The history of spectacles

The earliest form of spectacles are generally agreed to have been invented in Northern Italy in the thirteenth century. Over hundreds of years of innovation and refinement, they have been perfected into the stylish and functional designs you see today worn by millions of people to correct their eyesight. Here's a look at the key moments that defined the history of spectacles.

Thirteenth century - Rivet spectacles

The earliest form of spectacles was simply two mounted lenses riveted together at the handle ends. They had no sides and were secured to the face by clamping the nose between the rims, some of which had notches which may have been intended to improve the grip. Even then the wearer could only keep them in place by remaining relatively still and would normally support them with the hand. These spectacles contained convex lenses for the correction of presbyopic long-sightedness and were generally suited only to those few who lived beyond their forties and had the ability to read.

Sixteenth century - Nose spectacles

Nose spectacles were in more common use by the early sixteenth century. These often had a bow-shaped continuous bridge, almost of a modern appearance, that was sometimes flexible depending upon the material, for example leather or whalebone. The bridge was as much an area to be gripped as to rest on the nose. Spectacles were still usually held in place with the hand whilst being used temporarily for a brief period of reading or close inspection. By now the lenses could be used to correct both long and short sight.

The general design changed little through the seventeenth century, though certain refinements increased the flexibility and comfort for some wearers. In some localised areas, notably in Spain, people experimented with ear loops made of string. This allowed them to walk around with their spectacles on.

Eighteenth century - Temple glasses

Only in the eighteenth century did the first modern eyewear, or ‘glasses’ as we would understand them, start to appear. The lenses might be glass, rock crystal or any other transparent mineral substance and were prone to smashing if the spectacles fell off, so there was an impetus to develop frames that could be worn continuously and would stay in place. London optician Edward Scarlett is credited with developing the modern style of spectacles which were kept in place with arms, known as ‘temples’. These were made of iron or steel and gripped the side of the head but did not yet hook over the ears because often the ears were concealed beneath a powdered wig, such as was fashionable at the time. 

As temples developed they were made with wide ring ends through which the wearer could pass a ribbon, thus tying the spectacles securely to the head. As spectacles were no longer primarily for use in sedentary activities, people began to be noticed out and about in their spectacles and might come to be identified as a ‘spectacle wearer’. By the end of the eighteenth century, people who needed correction for both distance and near could choose bifocals.

Nineteenth century - Pince-nez

Pince-nez were a nineteenth century innovation that literally translates as ‘pinching the nose’. They had a spring clip to retain the item in place under its own tension. Sometimes this clip was too tight and the wearer struggled to breathe. If it was too loose the pince-nez could fall off so, for safety and security, they were often connected to the wearer's clothing by a cord or a chain to avoid them being dropped or lost. Pince-nez were sometimes chosen by people who felt that large spectacles were too prominent and drew attention to a physical defect. They were also suitable for mounting lenses that could correct astigmatism.

Twentieth century spectacles

Spectacle wearing continued to become more widespread, key developments being the supply of spectacles to troops in the First World War, cheaper spectacles being subsidised through insurance schemes arranged by friendly societies, and the beginning of the National Health Service in 1948, when free spectacles were made available to all who might benefit from them. This normalised spectacle wearing and led to a significant increase in the scale of production. Entirely separate categories of women’s spectacles and sports eyewear both emerged in the 1930s.

The latter half of the twentieth century saw spectacles become more fashionable and stylish as frames with different shapes, materials, and colours became available. Plastics frames, in particular, allowed a greater choice of colours and textured finishes. Plastic lenses were more durable and could be made lighter and thinner than glass, spurring a renewed interest in rimless designs. Designer eyewear bearing popular high-street brand names encouraged patients to regard spectacles as a desirable commodity, even as a fashion accessory, not just a disability aid.

Listen to the podcast episode!

Museum Curator, Dr Neil Handley PhD, AMA, FRSA, talks about the fashion of spectacles over time.

Further information about glasses

The history of glasses really is a window into ingenuity and innovation over many centuries. If you'd like further information about the history of spectacles or indeed you'd like to visit the British Optical Association Museum please contact our Museum Curator Neil Handley PhD, AMA, FRSA.