A Brief History of Spectacles

Glasses are so ubiquitous these days we don’t often stop to think about how they came about – who, we may wonder, first had the notion that looking through a shaped glass lens could help so many of us to see better?!

Well, while the name of the inventor of spectacles has been lost to history, we do know the Romans experimented with using glass and precious stones to improve their vision. Pliny tells us that “Nero viewed the combats of the gladiators in a smaragdus” or emerald, perhaps used to aid his near-sightedness. We also know that there was a long history of the use of convex lenses in the ancient world. The British Museum contains the Nimrud Lens found in modern day Iraq and dating from 750 BC!

Most scholars agree that the earliest prototype of what we would recognise as spectacles emerged in the 13th century in Italy, when lenses were set in wood or leather frames and held in front of the face, particularly used by monks working on detailed manuscripts. These early types of glasses were soon to become a symbol of learning and wealth and spread throughout Europe. With the invention of the printing press in 1450, books became widely available and with them, of course, the need for reading glasses!

Florence was the epicentre of the spectacle making world for some time but it was the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers formed in Britain in 1629 that first started actively marketing glasses as a reading aid for the common man under the slogan, “A blessing to the aged”!

At this time Spanish manufacturers tried to come up with a way of keeping these wobbly frames that balanced on the nose on the wearer’s face by attaching silk ribbons which would hook around the ears. The Chinese added little weights to counterbalance and stop them falling off, and finally in 1730 Edward Scarlett added two stiff rods to the frames which sat on top of the ears. The hinge was added by James Ayscough some twenty-two years later and voila, our modern foldable spectacles (or scissor spectacles as they were known in the 18th century) were born.

You may have heard that bifocals were invented by Benjamin Franklin, but much like the story of the kite and lightning this may be a myth! He did write to a friend that he was “happy in the invention of double spectacles, which serving for distant objects as well as near ones, make my eyes as useful to me as ever they were,” but he didn’t take credit for it!

By the 20th century the advances in lens manufacture and the range of materials available for frames meant that spectacles became as much a fashion accessory as they were a necessity for many – film stars and pop icons like Marilyn Monroe and Buddy Holly helped to boost the popularity of wearing spectacles for glamour or to create a unique look.

Today, happily, we have a wonderful choice of stylish, easy to wear, effective and affordable spectacles at our fingertips – and nowhere more so than at Patrick & Menzies!

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