Reading spectacles appeared at the end of the 13th century in Italy and were first depicted in a painting by Tommaso da Modena in 1352. His frescoes show two brothers reading and copying text, one with a magnifying glass and the other with spectacles on his nose. Made in Venice, early spectacles had quartz lenses, as optical glass had not been invented, and were framed with bone, metal, or leather. This useful Italian invention soon spread to Germany, Spain, France, England, and the Low Countries.
It wasn't until the 15th century, soon after the advent of the movable-type printing press, that concave lenses were developed in Florence. Florentine spectacle makers were so advanced, they had lenses graded for every five years of eye-sight loss for the age 30 and onward, plus two different strengths of lenses for the near-sighted.
In the 16th century, Spanish spectacle makers introduced the idea of securing glasses to the face by the ears. They added two silk ribbons with loops at the end to the outside of the frames. After European missionaries wore such glasses on trips to China, the local spectacle-wearers improved upon the design by adding ceramic or metal weights to the ribbons, thus making the frames easy to adjust.
Back in Europe, English, Germany, French, and Dutch spectacle makers tried to catch up with the Italians. Spectacles were cheap and plentiful, needed not just by artisans, monks, and scholars, but just about everyone over the age of 40. Glasses were sold on the street—people would dig through baskets of spectacles until they found a pair that corrected their vision.
In 1629, the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers was established in England, bearing a coat of arms with three pairs of spectacles and a logo that read, "a blessing to the aged." The introduction of the first newspaper, the London Gazette in 1665, only increased the demand.
The 18th century was a time of great experimentation with optometry and types of spectacles. In 1730, London optician Edward Scarlett is credited with coming up with "temple spectacles," whose stiff earpieces for eyeglass frames pressed against the temple and rested behind the ears. Inventor James Ayscough introduced eyeglasses with double-hinged earpieces in 1752. In the American colonies, spectacles were treasured among the literate, imported from Europe and costing as much as $200 a pair, a tremendous sum at the time.
The single-lens monocle, also known as an "eye ring" or "quizzing glass," was invented by German Baron Philip Von Stosch in the 18th century and appeared in England as early as 1...
"Scissors-glasses" or "binocles-ciseaux" probably sprang out of the monocle, which was thought to make the eye tired. These strange spectacles have stems attached to each lens that come together under the nose at a handle. Since these glasses were popular among high society in France and Germany in the 18th century, they are often gilded and elaborately decorated. George Washington and Napoleon were both known to use a pair of these.
An Englishman named George Adams came up with a more practical take on the scissors-glasses concept—two lenses attached to a frame and held to the face with a handle attached to one side. Since these types of eyeglasses were ornately designed and considered a piece jewelry, fashionable women preferred them to spectacles that had earpieces, and bought them for pure adornment instead of improved sight. They were particularly popular at masquerade balls and the opera through the 18th and 19th centuries, eventually leading to the small binoculars we know today as "opera glasses."
Pince-nez (French for "pinched nose") glasses are thought to have come about in 1840, and were wildly popular with the Victorians. These resemble early spectacles in that they have no earpieces, but they're designed to grasp the nose, which makes them stay on the face better. For the gentleman, a pince-nez could have thick or thin frames in round or oval shapes, and were attached to a ribbon, cord, or chain around the neck. Women would have a small eyeglass holder pinned to their dress—their oval rimless spectacles, attached to a delicate gold chain, could be reeled into this container.
While the concept of bifocals was toyed with in England as early as 1760, it was Benjamin Franklin who introduced the first fully developed pair in America in the 1780s. In the early 19th century, John McAllister, Sr. of Philadelphia produced these sort of spectacles with looped ends, which worked better with powdered wigs.
McAllister, a Scottish businessman, emigrated to America right before the Revolutionary War and opened the first optical shop in Philadelphia in 1799. Thanks to the trade embargo caused by the War of 1812, McAllister had to stop importing gold and silver spectacles and start making his own frames. McAllister and his son, John, Jr., are credited with bringing lenses for astigmatism to the U.S. in 1828.
Meanwhile, William Beecher set up his jewelry and optical manufacturing shop in Southbridge, Massachusetts, in 1829, where he produced silver spectacles and then glasses made of blue steel. His company was absorbed by the newly formed America Optical Company in 1869.
John Jacob Bausch, born in Germany in 1830, got his first job designing camera lenses in Berne, Switzerland, in 1848. A year later, he emigrated to the United States, and in 1853, he established a retail optical shop in Rochester, New York, selling spectacles, thermometers, field glasses, magnifiers, and opera glasses.
Walking down the street one day, Bausch found a piece of Vulcanite rubber. He took it back to his shop and tinkered with it, discovering he could use the material in eyeglass frames, which, at the time were usually made of gold or animal horn imported from Europe. With Henry Lomb, another German-immigrant businessman, he founded the Bausch & Lomb company, and made the first machine to produce American-made spectacles in 1860.
At first the company struggled, but trade blockades during the U.S. Civil War sent the cost of gold and European horn skyrocketing, which increased the demand for Bausch & Lomb's rubber frames. After this success, the company garnered accolades for its microscopes (first produced in 1876), photographic lenses (1883), spectacle lenses (1889), and binoculars and telescopes (1893).
In the 1910s, large round, tortoise-shell or horn-rimmed frames came into fashion. This style of eyeglass stayed popular, along with the pince-nez, well into the Roaring Twenties, even though the frames were often manufactured of new plastics like celluloid and dyed to look like shell or horn.
The wide acceptance of eyeglasses is probably due to the popularity of silent-film actor Harold Lloyd, who wore round, plastic glasses in his movies, starting with 1917's "Over the Fence." When his glasses broke, Lloyd would patch them with gum or glue, creating what most people think of now as the "nerd" look.
In the 1930s, Sam Foster introduced cheap plastic sunglasses which he branded as Foster Grants. Soon, sunglasses were produced in a wide variety of colors, shapes, and styles, and manufacturers also began to experiment with different sorts of eyeglass frames. Over the following decades, couture houses like Emilio Pucci made glamorous sunglasses for Hollywood stars like Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn. Naturally, this led to designer eyeglass frames.
By the 1950s, eyeglasses had become a fashion statement. In 1952, Bausch & Lomb introduced the Ray-Ban Wayfarer, a dramatic, thick-framed look that was popular for sunglasses and corrective eyeglasses, thanks to Buddy Holly. Thick horn-rimmed glasses were favored by the likes of U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, while women took to cat-eye style glasses, a shape made famous by Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."
In the '60s, mods and hippies abandoned the heavy, serious styles of glasses. John Lennon of the Beatles made tiny tinted wire-framed spectacles called "teashades," "granny glasses," or "Windsor glasses" popular with the bohemian set. Along with a resurgence of aviator frames, the '70s and '80s brought about big bug-eyed glasses, which are now regaining popularity.