• Spectacular Spectacles

    • Aug 16, 2017

    Spectacles bring the world into focus for thousands of people, but few understand how eyeglasses work. Here we have a brief timeline of different styles over the centuries and a glimpse at the endless variation in glasses.


    How They Work

    Vision is a complex sense. The eyes are the entry to a multilayered visual system that processes millions of bits of information every second.

    • Refractive error

      For people to see, light rays must be bent or “refracted” into the eye and focused on our retina. The cornea does the major job of refraction for our eyes, and the natural lens provides fine-tuning to adjust for distance. When the eyeball or the cornea is not the right shape, then the light rays cannot be refracted properly and vision is blurry – this is called a “refractive error.” In addition, as we age, our lenses naturally become more rigid and can no longer focus from far to near. Losing the ability to focus on near objects is a condition called presbyopia.

    • Correcting refractive error

      The most common way to correct refractive errors is to wear eyeglasses or contact lenses. They compensate for the shape of a person’s eye. In recent years, surgical procedures have been introduced that can reshape the cornea, such as laser in-situ keratomileusis (LASIK).

    Optics and Lenses

    It is said that the Roman Emperor Nero viewed the fights of gladiators through a natural magnifier made out of an emerald. Ancient civilizations knew the magnifying properties of natural lenses, mirrors, and water. Archeologists have found ancient lens-shaped pieces of glass and rock crystal, however none of these were ground to what we know today as optical quality.

    • Ancient lenses

      Most ancient lenses are convex shaped. Researchers have concluded they were used to focus light rays onto a close surface such as a wax tablet used for writing, a hearth to start a fire, or possibly for treating wounds with cautery. While the ancient world is known to have produced carved gems, seals and other detailed works of art, there are few examples of true magnifiers and no evidence that any lenses were mounted and worn as eyeglasses.

    Earliest Eyeglasses

    The invention of eyeglasses is believed to be between 1268 and 1289 in Italy. The inventor is unknown. The earliest eyeglasses had lenses made of natural crystal. These were handheld because they were too heavy to wear on the face. Natural crystal could not be made uniform, so vision with these eyeglasses could still be blurry. Lenses that were made of glass were lighter to wear, but tended to bend light at slightly different angles. This caused a viewer to see a small rainbow around the edges of things, also known as “chromatic aberration.”

    • A growing need

      The earliest eyeglasses were worn by monks and scholars. They were held in front of the eyes or balanced on the nose. The invention of the printing press in 1452, the growing availability of books, and higher literacy encouraged new designs and the eventual mass production of inexpensive eyeglasses.

    • Achromatic lens

      The problem of chromatic aberration was solved in 1730 by Chester More Hall who used two glass lenses together, one made of “old crown glass” and the other of a newer “flint glass,” to correct the problem. The achromatic lens was a huge step forward for eyeglasses, leading to even higher demand for glasses from the mid-1700s on.


    In the 1700s, eyeglasses were made by hand. The century’s most important contributions to glasses were the invention of side or temple pieces that rest over the ear (first advertised in 1728) and bifocals, invented by Benjamin Franklin, in 1784.

    • Martin's Margins

      Developed by Benjamin Martin, these eyeglasses were characterized by lens inserts commonly carved from cattle horn.

    • Wig spectacles

      These eyeglasses had long temple pieces that extended far beyond the ears. They were very useful for those who wore wigs, a popular fashion excessory.

    • Scissor spectacles

      These eyeglasses were commonly used by men who did not wish to wear their eyeglasses. They were known to be used by some famous individuals including President George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte.

    • Bifocals

      Invented by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) in 1784, the bifocal was an extremely important invention in the history of eyeglasses.


    Larger scale manufacturing started to become possible by the end of this century, however, spectacles still needed to be finished by hand. Workmanship varied widely. A large percentage of people did not seek a prescription for glasses; they preferred the cheap ready-mades sold by traveling peddlers, jewelers and at general stores.

    • Lorgnettes

      Lorgnettes were developed around 1780 from scissor spectacles. Early designs consisted of a pair of eyeglasses with a single, long handle. In 1830, a French manufacturer designed a hinged bridge with a spring, which allowed the eyeglasses to be folded neatly and protected the lenses from breakage.

    • Hiding your specs

      In the 1800s eyeglasses were considered evidence of old age and infirmity. Hand-held designs such as the lorgnette were very popular with women who wanted to avoid wearing their glasses. In the mid to late 1800s the fad was to hide eyeglasses in all manner of objects including mechanical pencils and evening fans, as seen here.


    The 1900s saw eyeglasses become an industry of their own, complete with manufacturing and distribution networks. Styles quickly changed in this century as modern celebrities began to influence fashion and new materials became available, especially plastics.

    • Pince nez

      As the 19th Century ended, tastes changed toward more inexpensive, everyday spectacles such as the pince-nez. French for “pinch nose,” the pince-nez was first developed in France circa 1840 and began to be imported to America after the 1850s. Their popularity was helped by political figures such as Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge who wore them regularly.

    • Harold Lloyd

      Hollywood actor Harold Lloyd (1893-1971) was known for wearing tortoiseshell spectacles with large, round lenses. His 1920s era movies started a fashion craze for temple spectacles like these.

    • Sunglasses

      In the 1930s sunglasses became popular for the first time. Although colored lenses were available early in spectacle manufacturing, it was not until 1913 that Sir William Crookes of England created a lens capable of absorbing both ultraviolet and infrared light. Further advances in sunglass design were accomplished in order to meet the needs of military pilots in World War II (1939 - 1945). As a result, aviator sunglasses like this example became fashionable.

    • Plastics

      By the 1940s, advances in the manufacture of plastics made a large variety of frames available in every color of the rainbow. The American Optical Company introduced the first brand name fashion eyeglasses in 1958. From there, designs went in multiple directions from the strictly utilitarian to fantasy models, like this example.

    Pince nez

    Pince-nez have no temple pieces but are fit snugly on the bridge of the nose. Discomfort was a common complaint as was losing spectacles altogether. Inventors were constantly looking to improve the design of the bridge to hold these eyeglasses on the nose. They also devised ways to tether them to their owners with chains connected to automatic reel cases, metal ear loops and hair pins.

    • Judge Magazine cover, 1904

      This satirical cartoon features President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) wearing his famous pince-nez glasses.

    • Pince nez, 1810

      Pince-nez with hoop spring bridge

    • Pince nez, 1920

      Oxford style pince-nez with spring bridge and metal ear loop.

    • Pince nez, 1880

      Pince-nez with hoop spring bridge, folded in case.


    The museum has over 150 lorgnettes in its collection. At one time they were so popular that a book dedicated to decorum declared: "it is quite clear that the whole world of fashion has not all of a sudden become so afflicted with short sightedness as to render the use of [lorgnettes] universally necessary!"

    • Lorgnette, c1900

      Long handle lorgnette made of early plastic to replicate tortoise shell.

    • Lorgnette, 1880

      Folding lorgnette with short handle and ring for wearing on a long necklace.

    • Lorgnette, 1890-1910

      Folding lorgnette with gold and enamel handle.

    • Double lorgnette, c1880 

      This lorgnette features two sets of folding eyeglasses, one for distance and one for reading.