A bit on the side

The development of spectacle sides.

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What to do with spectacles that stayed awkwardly on the face had been a problem for four hundred years. If you didn't want to hold them in place with your hand, what could you do?

In 1490 Jerome Savonarola wrote about hooking spectacles to a cap. This is early evidence for spectacles being considered as an accessory to clothing...perhaps the first 'eyewear'.

Spina Frontlalis

Around 1650 the Spina Frontalis appears to have been introduced and may perhaps be considered a precursor of sides. It included a single centrally placed ‘arm’ for positioning over the crown of the head, perhaps under a bonnet. Eighteenth century silver examples include this arm in the exact same form of one or more spectacle sides joined end to end.

It is currently believed that no spectacles had sides until the second quarter of the eighteenth century, from which point spectacles with 'temples' rapidly became the norm.

A brief aside - The Wormleighton Evidence

Wormleighton carving 1950s photograph


Wormleighton carving in 2005

Wormleighton carving photographed by us, 2005

However, latest research by the BOA Museum suggests that sides may have existed before the traditionally accepted date...indeed possibly as early as the 1680s.

It all depends on how you interpret a figurative sculpture of a man wearing spectacles (apparently with sides!) from the carved oak screen now to be found at St Peter's Church, Wormleighton, on the Warwickshire/Oxfordshire border.

The earliest parts of the church date from 1150 but when staff of the BOA Museum first paid attention to this carving back in the 1950s the screen was thought to have been taken from the Spencer Mansion in the village of Wormleighton, built in the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547) which would make it early 16th century, some two hundred years before sides were believed to have been invented. It seemed an unlikely scenario. For various reasons we now think that the screen was originally in Southam Parish Church but was removed for safe-keeping during the Civil War. After the war the screen was included for a short period in the decorative scheme of the Star Chamber in the Manor House. We think that the be-spectacled man is a later addition to this screen, added circa 1685 when the screen was reassembled at Wormleighton Church and reduced in size. This seems much more credible and would still make it the earliest representation of spectacle sides.

The 'sides' appear to pass at a rigid right angle from the lugs of the spectacle front. Unfortunately their terminals are concealed by the flowing locks of hair. We may never be sure if this is what we think it might be. The carving's Tudor-style hat is probably a red herring. One assumes that the artist had added spectacles with sides anachronistically, but the possibility of folk memory playing some part cannot be dismissed altogether. At least the available evidence entitles us to suggest, cautiously, that the first development of spectacle sides is possibly English and possibly from the last quarter of the seventeenth century.


In the seventeenth century the Spanish introduced cords that looped round the ears and helped to keep spectacles in place. This method of securing them was also the one favoured by the Chinese at approximately the same time and could be an alternative interpretation of the Wormleighton carving.

In the 20th century cords have been used to tie spectacles onto babies and even animals. Adults have used then when wearing spectacles under helmets.

Detail of Caetani spectacles

A portrait of Francesco Caetani, Duke of Sermoneta (1594-1683) dating from circa 1660-1662, shows him wearing spectacles with large round lenticular lenses, a notably high bridge and thin line emanating from the mid point of the left rim, disappearing into the folds of his hair. Could this Viceroy of Sicily, Governor of Milan and noted connoisseur of flowers also be the first known wearer of spectacles with sides? Unfortunately the painting is inconclusive. The line is thinner than that outlining the bridge and could be just a cord, but then where is the returning part of the earloop?

Molyneux's Wire Sides

Family papers of the Molyneux family in Ireland contain a special study on the eyes of soldiers compiled by Sir Thomas Molyneux, Physician General to the Army in Ireland. The document appears to describe a spectacle frame for officers, fabricated from gilded brass wire wound round the lenses, bent sixfold to form a brige and continued to form sides and extended with hook bends around the ears. We do not know if any of these frames were ever made for normal use but this could represent the 'invention' of sides in 1725. Certainly, however, the type of sides that definitely did emerge in the next ten years or so were of a totally different type.

Molyneux's wire was presumably quite flexible and almost like a cord loop. The precise date of the invention of rigid sides is unknown. Some sort of loosely fitted rod may have been employed in Italy circa 1700 and this is another possible explanation of the Caetani painting.

The Kirkliston Gravestone

A rather worn Scottish gravestone erected to the memory of one Margaret Shield at Kirkliston near Edinburgh, dated 3 July 1727, may illustrate the first appearance of sides on a macabre pair of skulls indicating the decay of death.

Kirkliston Stone #1

The sides, if that is what they are, loop round in an S-shape and terminate in a large round hollow. This may be a representation of ring ends (for which see further below on this page).

Kirkliston stone #2

Alternatively the carving may show nothing more than straps or cords, but there is an uncanny closeness of date to when we believe spectacle sides were actually invented though nobody would have expected to find their early appearance in Scotland. The Scottish 'Enlightenment' had scarcely got going at this date; even Edinburgh itself was still something of a backwater. We should remember, of course, that memorial headstones can sometimes be erected a long time, even several years, after the date of death.

Edward Scarlett

Scarlett type spectacles

Edward Scarlett may not have been the inventor of modern spectacle sides but he does seem to have been the first to advertise them and so the earliest type is known as the 'Scarlett-type'. This type is distinctive for its spiral terminals on the end of relatively short temple pieces and only one genuine early example of known whereabouts survives in the public domain - here in the BOA Museum.

Scarlett trade card detail

They were found, almost by accident, during a clear-out in the museum basement at Knaresbrough Place in 1990. Fortunately the Honorary Curator, Hugh Orr, had sufficient expertise to recognise them for what they were and they have since been authenticated by several international experts. No evidence for the maker of this actual pair has been found, but only Scarlett seems to have promoted the type. Contrary to some accounts he neither claimed to have invented these spectacles, nor did he patent them.

Scarlett spiral side

The trade card of Edward Scarlett, Optician to His Majesty George II, dated no later than 1730, bears the earliest verifiable illustration of sides, being short, straight and with spiral ends. Large ring ends quickly superseded these. The spirals or rings were to provide a large surface area to rest on the side of the head (the temples) rather than overlie (still less hook round) the ear.

It used to be claimed that the Scarlett spectacles were never actually brought into use and that the true inventor of sides was the optician Marc Thomin of Paris, in 1746. In fact there is proof from an old receipt, now in Leiden, that the Scarlett family, in the form of Edward Scarlett Junior, was using the very term 'temple spectacles' that same year and selling them, together with a case, for 14 shillings.

Ring Ends 

Ring end spectacles

Ring-end spectacles, 2nd half of
the 18th century, with short
straight sides, bent by the
wearer in a rudimentary
attempt at frame fitting!

Ring ends were the second type of side terminal after the apparently short-lived spiral design. Large ring ends essentially indicate an 18th century pair of spectacles and they got smaller as the century progressed.

It is often stated that the ring ends were for the insertion of a ribbon. Whilst this was clearly one possible course of action it is also clear that sometimes the end was covered by leather or material thereby spreading the load more evenly, softening the grip which could be quite firm and perhaps interfering less with the curls and folds of the wigs with which they were often worn.

Detail of Robert Harris spectacles

A portrait of Robert Harris in the BOA Museum, dating from the 1780s, demonstrates that the rings could equally be left unadorned and unencumbered.

Detail from Messenger Monsey portrait

Detail from
Portrait of Messenger Monsey
copyright the Royal College
of Physicians of London

Meanwhile, a superb portrait of Messenger Monsey from 1764, hanging in the Royal College of Physicians, reveals another utilisation by which the index finger could be inserted through the ring as a method of holding the spectacles when not in use.


Double-hinged sides

Once the concept had been established different forms of side were developed quickly: James Ayscough advertised his ‘double-jointed’ sides ‘entirely of a new contrivance’ in 1752. They were ‘so contrived as to press neither upon the Nose nor the Temples’. Sides of this nature became the most popular for oriental spectacles, possibly at around the same time, but it is pure speculation to suggest a direct connection.

Ayscough sides seen from side Turnpin side spectacles






The left-hand image shows a pair of spectacles with a real tortoiseshell front but silver Ayscough-type sides, hallmarked to 1792. By this time the terminal has changed into an elegant oval or pear-shaped loop. Note how the inscription on the side would actually have been upside down when the spectacles were being worn!

Turnpin sides were another form of double-jointed sides but folding in a different plane. The added length they gave the sides permitted them to reach right round the head and in rare cases to actually join together, forming a complete headband. That is almost the case in the right-hand image above.

Sliding spectacle side

Sliding sides

Sliding sides were another form of extension. We have no information on where and when they first appeared but hallmark analysis of surviving silver spectacles has brought their earliest appearance forward to 1806.

Curl sides

Curl sides may have been demonstrated at the Great Exhibition in 1851; they were certainly advertised in the R&J Beck trade catalogue by 1866.

Curl sides 1890

The pair illustrated here dates from circa 1890. Curl sides were almost a return to the idea of the thread loop and this became even more the case as the curled wire was developed so that gradually it became ever more flexible, going through cable curl, comfort cable curl and super comfort cable curl incarnations. They were popular not with the old so much as with children. Models for infants were also designed.

Spring joints

Spring joints appear first in the patents of F. B. Anderson of 1850 and 1854, ‘Constructing the Joints of Spectacles and Adapting Spiral Springs thereto’. Anderson's invention was also known as the Self-acting Spring-Pressure Spectacle, but note that unlike the patent drawings (21 April 1854 No 916) the spring in our example shown here is contained within the joint and not in a long rectangular box adjacent to the joints on the sides.

Anderson spring joint spectacles 1850

So our object corresponds with Anderson's earlier patent (1850 No 13,367, enrolled 30.5.1851). As Alan Leach comments 'Here we have the invention of spring-loaded joints for spectacles. It took more than 100 years for these to become widely used, probably due to manufacturing costs.' (Old English Patents for Spectacles p.9).

High joints were (re)invented and patented by McLeod in 1928.

Dudley Adams

Dudley Adams spectacles

Mention should also be made of Dudley Adams (1762-1830) of Fleet Street, who in 1797 patented his ‘Certain Spectacles upon an Entire New principle’. These comprised two lens rims that slid along a brow bar headband in a manner not unlike some later pupillary distance measures. They were intended for ‘relieving the temples and nose from any kind of pressure whatsoever when in use, and also that the spectacle eyes may be varied or moved to any direction’. Adams submitted more than a dozen different patterns of side to the patent office. Whilst these had never before been patented, most of them were already in use and can scarcely be considered new inventions attributable to this individual. We may note, however, his use of the actual word 'sides'.

Abdel Floating Eyewear advertisement 1999-2001

Uncannily, the spectacles described above appeared to make a comeback at trade exhibitions from 1999, including Optrafair 2001. In the late 1990s Dr Max Fairclough an ex United States Air Force ‘ophthalmic specialist’ created a product ‘to make nose and ear support obsolete’. The spectacle front, marketed by his company Abdel Eyewear, was suspended from a brow bar and consequently featured no bridge, though unlike the design of Dudley Adams there was only one point of suspension and the two lenses could not move independently of each other. Nevertheless this appears to be an ultra modern variation on an eighteenth century theme.

The Museum is particularly keen to hear of further evidence for the early existence of sides.

Further study:

Neil Handley, 'The Price of Temple Spectacles in the 1740s', Ophthalmic Antiques 127 (2014), 7-8.


See also...