Glass eyes

The origins of the first artificial eyes for living patients...

Share options

Boilly print
False teeth and false eye
Louis-Léopold Boilly

Although designed to disguise a disfigurement and be the least noticeable they can be, glass eyes have often been regarded as a person's defining feature, maybe even something of which to be proud.

He’s very well known is Algy
As the Piccadilly Johnny with the little glass eye

(Popular Victorian Music Hall song)

Artificial eyes can be seen as part of a set of objects designed to replace bodily parts for medical and cosmetic reasons. The French print illustrated, by Louis-Léopold Boilly, satirises an unfortunate couple who have been supplied with false dentures, and an artificial eye. As the man extracts his eye he cushions its fall on his artificial hairpiece.

Artists have contributed as much as the medical practitioner in driving forward the necessary technology for artificial eyes. Indeed the specialist technicians involved have, at times, been isolated by the medical profession - with its preference for pursuing the dream of full reconstructive surgery, something that was difficult but at least conceivable for the nose or outer ear, less so for the jelly-like eye.

Shakespeare image humorously doctored to suggest a glass eye

Early Glass and Enamel Eyes

The origins of the first glass artificial eyes for living patients are not known.

They probably existed before the 16th century. William Shakespeare refers to them in King Lear written in about 1605. In the countryside outside Dover the old King, fantastically dressed in flowers, tells Gloucester:

Get thee glass eyes;
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not

(Act IV, Scene 6, reproduced in 'The Oxford Shakespeare' ed. W. J. Craig, 1914)

This reference is ambiguous, however, and has also been interpreted as a reference to spectacles.

In the second half of the 16th c. and for two centuries thereafter, the Venetians made glass eyes by a secret method, apparently with fragile, crude and uncomfortable results. Glass eyes seem also to have come from Augsburg until that source fell victim to the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War, to the benefit of the French whose makers were mainly enamellers rather than glass blowers.

English practitioners were comparatively few and far between. In September 1679 William Boyse of London advertised artificial eyes in the True Domestic Intelligence and informed readers that they must have known him for many years as ‘the only person expert in making artificial eyes of enamel, coloured after nature… in which not only fitted the socket with ease to the wearer, but turned with all the facility of the real organ of vision’. His advertisement of 1681 in Merlin’s Ephemeris proclaimed him 'the only English operator in glass and the most expert in making artificial eyes so exact as not to be distinguished from (the) Natural, they are of enamel, with colour mixt of the same, without either paint or lead, and worn with much ease, and so curious that they have the motion of the natural eye, being exactly made to the colour or bigness of the same which renders them very ornamental and commodious, the like was never made in England'.

Detail from portrait print of James Smith

William Boyse was succeeded, in around 1710, by his son-in-law, James Smith, of whom a famous portrait print survives in which he is clutching an exquisite example of his wares. A text published in London in 1699, apparently a translation of Henri de Blancourt and claiming to reveal a secret method of manufacture to the public recounts how a crystal eye could be blown, complete with imitation blood vessels. In the eighteenth century there was a brief period of Parisian dominance in the art of artificial eye making. Glass, enamel and metal eyes continued to be available. In 1752 Heister, a surgeon of Nuremberg, wrote that he preferred glass eyes to ones made by goldsmiths since metal ones lost their brightness and repelled tear fluid.

19th century glass eyes

Social philanthropists also helped drive forward the technology. Friedrich Philipp Ritterich founded the institute for poor eye patients at the University of Leipzig. He admired good workmanship when he saw it: In 1867 he examined a man recently returned from the Australian gold mines whose false right eye had already been examined and allegedly declared ‘normal’ by four village physicians!!! Although only an individual doctor and teacher, Ritterich was instrumental in sponsoring the growth of a glass-blowing industry in Germany. In 1852 he wrote Das Künstliche Auge, a monograph that confirms his concern for his fellow man. From it we learn that in 1810, and for thirty years, he had fitted artificial eyes as part of his general medical practice. Twice he had gone in person to buy ready-made eyes from stock in Paris. Otherwise he had 400-500 samples sent to him at his office so he could choose the best one. These he then provided to his patients at cost (5 or 6 Thaler). This was in stark contrast to Boissoneau in Paris who demanded 25 Louis d’Or and was on record as saying ‘the social status of the patient should be noted because the fee will be determined by the economic condition of the patient. Indigent patients will be charged 25 Francs whereas for a rich patient the sky may be the limit’. Boissoneau was also proud that he  could supply symmetrical eyes that were supposedly equally suitable for insertion into either socket! In order to avoid this expensive importation of stock eyes Ritterich encouraged German glassblowers and even organised the training of craftsmen in this task. He persuaded Leipzig Eye Institute to provide eyes free of charge to the indigent on the grounds that ‘obtaining an artificial eye is more important for the poor than for the rich; it protects the poor against misery and from need’.

During the 19th century artificial eyes, formerly a commodity supplied from stock, developed instead into individually crafted devices, provided by a compassionate society. By the middle of the century Germany was dominant. In 1832 the glassblower Ludwig Müller-Uri developed a glass eye at the famous Lauscha Glass Factory (est. 1597) which was already famous for producing eyes for toymakers to use in dolls.

German craftsmen began to tour the USA stopping at cities for a few days to demonstrate glass techniques. The Americans started making their own eyes about 1850, Pierre Gougelmann, who had trained under Boissoneau, was one early pioneer although German products continued to be considered the best, some of those from the village of Lauscha being produced by successive generations of a few families working from a cottage industry.

Diseased Eyes

Model of an eye with advanced glaucoma

Glass eyes illustrating diseases were used as teaching aids. An Austrian hand-blown set was used by the San Francisco Eye Institute (Greens Eye Hospital) from 1870. The British Optical Association Museum at the College of Optometrists in London possesses another such collection including eyes made for abnormal cases such as contracted sockets, specimens with special prongs and spurs, ptosis crutches and partial lids or other artificial surrounding tissue. They probably date from the 1880s and have a very close tie-in with the illustrations in a book about the eye by Haab.

In London the commodity was produced in much the same area as the spectacle frame and lens industry as a search of Kelly’s Directory proves. Addresses such as the Goswell Road, Smithfield and Fleet Street occur in connection with artificial eye makers from the 1830s onwards. In 1840 James Gray of Shoreditch is listed as combining eye-making with the manufacture of mineral teeth, whilst the Arnolds of West Smithfield were principally surgical instrument makers. By 1870 Masters Moses of the New Kent Road could boast of two medals awarded (in London and Paris) for their artificial hands, legs and eyes. The range of eyes available in Edwardian England was recalled by Mr A. Bernard Clark (of Dollond & Co) whose 1950s memoirs record that: ‘Most opticians stocked artificial eyes. They were stocked in trays holding a hundred or more’, but these were for display purposes chiefly. Mostly the eyes actually issued to patients were made to special instructions, for example a custom-made Snellen eye used to cost the patient a guinea including fitting’.

After the Ball was Over
She took out her Glass Eye
Kicked her False Leg in the Corner
Shook from her Hair the Dye
Put her False Teeth in Water
Stripped off her False Nails and All
Then what was left went to Bye-byes
After the Ball.

                              (Victorian Music Hall Song)