Eighteenth century spectacles

 1720s coffee house
Only in the eighteenth century did spectacles as we would understand them start to appear. Demand may have been fuelled to some extent by the availability of cheap daily newspapers.

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) 

 Wig Spectacles circa 1780
The major design innovation of the century was the introduction of sides at some point before 1730. Eighteenth century spectacles are characterised by large, round eye rim shapes. The lugs are frequently quite wide with split centre joints. The bridge is commonly of a C-shape. Eighteenth century spectacles were big and noticeable. The fashion for wigs meant that 'wig spectacles' were designed almost as an accessory of dress. 

 Nuremberg Spectacles 1700-1750
 Steel spring improvement
 Typical steel wig spectacles circa 1760
Note how this rough Nuremberg type (1700-1750) still present at the start of the century gave way first to an improved steel spring variety of nose spectacles (with centrally-hinged bridge, dating from perhaps c.1740) and eventually a recognisably modern spectacle frame made from a single material (c.1760).   

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'. 

 Late 18th century spectacles
In the 1750s Benjamin Martin promoted his 'visual glasses' with their reduced aperture lenses contrived through the provision of a horn margin. This is one of the first occasions in which an optical innovation affected the very appearance of the frames. 

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. 

 Whalebone spectacles 1750
More unusual materials were occasionally used. The item illustrated is rare whalebone example. Whalebone is a rare material to encounter in antique eyewear and the museum is lucky enough to possess two examples, one an eighteenth century pair with sides.This frame dates from around 1750 and you may be able to see that the whalebone has been welded as two strips and tied at the bridge after the insertion of the lenses. Natural ageing of the material, about which the museum can do very little, has caused the strips to move apart. Whalebone is easy to carve and shape and has elastic properties. As such it was used in various manufacturing industries as a forerunner of plastic, for example to strengthen parasols. Reinforced corsets might be described by their wearers as 'prisons of whalebone' but we like to think the owner of these spectacles was glad to wear them. 

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. 

 Venetian sun spectacles circa 1790
The Venetians, ever at the forefront of developments in spectacle design, were wearing early sunglasses with green-tinted lenses to guard against the sun's reflection on the ripples of the lagoon. The pair illustrated dates from around 1790. They were popularised by a famous actor called Goldoni. Then, as now, everyone wanted to copy what the showbiz celebrity was wearing. 

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.  

 Dr Johnson Spectacles
These tortoiseshell spectacles with extremely short right-angled 'temple' sides were allegedly worn by that great literary figure of the century, Dr Samuel Johnson. Whilst the association is perhaps uncertain, they are certainly of the right date to coincide with the end of his life. Stylistic evidence suggests they are from the 1780s. 

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. 

 Detail from portrait of John Adams
This detail from a portrait engraving of John Adams of Edmonton shows the accoutrements of a learned man in London in the Age of the Enlightenment (1795). Adams was described as a 'Teacher of the Mathematics, Navigation & c.' He might have obtained all the illustrated items from an optician, not just the spectacles. 

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:

  • 5 dozen and nine pair of stained horn spectacles
  • 2 dozen leather spectacles
  • 27 tortoiseshell frames
  • 3 silver frames (worth a shilling each)
  • 22 dozen horn and leather frames and rims (the lot of these were valued at only 11 shillings)
  • 13 'old frames'
  • 4 Brazil pebble spectacles

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.

 Storer Syllepsis Spectacles
This silver and shell frame (hallmarked 1792) appears unremarkable but is possibly one of the most important items in the collection...the only known surviving pair of Syllepsis glasses. Engraved with the name of William Storer "Gentleman" of Lisle St, Leicester Fields, Middlesex but marked with the initials 'WF' we are drawn to conclude that Storer bought spectacles off William Frisbee (or Ford) in London and fitted his own Syllepsis lenses (patented 1783) before having his name engraved on the outside. Frisbee was working from Cock Lane from at least 1792-1806. Ford died in 1793 but is felt by our team to be the more likely craftsman. Assuming the lenses are original (no small assumption) we can hazard to suggest that the elaborately worded patent for Syllepsis lenses was a sham and that such lenses are in fact unremarkable - something technical historians had long suspected.

 Mudd spectacles
By the same maker is this pair of spectacles. Richard Mudd had his name inscribed on the side of his spectacles and just to confirm his association with them his friends placed a note in the case after his death:

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.