Skip to main content
  • Spectacular Spectacles

    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

    A cross-section drawing of a human eye. The outside of the eye is white, and there is a white line leaving the eye mimicking the optic nerve. The inside of the eye is red and pink, and the structures at the front of the eye are white. There is a blue ray coming through the pupil of the eye, and it thins to a point as it moved towards the back of the eye.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

    A pair of eyeglasses with blue lenses sits on a page with printed text. The glasses have circular metal frames, and the arms of the glasses have a second hinge halfway down that bends inwards. The end of the earpieces have circular metal rings.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
    A circular glass lens with a metal handle sits next to its wooden carrying case. The case has many small holes punched in it as decoration, and the lid swivels open from a hinge at the bottom of the case.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
    A black and white line drawing of a man reading a book. He is an older man with a long mustache and beard, and he wears a cloth shirt with a ruff collar and a cowl over his head. He is wearing round eyeglasses with thick frames, and he is holding a hardback book in his hands.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
    A page of printed medieval style text with a woodcut drawing of man holding eyeglasses on the left hand side. The man is wearing a puffy, medieval style pant and shirt, and he wears a large hat. He is holding two round lenses connected with a hinge in the middle.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
    A pair of gold-colored eyeglasses sits on a gray background. There are black circular borders between the gold frame and the clear glass lenses. The earpieces of the glasses have two sets of hinges, one where they meet the frames and another halfway down, turning the ends inward.Developed by Benjamin Martin, these eyeglasses were characterized by lens inserts commonly carved from cattle horn.

    Wig Spectacles
    A pair of eyeglasses made of gray-colored metal. They have round lenses and the ear pieces have two sets of hinges, one connecting to the frames and another halfway down the earpieces. The ends of the earpieces are circular.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
    A round pair of eyeglass lenses that are connected by two gold metal handles that are joined together with a hinge. The gold handles have decorations underneath the lenses in the shape of an eagle.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.

    A small pair of eyeglasses sit on a gray background. They are made of silver-colored wire, and the lenses are small and rectangular. Inside the frames, there are two different pieces of glass, each taking up half of a lens.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.

    A pair of eyeglass lenses are attached to a blue and gold decorated handle with a cameo painting affixed to it. The lenses have gold frames and a small hinge in between the lenses to fold them in half.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
    A folding hand fan with a small pair of eyeglasses attached to the end of one handle. The fan is black and red lace and the handles are tortoise shell. The glasses are small with brown frames.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
    An advertisement brochure in the shape of an eyeglass case. The brochure has an image of a woman on one side and a man on the other. The woman is white with blonde hair and wears a lace collar. She is also wearing gold-framed eyeglass lenses clipped to the bridge of her nose. The man is white with black hair and a black mustache and he is wearing a suit. He is also wearing gold-framed eyeglass lenses clipped to the bridge of his nose. The brochure has a black border around it with small gold text.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
    A brown pair of eyeglass with circular lenses and bent earpiece ends sits on a white surface.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.

    A pair of aviator-style sunglasses sits on a white surface. The glasses have dark lenses and a padded top bar across the top of the lenses. The earpieces have bent ends that fit over ears.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.

    A pair of novelty eyeglasses with large, detailed cat-eye frames. The frames are white plastic with many small plastic jewels on them. Their cat-eye shape is so exaggerated they almost appear like a butterfly.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
    A colored illustration of Theodore Roosevelt on the cover page of a magazine. In the illustration, he is wearing a silver suit of armor and a silver helmet with feathers coming out of the top. He is also wearing a pair of eyeglass lenses that clip to the bridge of his nose. In the background, there are three cartoonish archers posed to fire arrows at him. The black cursive title of the magazine reads: Judge.This satirical cartoon features President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) wearing his famous pince-nez glasses.

    Pince Nez, 1810
    A pair of wire-framed eyeglass lenses joined together by a large spring bridge. There is a small metal loop on one lens.Pince-nez with hoop spring bridge

    Pince Nez, 1920
    A pair of circular eyeglass lenses connected together. There is a long wire hoop connected to one lens intended to be worn over an ear.Oxford style pince-nez with spring bridge and metal ear loop.

    Pince Nez, 1880
    A pair of eyeglass lenses folded in half sit in a case with blue velvet lining.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
    A small pair of eyeglass lenses are attached to a large carved handle. The glasses and handle are both tortoise-shell patterned, and the handle has been carved into an ornate floral pattern. The two are connected by a small hinge.Long handle lorgnette made of early plastic to replicate tortoise shell.

    Lorgnette, 1880

    A pair of eyeglasses lenses are folded in half at a hinge in between them. The frames are silver-colored, and there is metal loop attached to one lens.Folding lorgnette with short handle and ring for wearing on a long necklace.

    Lorgnette, 1890-1910
    A pair of gold eyeglass lenses with a hinge in the middle are attached to a hold decorative handle with a carving of a woman's face.Folding lorgnette with gold and enamel handle.

    Double Lorgnette, c1880
    Two sets of eyeglass lenses are attached to a central handle. There is a hinge between each pair and the handle. The handle is gold and blue and the lenses both have gold frames.This lorgnette features two sets of folding eyeglasses, one for distance and one for reading.