The History of Eyeglasses

I’ve been aware of glasses my entire life. My mom is visual impaired, with a rather rare birth defect and an astigmatism. I remember when I was in middle school and my parents nearly had strokes when the eye doctor told her that her magnification-only lenses (she hadn’t developed the astigmatism yet at that point) would cost more than $500 with insurance. And my dad was a firefighter–so our insurance was pretty damn good.

I think every non-glasses wearing kid tries on their parents or sibling’s specs at some point, just out of curiosity.

But who was the first person who discovered strapping bits of glass to your face would make your vision better?

The use of reading stones or dome shaped lenses to magnify object (especially the text in books or scrolls) dates back to ancient times.

In the mid 1200s we have the first papers written on optics, the use of lenses, and the ability to use those lenses to read small or distant text. The first reading glasses were made in Northern Italy, in or around Pisa, later the same century. By 1301, Venice had guilds to regulate the production and sale of eyeglasses.

From a portrait by El Greco. Full size image can be viewed in the Wikipedia article below.

These early glasses consisted of two lenses riveted to a frame, and usually had to be held in place with one hand. Later versions seen in artwork included temples that went both above and below the ear to stay in place, before assuming the more standard shape we know today, around 1727. However other styles remained popular into the 1800s, including lorgnettes, which have a handle, or scissor glasses, which open and close as one might imagine, and are held in place by pressure on the nose.

During the Renaissance, glasses were only an option for the wealthy, who also prized scholarship. They became status symbols that marked the wearer as educated, a stereotype we still see today.

While early glasses could aid with near- and farsightedness (myopia and presbyopia), Ben Franklin was the first credited with combining the use of convex and concave lenses in a single lens to create bifocals, around the 1760s. There is some controversy around this, however, because opticians in London may have already had the lenses available to order. If nothing else, however, he did popularize them, and his name has forever been linked to their development. Today, even trifocals are available, with three different types of distance vision combined into a single lens.

The first glasses designed for astigmatism (an abnormally curved eye that leads to blurred vision) weren’t developed until 1825 by British astronomer George Airy. Astronomy and eyeglasses have a long history together, as astronomers, on their quest to develop ever more powerful telescopes, were the ones working most closely with lenses and had the best understanding of their properties.

By the 1930s, eyeglasses were considered a medical appliance, one used to correct a disability. By many, it was seen as humiliating to need them, and they were viewed as unflattering. Princess Kaʻiulani of Hawaii was known for hiding her use of eyeglasses, though they became more and more necessary as she got older and started suffering from migraines.

Advertising image from the 1950s. Who can forget cat eye glasses? Click the image for the source website.

While some efforts to make them more fashionable began in the 1940s-1950s, it was’t until the 1970s that manufacturers began to branch out develop frames specifically to appeal to fashion. During the 70s-80s, large frames were considered beneficial, as they would help protect the face. In the 90s and 2000s, frames and lenses shrank as they were made of progressively more lightweight materials. Today, as fashion is intent on bringing back the 60s, 70s, and 80s, larger “hipster” glasses are once again seeing a heyday, along with vintage inspired styles and modern geometric looks. Today they are a fashionable accessory, something practical and appealing like a new pair of shoes. As online retailers gain popularity, lowering prices and making them more accessible, non-prescription lenses, such as “blue blockers” for reducing the glare from computer screens are increasing in popularity, just like the reading glasses or sunglasses found in nearly every grocery store and pharmacy in America.

Sunglasses are even older than glasses for correcting vision. The earliest known example comes from the Inuit people, who produced solid eye coverings with slits to cut down on snow glare. The Chinese also had a version of tinted glasses, but these were designed for judges to obscure their expressions during trials. It wasn’t until the 1920s that they began to be mass produced and reached wider popularity, not just for summer vacations, but also for treating medical problems like migraines or other health issues impacted by bright light.



Further reading:

The Fascinating history of glasses

4 thoughts on “The History of Eyeglasses”

  1. What’s interesting about glasses is how there’s so little stigma in weraing them. Some styles are considered so fashionable that those with perfect vision wear them with plain lenses. Yet hearing aids, a technology for improving hearing, are a really big deal and not considered fashionable at all. I had hoped that with the advent of wireless earbuds and their near-constant use by so many people, much of the stigma would be removed . . . but that hasn’t happened.


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