Opera glasses

The first binoculars were for use indoors.

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This online exhibition is about a particular kind of binocular instrument with very simple optics. Opera glasses preceded field binoculars in date and they form a collecting category in their own right. Let's start theatrically...by setting the scene:

In the 18th and 19th centuries there was much excitement going on at the theatre, opera house or music hall... and not all of it was on the stage! A print and a drawing in the museum's collection (both seen in the image gallery above) together give an indication of the activity within the auditorium.

The print of  A Dandy Fainting or - An Exquisite in Fits, by George Cruikshank, dated 1st August 1835, shows a wealthy young man in a private box at the opera passing out to the horror of his dandified friends, one of whom is bespectacled. The drama of the scene is confined to the audience; the stage is only just visible through the curtain.

Our exquisite friend did not require optical aids to see the performance but then neither did many in the rest of the audience. Theatres, of which there were many to be found, even in relatively quite minor towns, were often small and intimate, with the action not too far away. Opera glasses were used as much for pretentious display or to look at your neighbours (perhaps the goings on in a box) as for viewing the stage.

When the stage was viewed it was not always for the most proper purposes and gentlemen users in particular might be accused of lechery as in the German drawing The ballet enthusiast with opera glasses - the dancing figures do not come close enough to his eyes!

The artist has caricatured the scene by providing oversize opera glasses, but quite large examples did exist for men and small versions for children.

These images are part of the museum's collection of around five hundred prints and drawings, about which you can learn more in our Virtual print room gallery. According to the evidence contained in our collection, opera glasses might even be used in a court room, the proceedings of which could be quite dramatic! Cruikshank's hand-coloured etching A New Court of Queens Bench...As it Ought to Be - or - The Ladies Trying a Contemptible Scoundrel for a Breach of Promise includes a vindictive woman using the opera glasses to ensure that justice is served on the errant man.

What are opera glasses?

The first items to be advertised by the name of opera glasses, in the 1730s, would not now be considered to be opera glasses. They were in fact monocular spyglasses.

Skeleton opera glasses c.1830

Optically, opera glasses can be classified as binocular versions of the Galilean telescope. That is to say they feature a concave eyepiece and a convex objective lens (usually larger) which used in combination at opposite ends of a tube result in a magnified, upright image to the viewer. In fact the enclosing tube isn't always strictly necessary as shown by the rare skeleton pair made of tortoiseshell in our collection. The lens rims fold down over the handle when not in use. We think this pair dates from about 1830.

Opera glasses do not really occur before 1800 although the concept can be traced back to 1606 when the Staten-Generaal of the Dutch Republic rejected Lipperhey's application for a patent of the telescope, at the same time calling for a binocular instrument.

In 1823 Johann Friedrich Voigtlander (1779-1859), an optician in Vienna, used two bridging frames to fix together the barrels of two identical ivory and gilt spyglasses. Each eye was adjusted separately by means of individual draw tubes. Although his products were a success he may not have been the first to mount two spyglasses together. A retrospective account by the English optician J. T. Hudson, written in 1840, claimed the practice had been going on since 1815.

Subsequently Monneret devised a patent screw. By twisting one of the barrels you could cause it to extend.

Then, in 1825, Lemière of Paris placed a focusing wheel between the two barrels and furthermore, joined the eyepieces together with a third bridge. Thus the two eyetubes could be adjusted simultaneously, achieving proper 'collimation' of two optical devices for single vision.

During the 19th century opera glasses became very popular. One theory is that the work carried out on stereoscopy by Wheatstone and Brewster in the 1830s and 1840s had helped to drive a public interest in using both eyes together.

Opera glasses by Cox

A typical pair of London opera glasses is shown here from the third quarter of the nineteenth century, displaying three bridges and a central focusing wheel. This pair is marked 'Frederick Cox, 98 Newgate Street' (the address where Cox worked from 1870-1901) and has flared brass tubes with dark blue and white enamel casing. The decoration includes pink and blue flowers within four white ovals whilst the focusing wheel and eyepiece rims are of Mother-of-Pearl. The best French examples were similar to this.

Tiffany Opera Glasses

The example shown on the right is marked Tiffany's, Paris and even though the amorous couple painted on the enamel are of eighteenth century appearance the object can be dated firmly to the period 1890-1920.

You may click on the image of the Tiffany opera glasses to enlarge it.


Other folding types for ladies were supplied within cases resembling a purse. The 'La Reine' model was of decorative silver with a silver chain to carry it and a red garnet to adorn the opening mechanism. In the mid 20th century the Rand No 1 opera glass was marketed as 'suitable for a waistcoat pocket or a lady's evening bag'. Another of our purse examples (left) is of white kid leather with gilded decoration and is inlaid with Mother of Pearl panels. The eyepieces are covered with brass swivelling shutters that may be intended to represent coins. Called the 'Pocoscope', it dates from the 1890s.  

Multi-drawer opera glasses 1874

Multiple draw opera glasses are more rare, as with this patented example in ivory and brass from 1874 - shown on the right. One or two draws would be more normal. The resemblance of this object to two spyglasses is quite striking.

Some opera glasses were made for prestige clients from very precious materials. Such objects will often be treated by museums or antique dealers as decorative arts objects rather than optical devices.

Indeed the optical power of opera glasses is usually weak, seldom producing a magnification of more than X3, however that is usually adequate to see the action on a stage whilst retaining a bright enough image and a wide field of view.

Collapsible paper opera glasses

This very fragile pair of collapsible opera glasses [shown on the left] features telescopic paper tubes. It was made in mid-19th century France. Similar examples exist where the paper has rotted away completely leaving just a skeleton framework. Unusually, the handle (now missing) and Mother-of-Pearl focusing screw are at the opposite end to the eyepieces.

Opera glass handles and holders

Opera glasses with handle

Opera glasses are often described in French as a 'lorgnette'. Despite the obvious confusion you can see how this came about since many French examples had long handles. Our illustration, on the right, shows a French pair with panelled barrels from circa 1870-1890. Note the extendable single-pivot handle with a decorative branch pattern depicted carefully upon its surface. The handle terminates with a suspension ring. This particular handle is quite thick. Handles were notorious weak spots. If the item was dropped they could also damage the optical parts over which they had to be folded. Separate handles that clipped on or off according to preference were soon developed.

There were many designs for opera glass handles in this period. They were even the subject of their own patents. Since handles made of brittle materials were prone to break off, efforts concentrated on developing clamps that were purposefully detachable.  

Opera glass clamp handle

Previously mistaken for a lorgnette handle this clamping handle has a metal barrel with deeply carved floral decoration. The clamp is adjusted with a milled turning wheel. A large metal suspension ring at the end of handle might have allowed attachment to a belt or sash.

In the USA handles were often called 'holders'. The important point was that the glasses could be mounted. In a patent of 1889 William Mack of Indiana referred to 'a detachable handle, cane or other suitable article'. In a further patent of the same year he explained that 'the object of the invention is to provide means whereby an opera-glass can be held to the eyes without having to hold the hand or hands at such an inconvenient height...also relieving the hands and the arms from the weight of the glass when raised such a distance'.

Isley opera glass handle and patent drawing

The image on the left is of a 'New and Improved Opera Glass Holder' designed by Gideon Isley of New Jersey in 1889. It is marked with Mack's patent for a telescopic handle but otherwise resembles Isley's design far more closely. It has a gold-plate shaft and a somewhat weak tortoiseshell joint. The maker was the Julius King Optical Company. We have presented the image for you alongside the original patent drawing by Isley.

Zeiss opera glasses with telescopic handle

The telescopic handle was heavily promoted in the 1920s as seen by this Zeiss pamphlet of 1923. This explains that the Teleater was ideal for viewing more than one actor on the stage at a time. Due to its simple refocusing it could also be used with ease for viewing the audience during the interval. It came with a range of available accessories including a rigid leather case or a soft bag decorated with beads.

Moneyment patent drawing 1896

In the 1890s several designers, including James Aitchison, tried their hand at inventing spectacle-mounted opera glasses, or as Aitchison put it so delicately, 'Apparatus for attaching optical instruments to heads'. Some of these designs bear a superficial resemblance to low vision aids of the twentieth century. The example illustrated was by Matthew Moneyment in 1896.

  Modern theatre glasses

Modern Opera and Theatre Glasses

Twentieth century theatre glasses were usually of cheap plastic. Whilst playgoers could buy their own it was more usual to hire them from a dispensing unit on the back of the seat in front.

The first picture shows a pair of 'Tivoli'' opera glasses by the well-known firm of Kershaw. (PAT. No 410292).

10,000 pairs of opera glasses, hired at six-pence a time from automatic machines in theatres have been lost in the past few years, said a solicitor at Bow Street Police Court yesterday. During the hiring firm's last financial year 1,800 pairs were missed. Twenty five pounds reward is now offered for the apprehension of any one in unlawful possession of these opera glasses.

Daily Express, reported in National Optical Journal VII (8), August 1939

Archimede folding opera glasses

In the twentieth century 'skeleton' pairs were also popular on account of their light weight and portability. We show a pair of folding opera glasses in nickel silver (?) with a lever-driven sliding action. The objective lenses screw in, whilst the eyepieces have eye-shaped cups - a thoughtful touch. This is a French example, marked 'Archimede'.

Oltzappfel opera glasses

Oval eyes compensated in part for the limited visual field provided by round opera glasses. They were also better for users with a wide inter-pupillary distance since, unlike field glasses, very few antique opera glasses had folding bridges adjustable for p.d. The oval-eyed opera glasses pictured with ivory barrels date from the early 20th century and bear the name of H. Oltzappfel & Co of 64 Charing Cross, Opticians to the Prince of Wales.

Playgoer advertisement

We also reproduce an advertisement from 1954 for the Playgoer theatre glasses supplied by Britex (Scientific Instruments) Ltd, where it would appear that adjustable p.d. is considered a novelty. You may click on the advert to enlarge it.

Finally, when is an opera glass not an opera glass?

Cruet set resembling opera glasses Inkwell

Opera glasses have influenced the design of many other common objects for instance this inkwell, of uncertain age but already in our collection by 1935 and the cruet set, a tourist souvenir from the French resort of Nice, though made in Germany!

They could also be offensive weapons...in 1906 Charles Delaney of Dublin was charged at Bow-Street (London) with having thrown a pair of opera glasses from the back of the stalls at the Coliseum on to the stage. The glasses rebounded from the footlights and hit one of the musicians in the orchestra on the head. Delaney admitted to the theatre manager that he done so for a bet. It cost him a £5 fine.

Did you know? There are specialist collectors of antique opera glasses. One American collector has coined the term Jumellist to describe them.

See below to discover why...

Some inscriptions you'll find on opera glasses  

Jumelles - This is not a maker's name; it is just French for 'opera glasses'
Brevete - French for 'patent'. Compare this with par brevet d'invention and par brevet d'invention et de perfectionnement or lunette par brevet d'invention. The latter phrase incorporating the French word for 'spectacles' guides us in considering opera glasses as vision aids. Compare also S.G.D.G. ('Sans Garantie du Gouvernement')
modèle déposé - 'registered design’
Inventeur des jumelles - Inscription favoured by the French maker Lemiere