A print in the museum collection, Characters who frequented Button's Coffee House about the year 1720, illustrates the social background very well. It is an engraving by William Hogarth depicting Martin Folkes (with nose spectacles held in the hand) and Joseph Addison. A parliamentary news sheet headed 'Votes of the Commons' lies on the table. The snuff box and the tobacco pipe indicate two other types of gentleman's accessory, the development of which to some extent parallel that of spectacles.
"The evolution of spectacles can be said to have lain dormant for 500 years until the eighteenth century made some slight progress in craftsmanship and awakened the idea that frame fitting made a difference to the optical results" (Thompson, 1952?)
"Great advances were made in the design of spectacles in the 18th century, especially in the latter half" (Law, 1978)
Spectacle lenses took an importance of their own. Instead of just being classified roughly as for 'old' or 'young' sight they were provided in a range of optical powers. The focal length (in inches) might be marked on the spectacle side. Around 1730 Edward Scarlett of Soho advertised that he 'Grindeth all manner of Optick Glasses (and)makes spectacles after a new method, marking the Focus of the Glass upon the Frame, it being approv'd of by all the Learned in Opticks as [the] Exactest way of fitting different Eyes'.
There is more evidence about Benjamin Martin and his Visual Glasses, also known as 'Martin's Margins', in some of our museum paintings. Visit the Antiques in Use feature in the 'Art Gallery 'section to learn more. You'll discover that Martin's design had a lifespan of about a century.
At some point in the century, possibly as early as the 1760s London opticians began producing split lenses. At first these were for the use of artists, but they developed into the first bifocals, allowing a single spectacle frame to perform the dual functions of an aid to both reading and distance vision.
To learn more about the invention of this type of spectacles and why it is impossible to confirm that they had a famous inventor, see the feature on the invention of bifocals in the 'Art Gallery' section.
At the turn of the century John Yarwell could advertise lenses ‘set neatly in Leather, Horn, Silver or Tortoise-shell Frames’, though tortoiseshell was not to be really popular for another two generations. The other material most commonly observed in the surviving specimens is iron. Steel was beginning to appear. The process of making crucible steel had been developed by the Sheffield watchmaker Benjamin Huntsman in 1742 and various other kinds were available prior to the development of the standard Bessamer Process in the 1850s. Spectacles proved to be a particularly apt application for this light-weight but strong material.
Don't be surprised at the colour; this material has been traditionally gathered when already rotting from the beach and depending upon the earth where it is found it may have various colours. It can also contain trace amounts of various metals including iron and copper.
There was a contemporaneous development of alternatives to spectacles, particularly amongst the higher social orders. Perhaps because spectacles were now more widely available there was less prestige in owning a pair and some of the negative connotations observed in Medieval times resurfaced. For instance, ordinary spectacles were banned from French court life but a single lens (in the form of a lorgnon) was more acceptable, so a whole bracket of the prestige customer base that might have driven the design development of spectacles was removed from the equation for social reasons.
We know much more about spectacle makers from this period onwards. Silver pairs even had the maker's initial stamped on the sides, so can often be attributed to a specific individual. Many of the more famous opticians such as the Dollonds or Benjamin Martin have been studied for their microscopical and philosophical wares; in the published histories it is often taken for granted that they were producing large numbers of spectacles in the background, perhaps as the mainstay of their business. In fact we know very little about the extent of their spectacle production or the business emphasis they placed upon it.
A recent study of a shop inventory has cast light on the stock of an optician of the time. In 1737 Nathaniel Adams (c.1707-1741) who had trained as an apprentice under the great Edward Scarlett moved to premises in Charing Cross a stone's throw from the present day College of Optometrists. Dying suddenly intestate, his widow was compelled to 'exhibit' his goods and chattels in order to obtain probate. The Court employed the younger Edward Scarlett and William Radford, optician of the Strand, to identify the specific optical goods. Some examples from the inventory list include:
Altogether 499 pairs of spectacles are listed. Being listed first suggests that they were the considered to be the main business of the shop, but the inventory goes on to record any number of reading glasses, cases, telescopes, prisms, scioptic balls, barometers, lanterns, opera glasses, microscopes, air pumps etc.
Reference: Buchanan, P., and Gee, B., 'Inside the Shop of an Eighteenth Century Optician', Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society 82 (2004) pp10-14.
Monday July 4th 1796 1/2 past nine in the Morning died Mr Mudd an eminent Surgeon and Apothecary of Gedding in this County. Born Dec'br 27th 1737.
We flung our research network into action and have discovered that he was indeed an eminent surgeon, practising mainly in Foulsham, Norfolk and only latterly in Suffolk where he took up residence at Gedding Hall, between Sudbury and Colchester. The title 'apothecary' must have been self-awarded since the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries have no record of him. There was no such thing as protected professional titles in those days! He didn't claim to be an optician...we have an idea who his optician was because he initialled the frame WF. This could be William Ford or William Frisbee, two well known London opticians in the early 1790s who are known to have sold spectacles to owners in the provinces.
We hope the spectacles enjoy their new home. If you're interested in finding out more about what and why we collect you can now read our Acquisitions and Disposals Policy online.