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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Anna Checcoli's homage to the beauty and art of hand fans ('ventagli,' in Italian). Use the left-hand nav to browse… [read review or visit site]

Dr. David Fleishman's comprehensive spectacles site (over 3500 images), in collaboration with museums around the wo… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Gold Filled Eyeglasses Frames Cartier Paris 48-20. 130 Serial # 2643286Vintage Persol Eyeglasses Frames Tortoise Shell Effect Mod 3051-v 52-19 ItalyVintage Cartier Paris 24k Gold Filled Eyeglasses Frames Size 49-18 FranceVintage Persol Eyeglasses Frames Tortoise Shell Effect Mod 649 Made In ItalyVintage B&l Ray Ban Clubmaster Eyeglasses Frames Mod Wo366 Made In The UsaVintage Versace Eyeglasses Frames Black Size 54-16 140 Made In Italy Vintage Cartier Paris 24k Gold Filled Eyeglasses Frames 54-16 Serial # 976880Vintage Ray Ban Eyeglasses Frames Black Mod Rb 5229 5014 Size 50-17 140 Beautiful Antique Lorgnettes Folding Spectacles Sterling Silver Niello HandleVintage Persol Eyeglasses Frames Black Mod 3030-v Size 52-17 140 Hand Made ItalyDutch Tinted Lens Antique Georgian Silver Reading Glasses Folding SpectaclesVintage 90s Fendi Eyeglasses Frames Mod Fs 299 Col 201 Made In ItalyAntique Lot Of (35) Pair Wire Rim Eye Glasses & Cases Many Gold FilledVintage Marwitz Optima Gold Filled Eyeglasses 54-18 135 Made In GermanyVintage 1949 R.a.f. Sunglasses / Spectacles Tinted Mk Iii Protex A.b. 0658 VgcVintage 80s S.a.b.a.h.n Eyeglasses Frames Blue Red Hand Painted GermanyVintage Persol Eyeglasses Frames Men;s Medium Made In ItalyAntique Georgian Papier Mache Lacquer Spectacles Glasses Case Painted Scenes Vintage 30s Eyeglasses Frames Gold Filled Celluloid Algha 20 Coil Arm EnglandVintage Alain Mikli Eyeglasses Frames Size 58-15 140 Hand Made In France ExcVintage Bulgari 801 Eyeglasses Frames Women's Large Made In ItalyVintage Prada Eyeglasses Frames Crystal Clear Mod Vpr 10f Size 51-16 135 ItalyVintage 40s Eyeglasses Frames Hand Made In Germany Men's Small/mediumShwood For Beams Canby Fashion Wood Eyeglasses Rosewood/maple Zeiss Lenses RareVintage Ray Ban Eyeglasses Frames Brown Mod Rb 5150 2019 Size 50-19 135 Vintage 80s Cazal Eyeglasses Frames Mod 354 Black Purple Made In GermanyVintage Early 40s Eyeglasses Frames Clear Acetate Hand Made In FranceAntique Brown & Gold Eyeglasses John Lennon Style Windsor 1926 Wellsworth CaseVintage Off Round Eyeglasses Frames Gold Filled Algha 12kt Gf Made In EnglandVintage 12k Gold Filled 1950's Cat Eye GlassesVintage 50s Eyeglasses Frames Brown Graduated Keyhole Bridge Size 46-22 EnglandTrue Vintage B&l Wayfarer Tortoise Sunglass Plastic Retro 60s Eyeglasses FramesVintage 80s Yearling Eyeglasses Frames Modernist Size 56-20 Made In AustriaVintage 50s Gold Filled Eyeglasses Frames Amor France 140 Killer *****True Vintage Shuron Graywood Horn Rimmed Plastic Retro 60s Eyeglasses FramesTrue Vintage Imperial Tortoise Shell Plastic Retro 60s Eyeglasses FramesGreat Antique H Fitz Rolled Gold Pince Nez Spectacles With Chain & Ear LoopVintage Men's Lot #457 Of 18 Safety Retro 60s Eyeglasses FramesTrue Vintage Ao American Optical Tortoise Plastic Retro 60s Eyeglasses FramesVintage 50s Amor Gold Filled Eyeglasses Frames 1022 Made In FranceVintage 40s Acetate Half Eye Reading Eyeglasses Hand Made In England Men's MedVintage Uss U.s. Military Vietnam Era Eyeglasses Bausch & Lomb Romco Lot Rx Antique Pince Nez Gold Cased Spectacles / Glasses Circa 1900Vintage 80s Persol Ratti Manager Gold Plated Eyeglasses Nos Made In ItalyVintage 20s Eyeglasses Frames Gold Filled Obac Tortoise Shell Effect Celluloid Vintage Willson Safety Spectacles-goggles-glasses/steampunk-costume/nos / NrVintage Designer Eyeglasses/sunglasses. Ysl Tura Swank Liberty 12k Gold FilledUnusual Pair Antique Pince Nez Spectacles Glasses On Rolled Gold Brooch ChainVintage 80s Cazal Glasses Sunglasses Frame Pilot Aviator Eyeglasses Gold RetroEarly Antique School Books W/antique Eyeglasses & Tin Book Light W/taperVintage Antique Black Plastic, Bakelite Frame Eyeglasses, One PairVintage 50s Eyeglasses Frames Tortoise Shell Effect Gold Filled Nylor FranceVintage 80s Carrera 5511 Sport Eyeglasses Men's Medium Made In AustriaVintage 60s Eyeglasses Frames Gray Graduated Meitzner Size 50-22 ExcRare Vintage Round Frame Eye Glasses Malvern Steinborn Harrisburg Illinois2 Vintage 12k Gold Filled Eyeglasses Eye Glasses Shuron Bausch & LombAntique Eyeglasses Pince NezAntique Sterling Lorgnette Eyeglasses Ornate Spectacles Folding Opera Glasses Vintage Shuron Gold Tone Bifocal Eyeglasses W Engraved Frames & Case C1930s-40sRare Ogi Pure Titanium 5008 Made In Germany Slim Smoked Metal Eye Glasses Frames