don’t have a lot of money to spend on a new wardrobe, or if you’ve gotten so used to seeing yourself in your current frames that you haven’t given the matter any attention in a while, now’s a good time to review your options. Glasses – like hairstyles – can date you instantly.


Did you know that reading glasses first appeared in Italy in the 1260’s? Designed to "help the elderly to read," these were a godsend to those whose vision had become blurred due to age. Their popularity was instantaneous, and paintings from the time began to depict wearers in both religious and scholarly settings.

But the initial design had a huge problem: with only the bare basics of lenses and a nose bridge, there was no easy way to keep the darn things from slipping down the nose. You had to hold them in place, which limited their use. The Spaniards tried connecting them to ribbons looped around the ears, but that never really caught on. In fact, it wasn’t until 1730-nearly 500 years after they were first introduced-that a London optician named Edward Scarlett finally devised the rigid sidepieces that rest atop the ears. The perfection spread rapidly, and is still in use today.

Benjamin Franklin is often credited with inventing glasses, but in fact he was the one who developed the bifocal lens in the 1780’s, because he got tired of changing to reading glasses whenever he opened a book, which was often. He had his optician cut the lenses in two so he just had to look up and down instead of switching glasses. This is another revision that’s still in use today.

So what’s the difference between eyeglasses and spectacles? Today the terms are used interchangeably, but at the turn of the last century, there was a clear demarcation: "eyeglasses" was the word used to describe eyewear with no sidebar, while "spectacles" referred to frames with sidebars.

Popular among the elite for over a hundred years, "temporary" sight aids like eyeglasses, the monocle (single round glass); and the lorgnette (a style held up to the eyes with a long handle which was widely used by elegant women), came and went because of one simple factor: vanity. One simply did not admit that one could not see unassisted in public. These vision aids were designed to be pulled out and put away quickly, yet still maintain some semblance of style for the few minutes they were in use.

While the English and French in particular were very rigid in their opinion that glasses only be worn in private, the Spaniards believed that glasses made them look more important and dignified and they quickly became a popular accessory among all the classes. In fact, Spanish paintings from the Middle Ages show Moses, Jesus, and other biblical figures wearing glasses, to give them an added air of dignity.

But the Spanish were in the minority. The stigma of wearing spectacles lasted well into the 20th century. While Dorothy Parker proclaimed, "Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses," in 1926, Marilyn Monroe’s character Pola Debevoise preferred walking into walls to being seen in glasses in the 1953 movie "How To Marry a Millionaire."

Contact lenses quickly earned their way as the discreet eye aid of choice when a New York optometrist named William Feinbloom made the lenses out of plastic in 1936 and they finally became comfortable to wear.

First conceived and sketched by Leonardo da Vinci in 1508 (big surprise), contact lens technology did not begin to come together until 1827, when English astronomer Sir John Herschel suggested grinding a contact lens to conform exactly to the eye’s surface. A German glassblower named F. E. Muller produced the first eye covering designed to be seen through and tolerated in 1887, and within a year, both a Swiss physician and a French optician reported using contacts to correct optical defects. Still, until the method for taking molds from living eyes was perfected in 1929, contacts were uncomfortable and consequently, unpopular.

So when did sunglasses make a splash? In 1929, when Sam Foster convinced a Woolworth store on the Atlantic City Boardwalk to sell his Foster Grants. They became popular in the 1930’s when movie stars started to wear them.

Diana Pemberton-Sikes has been helping entrepreneurs turn their EXISTING knowledge, skills, and interests into cash since 1999. To learn how you can turn your “passions into profits”, visit her online and subscribe to her FREE ezine at niftybusinessideas.com. Diana is also and author of “Wardrobe Magic,” an ebook that shows women how to transform their unruly closets into workable, wearable wardrobes. For more information, visit her website, Fashion For Real Women.com.

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