Monocles

A single lens to wear in the eye socket.

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hat monocle

Spectacles are a binocular instrument. Where correction is required in only one eye it is possible for one lens to be plano, or even for one rim to be left unglazed, though that is usually rather too obvious in appearance. In the past some patients were reluctant to use spectacles when a single lens might suffice and at first these single lenses were hand-held close to the eye in the manner of quizzing glasses. An early word was manougle which appears in a dictionary from 1610. A more common, though still rare, word was manocle. In the 18th century other monocular vision aids were developed including hat monocles for suspension from the brim of a hat.

Detail of a Vanity Fair print of a man with a monocle

The monocle as we understand it though, is worn on the face, its edges wedged within the bone socket and dates from the mid 19th century. The handle is now simply a remnant, used only to put the monocle in or take it out, and through which a suspension cord may often be threaded.

Waldstein monocle

A monocle does not even need a rim at all. In the 1830s and 1840s Waldstein of Vienna made some very collectable monocles out of one-piece glass. A study of these shows that monocles do not even need to be round but can even be oval or rectangular. Rimless monocles without handles can be mistaken for trial lenses; look out for the serrations on two edges to avoid making this mistake. In the 20th century monocles were mainly of rolled gold and could come with or without a second partial rim or 'gallery' which provided much more stability in wear.

monocle with gallery and cord

Monocles suffered a public relations disaster in the United Kingdom during the First World War when they became too closely associated with the German High Command and caricaturists used them a shorthand device to suggest arrogance and haughtiness. Popular thereafter mainly with the aristocracy and certain eccentric characters including the television astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, monocles have always been a minority interest, though they continue to be available for special order and in the mid 2010s they would appear to have undergone something of a revival.

Katherine Williams wearing a monocle

It was a slightly different story in the United States where monocles became popular with women in the early 1900s and have been worn in recent times, at least when on stage, by stars including Madonna. Our picture shows the American film actress Katherine Williams in 1934.

See also the webpage for our temporary exhibition Monocles! held at the museum in 2015.

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