Lorgnettes and folding eyeglasses

Spectacles on the ends of handles.

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A lorgnette is a spectacle front on the end of a handle. Early lorgnettes had quite short handles. Indeed the pre-history of the lorgnette and spectacles overlaps since early spectacles, though they had no handles, were often hand-held at the edge to support them in place.

Did you know? The French used the word 'lorgnette' as early as the 17th century to describe a spyglass (small telescope). Some spyglasses had handles attached to them but the usage is nonetheless liable to cause confusion. The French word for what we call a lorgnette is actually face-a-main.

Adams lorgnette engraving

The lorgnette is believed to have been invented circa 1770 by George Adams I (1709-1772) and subsequently illustrated in his son's Essay on Vision (1789 and 1792) where it was described as 'a kind of substitute for spectacles...both eyes are used at once, without any effort'. A digitally edited version of the engraving from the 1792 edition in our College Library is shown here. Although the first ones had round rims and were thus a bit chunky it is still fair to claim that the emphasis was on a practical, functional design.

Adams type lorgnette

Most of these lorgnettes have a horn or tortoiseshell handle that often doubles as a case to fold into. The handle was rarely any longer than the width of the spectacle front and fitted neatly in the hand, all the more neatly once oval lenses became popular circa 1800. Some of these lorgnettes have metal fronts. The example from our collection photographed here is all tortoiseshell and has a small suspension ring for a cord and a silver roundel for the owner to mark with his or her intials if desired. The Adams-type lorgnette continued in popularity until at least 1825.

The fashion for even shorter-handled lorgnettes coincides with the development of spring-loaded fronts. As the nineteenth century progressed folding eyeglasses (and later pince-nez) were increasingly adopted in place of spectacles by both sexes as a sort of compromise solution since it seems that women could get away with being seen to wear them and men preferred them rather than risk the negative associations should they be seen to flourish scissor spectacles in the hand - the practice of the French middle classes who supported the Revolution.

Bate folding eyeglasses

In 1825 Robert Bretell Bate ('Bate of The Poultry' in the City of London) took out a patent for ‘An Improvement in the Frames of Eye Glasses’ or 'Handled spectacles with a spring action, in which the lenses are designed to fold over one another in which position they look like a single lens'.  We may note that this is the only English type of spectacles commonly called ‘eyeglasses’, and the label has stuck within the antiques trade for hand spectacles of this basic form. In fact the patent related specifically to the spring action by which the folded frame opened out. Otherwise these spectacles would also be classifiable as a sort of lorgnette or hand frame. When folded they could be used as a single lens of double thickness. The emphasis in the wording of the patent grant was on portability and speed. If opening out conventional spectacles ‘the time consumed in unfolding and preparing them for use exposes near-sighted persons to the loss of passing objects which excite their attention whilst so preparing them’. (It has been suggested that by 'passing objects' he probably meant young women!) He called his invention ‘double eyeglasses’ a term potentially confusing to the historian because it had been used before to describe both bifocals and spectacles with auxiliary glazed side visors. Here it is clear that Bate meant to distinguish them from hand-held devices with only a single lens such as the quizzing glass, and we may note that he thought single lenses were harmful to the sight as differences between the two eyes could be caused through habitual use: ‘it is well known that much injury is occasioned by the use of one eye only, and that a difference in the sight of two eyes is uniformly the result of habit’. An instant ‘touch’ whilst lifting the folded double spectacles to the eyes would open them out and thus prevent this harm.

The picture with the purple background shows a number of folding eyeglasses from our collection. They are of various dates; at least one may be early twentieth century, but they all owe their form ultimately to Bates' design.

Did you know? Bate made his fortune from a contract to supply the Excise Office with the Sikes hydrometer and the saccharometer, instruments for testing alcohol. He won this contract at the behest of an attentive Mother-in-Law, having originally trained under his uncle as a haberdasher from 1803. Despite describing himself as an 'Optician' on his shop front his 1825 patent concerning eyeglasses is the only evidence he actually made spectacles.

Shortly after Bates' improvement French opticians produced very small lorgnettes where the emphasis was on intricacy of design. Some are scarcely large enough to hold steadily and can be quite impractical.

Watch lorgnettes

Watch lorgnette

Watch lorgnettes are quite rare (the BOA Museum has three), dating probably from the 1850s and engraved in 18 carat gold. We know some of these were made in Geneva, centre of the watch trade and indeed it is analysis of the watch mechanism that points to their mid-century date whereas previously these objects had often been thought by collectors to date from the 1830s. They incorporate an exquisite mechanism and face and two are even provided with their own key and regulator produced to a similary high decorative standard. Other examples are studded with jewels. You could both look out and watch out with this exquisite example of the jeweller-optician's art. It's to be wondered, however, how the short-sighted would read the time from it since the lenses don't shift to the position required. Perhaps you had to buy a second lorgnette to use the watch? The watch lid of blue enamel, studded with rose diamonds, opens by pushing the catch. It is modelled in the form of a (non-functioning) guitar...so maybe you had to listen out for it too!

Lorgnette with ivory handle

Grandma's long-handled lorgnette of the sort found in many an attic, is likely to be Victorian in date and many examples still exist. The picture to the right shows a slightly more ornate one than usual, with a pierced ivory handle. You can see how it would be an eye-catching item to remove from a handbag and brandish ostentatiously in front of younger people before peering through it in an intimidating manner.

Double lorgnette

As time went on the original practical nature of lorgnettes was forgotten and some became very decorative, almost tasteless in design. Handles could be very long indeed, some even incorporating a telescopic extension or folding hinge half way down for ease of transport. Other unusual forms include lorgnettes combined with fans or double lorgnettes with two spectacle fronts of different powers for reading and distance vision.

In the Edwardian period far thinner examples were introduced with spring-action. These are considered to be quite refined. They remained available for the higher class of customer well into the 20th century, sometimes folding compactly into dress-clip brooches. A brochure in our museum dating from as recently as 1977 shows that London Williamson Ltd was still supplying the 'Louis' range of lorgnettes and dress clips in either chrome or rolled gold, with round or hexagonal eye shapes. They proudly proclaimed that 'Lorgnettes are being rediscovered for what they are - highly useful optical aids'. The designs on offer look indistinguishable from much earlier products and should act as a warning that an ornate lorgnette is not necessarily an antique!

Further study:

Frank Barraclough and John Dixon Salt, 'The Lorgnette', Ophthalmic Antiques, 100 (2007), 9-13.