While many of us simply adore immersing ourselves in past times, the history, the fashions, the literature, and all the ephemera, one thing we take for granted is our modern corrective eyewear. If you’re lucky to have 20/20 vision, or still young enough that the natural degeneration of eyesight due to aging hasn’t caught up with you, perhaps you haven’t considered this issue.
But I’m part of the 150 million Americans who use corrective eyewear (that’s about 47% of the population), and sadly I’m not among the other 37 million who wear contact lenses (I have a particularly tricky astigmatism prescription that doesn’t work well in contact lenses). It’s not difficult to extrapolate these numbers to other countries and realize that a great many people rely on spectacles for everyday sight. Modern eyeglasses are a wonder and a blessing, yet they just don’t coordinate well with most historical costumes. Current eyewear fashions are especially inappropriate for costume wear, since trendy styles tend to be made of bright plastic or are in angular shapes.
So what was eyewear like before geek-chic specs and big Jackie O. shades became all the rage? Let’s take a quick look at the history of corrective eyeglasses, and then we’ll figure out some ways historical reenactors and costumers can adapt, with a special focus (no pun intended) on women wearing glasses. While Dorothy Parker may have quipped that men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses, there is some evidence that women wore eyeglasses in days of yore, at least in specific circumstances. Since so many of us historical costumers are women, it’s worth seeing what was really worn.
Eyeglasses From Ancient Times Through the Renaissance
Several ancient Greek sources mention using glass magnification as a reading aid, but it was not until the late 13th century that lenses were worn on the face to help people see. In 1306, a Dominican friar named Giordano da Pisa first mentioned how corrective eyeglasses had been used ‘for many years,’ as recorded in his monastery’s chronicles. However, these early eyeglasses were precariously perched on the nose in the pince-nez style and lacked “temples,” the side arms that hold glasses over the ears — that part would not be added until the 18th century.
Early eyeglass frames were made of many materials, such as wood, bone, horn, shell, leather, or metal. The lenses were crude but were of great value to older people and to scholars and artisans whose work often strained their eyes. Florence and Venice capitalized on their glass-making technology to produce corrective lenses (Venice establishing one of the first guilds for eyeglass makers in 1300), and soon, eyeglasses spread via the merchants and artists from Italy to France, Germany, the Low Countries, and England. German metalworkers became specialists at making frames for Italian optics. As early as 1384, customs records reported that eight gross of eyeglasses were imported into London just between July and September. In 1457, three German merchants imported about 20 gross of eyeglasses.
People shown wearing or holding eyeglasses in period artwork were typically scholars, clergy, and those trying to appear learned. Eyeglasses were only worn during specific activities, such as reading, writing, and doing fine needlework. Glasses were often shown worn by apostles in Biblical paintings and on images of church leaders. Money-handlers were sometimes shown wearing or holding glasses. Portraiture before the 16th century exclusively shows men wearing eyeglasses, although in some images, women are shown holding a pair of spectacles.
A few records show that women did wear eyeglasses if it suited their tasks. Outside Florence in 1402, nuns ran a school to teach writing and embroidery to the girls of merchant families. The school’s account book school showed that these women purchased four pairs of spectacles. Seven years later, the same nuns paid for a new pair of eyeglasses and another replacement lens, and then eight years after that, they paid to have a pair of spectacles repaired. Most likely, the older nuns needed to keep their vision sharp so they could teach such precise topics.
As eyeglass-making became a big industry in Europe, the prices of spectacles got lower. There are images of market sellers peddling glasses to middling-class men and occasionally even women. Much like reading glasses are sold at drugstores today, eyeglasses were sold in a few set magnifications and were not customized to the wearer. Of course, this was still an amazing improvement over nothing!
The shape of these eyeglasses was usually small round frames that rested on the nose bridge without temples. They could be hinged at the center to help with the fit. Some people fastened ribbons through small holes in the side of the glasses frames and tied these around their head.
18th-Century and 19th-Century Eyeglasses
In the early 18th century, eyeglasses with temples or side arms began to be used. A London optician Edward Scarlett Sr. was the first to advertise glasses with this feature in the 1720s, and he is sometimes credited with their invention. While the design for glasses became more easily wearable in the 18th century, the lens shape tended to be very small and round. Frames were typically metal and did not have nose pads like modern eyeglasses. The temples were straight and did not adjust, but they could be hinged and fold in the middle.
Equally popular at this time were lorngettes, which were eyeglasses attached to a handle or stick. These later evolved into opera glasses, but during the 18th and 19th centuries, lorngettes were just as common for reading and other up-close viewing among the upper-class women and men.
Being painted in a portrait wearing your eyeglasses was only common for men and still mostly for older men, clergy, and academics. The few 18th-century images of women wearing glasses are of older women, often holding a book, or of older women holding their spectacles or lorngettes.
In the 19th century, a somewhat wider variety of eyeglass styles came into fashion. Metal had become the most common material for frames, and lens shapes were predominantly round or oval, until the 1840s when rectangular and even octagonal frames were also worn, particularly by men. In 1843, the first elastic-steel wire glasses were made in America, which meant adjustable temples were available on eyeglasses so the wearer could bend them around their ears.
Lorngettes continued as an alternative for upper-class ladies throughout the 19th century, and even monocles are worn or carried by women. While portraits of eyeglass-wearing women continued to be scarce, several finely knitted eyeglass cases survive in museums, attesting to the fact that women owned and cared for their eyewear, even if they didn’t want to be immortalized wearing spectacles.
At the end of the Victorian era, as middle-class women gained more education and entered the workforce, photographs turn up more frequently showing women wearing small, wire-frame eyeglasses. Pinch-nez styles without temples are also worn, and these sometimes have a long ribbon or chain so they can be hung around the lady’s neck. Eyeglasses are often seen on women wearing shirtwaist outfits and the tailored styles of the Edwardian era.
Early 20th-Century Eyeglasses
As new materials came into use, glasses could be made of celluloid and Bakelite as well as metal. Sunglasses, which had been rare and were mostly used in cases of disease or infirmity, first became popular in the 1920s and ’30s when outdoor sports were fashionable for the upper and middle classes. Spectacle shapes got bigger and more varied.
Eyeglasses became more commonly worn by both genders on a daily basis, although it was slow going. At the start of the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt still felt he had to overcome his “disadvantage” at needing to wear eyeglasses all his life. In the 1920s, however, silent film star Harold Lloyd made horn-rimmed glasses a little less distasteful by wearing them in his quirky comedies.
Buying Period Reproduction Eyeglasses
When wearing historical costumes, if you need to wear corrective eyeglasses, you may want to consider reproduction eyewear. Unfortunately, a wider variety of styles tends to be found for later historical periods. I cannot vouch for these vendors, but their goods appear reasonably historically accurate:
- Zanoza Workshop on Etsy — Various 13th- to 15th-century frames, $22 to $33
- Jas. Townsend and Son, Inc. — Various 18th- to 19th-century frames, $18 to $43
- Sutler of Mt. Misery — Three 18th-century frames, $29
- Smiling Fox Forge — One 18th-century frame, $40
- Focusers — Various 19th- to mid 20th-century frames, $45 to $195
- The Grand Spectacle — Various 19th- to early 20th-century frames, $140 to $180
- Historic Eyewear Company — Various 19th-century frames, $140 to 180
Eyewear such as these can be taken to your local optometrist and fitted with prescription lenses. Note that thicker glass lenses and progressive (bifocal or trifocals) lenses might not fit into all of these small frames, but it’s worth asking for a simplified version of your prescription. For example, instead of bifocals, you could get the “near vision” prescription so you can identify faces and read documents while in period garb (this is what I’ve done successfully).
Buying Antique Eyeglasses
For more recent periods, antique and vintage frames can found online and in antique shops. Eyewear from the Victorian era and 20th century is most common and more affordable, plus these are the kinds of frames that will be most sturdy and best able to be re-fitted with your new lenses. Prices and availability will vary widely as with any antique object, so you’ll have to put in some time for careful searching.
Here are a few websites known for selling a selection of antique frames, although, again, I cannot vouch for any particular business:
- Vintage Optical Shop— Carries 19th- to mid 20th-century frames
- The Optometrist Attic — Carries early 20th-century frames
And, of course, don’t forget to look on eBay and Etsy for antique eyeglasses and lorngettes!
Making Your Own Historical Eyewear
If you want truly authentic-looking eyeglasses for a pre-18th-century outfit, you may have to try to make your own. Wood and bone frames were common, and several pairs have survived and are in museums for study. Historical reenactors have made some interesting attempts at producing their own versions too. For inspiration, take a look at:
- Ercc Glaison’s Medieval Oak Eye Glasses — Fascinating blog post about making wood-framed glasses suitable for 13th- to 16th-century wear. Even includes a cutting template.
- The Linkspages at Larsdatter – Eyeglasses & Spectacles– Very thorough catalog of pre-1600 images and extant items, ideal for researching your own work.
Buying Modern Glasses to Fake Historical Ones
Sometimes perfect authenticity isn’t your goal, and comfort or budget are higher priorities. You can still get a reasonably historical style while maintaining clear vision in modern glasses that don’t look modern. Look for wire-frame eyeglasses with small, round or oval eye shapes, such as the “John Lennon” (or “Harry Potter”) type, but even smaller.
A particularly useful source is ZenniOptical.com — over the years, I’ve found small wire-frame eyeglasses for $12 to $20 that are a reasonable substitute for 16th- to 18th-century glasses. I’ve even gotten them in a dark tint to use as sunglasses. I can vouch for ZenniOptical’s quality and customer service (for example, I have a pair of modern prescription sunglasses from Zenni that have lasted over 5 years and cost no more than $20).
And, of course, look at your local optometrist store. While changing fashions sometimes make it hard to find truly historical shapes, a basic wire-rimmed frame is classic and doesn’t have to be expensive. Just avoid “rimless” styles because they were mainly available as pince-nez frames until around the 1920s.
Another Option: Going Without
This may sound controversial or even crazy, but the ultimate in historical accuracy is to go without corrective eyewear for an event. Obviously, you shouldn’t do this if it would be unsafe, cause pain or medical problems, or if you need to do things at the event that require precise vision (such as sewing, cooking, using weaponry, etc.). But if you’re attending a ball or a party for a few hours and you’ll be among friends, you might experiment with taking off your glasses and experiencing the world as you really would have if you were born in a different era.
You may find that you rely more on your friends’ voices to recognize them. The music may guide you more strongly as you dance. You may also find yourself forgetting little “problems” with a costume that previously bothered you or flaws that you might otherwise have seen in the mirror.
I frequently do this at reenactments when portraying certain historical characters who would not have been wearing spectacles. I’ve even performed on stage in costume without corrective eyewear. As long as I’m with people I know and doing something I’ve practiced, I feel quite comfortable. However, if I’m at a reenactment where I will be cooking or I need to read from a page, I wear my reproduction glasses.
At the very least, if you must wear modern glasses with a historical costume, try to remember to take them off if someone takes your photo! Don’t let one out-of-place accessory spoil all the work you put into your beautiful historical ensemble.
- Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes, Vincent Ilardi, American Philosophical Society, 2007
- Antique Spectacles and Other Vision Aids, by David A. Fleishman M.D.
- My Pinterest board of historical women with eyeglasses
This article was originally published in Your Wardrobe Unlock’d.