Nineteenth century spectacles

Eyewear in the 1800s.

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The nineteenth century customer had a wide choice of corrective visual devices of which spectacles were only one.

Boilly print of Les Lunettes

This famous print Les Lunettes by Louis-Léopold Boilly(1823) shows five French men and women using different types of optical aid including a quizzing glass, folding lorgnette, wig spectacles with jointed sides, nose spectacles and a spyglass.

You may select the image to enlarge it.

More and more evidence is coming to light that simple nose spectacles continued to be in use into the nineteenth century albeit they were increasingly seen as old-fashioned.

Indeed, the nineteenth century is not nearly as interesting a period to study as the eighteenth or twentieth as most innovations in vision aids seemed to have less influence and the designs available to the mass bulk of the population remained largely static. Much is often made of the so-called 'rise of ophthalmology' in the nineteenth century. If anything, this growth of a new medical specialism set back the development of spectacles since most ophthalmologists (the title is only really valid from the mid-century onwards) disdained spectacles in their preference for treating medical eye problems. The emergence of optometry, at the very tail end of the century, was far more influential in reinvigorating a largely moribund industrial sector.

Developments in Design

19th century oval eye spectacles

The small oval eye size of the early 1800s has been ascribed to the influence of the lecturer, telescope designer and gourmet cook William Kitchiner (1751-1817). The pair illustrated is from this early period and retains the double-hinged side style of the previous century. Oval remained the preferred rim shape throughout the century. In the 1890s James Aitchison was making oval eyed metal frames glazed with stock lenses, which sold for 2s 6d pair although some, at just a shilling, were even cheaper.

Elkington Patent Spectacles

Elkington Patent Spectacles

In 1834 George Richards Elkington patented two developments in one go under the heading An Improvement or improvements in the construction, making or manufacturing of spectacles (Patent 6692). This involved firstly an angled joint resulting in a tilted forward frame. Secondly it introduced the pantoscopic frame with a flattened 'pantoscopic' rim to allow distance viewing over the top of reading lenses. This was the ancestor of the twentieth century panto-round-oval (PRO) eye shape. He developed also a full-eye version with bifocal division (illustrated here in a very rare surviving example from our museum). The inclined lens was also supposed to protect the eye from the wind. This idea never really caught on.  

Blued steel spectacles

Blued steel spectacles

Blued steel wire spectacles, c.1860
Made in Wolverhampton
by Henry Blackham
The bridge is of the K-type and the
straight sides have lacquered ends

Blued steel, in which the frame material is coloured by heat treatment, followed on from the development of wire-drawing circa 1837. Certainly most examples of blued steel spectacles (but not all) are of the wire type. The BOA Museum also has a hat spectacle (not wire) of blued steel dated to 'circa 1825'. Most of our spectacles with sides made from this material are only dated vaguely e.g. 'circa 1845-50'. Nethertheless we can assert that blued steel spectacles were certainly common around 1850 and for the rest of the second half of the nineteenth century. For that matter they still make them today! Various social commentators recommended them to people of taste in the 1860s. Fraser's Magazine singled them out as superior to gold in 1876. In the USA they have been stated to have been 'the greater part of business' as late as the 1890s.

W bridge spectacles

W bridge spectacles

The 'C'-shaped bridge was joined by the 'X' and 'K'-shape as well as 'scroll' and 'crank' varieties. The metal ‘W’ bridge design was introduced in the 1880s and used extensively into the first half of the twentieth century.

The W-bridge enabled all sorts of different nose fittings to be produced and the dispenser could specify a dozen variations in measurement on his order form (and even then use pliers to create some more at the final fitting!) Comfort was in this instance related to cosmetic appearance since a pad bridge was considered to give length to a nose (desirable of course in some patients) whereas the ‘W’ bridge or saddle bridge made a nose look shorter.

Spectacles with sliding sides

Spectacles with sliding sides
IH, London

The development of sides is the subject of a separate exhibition on this website. Suffice it here to remind the reader that sliding sides survive from at least 1806, spring joints were patented by F. B. Anderson in 1854 and curl sides were probably an invention of the same decade.

These silver spectacles by John Holmes of London have sliding sides and pebble lenses. They are pictured together with an unrelated but contemporary tortoiseshell flip-top case, 1838.

A Disgrace to the Optician's Art? - Rimless Spectacles

Waldstein spectacles

Waldstein rimless spectacles
Sadly not ours but
from a private collection

Waldstein’s rimless monocles from Vienna have a very modern appearance to them and were certainly tried in a one-piece spectacle form c.1825-1840 though the end result was fragile and hence very few examples have survived. The two lenses were ground into a single sheet of glass which thus formed the whole of the front and bridge. Later in the century 'three-piece' frames appeared, whereby the spectacles consisted of two sides with joints attached via drilled holes to rimless lenses which were in turn joined by a connecting bridge. Finally in the late century 'invisibles' were introduced with thin wire frames set into lens grooves so as to be barely noticeable. This invention with its potential to relieve the distress of those not keen on visible eyewear attracted both the highest professional approval and poor-quality imitations.

Spectacles illlustrated in John Browning's book

John Browning an ophthalmic optician and, formerly, instrument maker with premises on The Strand, was the first president of the British Optical Association in 1895. Six years previously in his famous little book Our Eyes (1889) he had written the following:

Invisible spectacles and folders have two advantages: they are of the lightest construction that can be made to act efficiently, and the lenses cannot come out of the frames because the frames are smaller than the lenses, rims being let into the glass, and thus rendered invisible to any one in front of those who wear them; but as they are so light they should only be of the best materials and workmanship. And here I must warn my readers against confounding these invisible spectacles and folders with the so-called 'frameless' spectacles and folders. As now generally made and supplied, these are a disgrace to the optician's art. The springs, sides, and loops in these wretched things are riveted directly onto the glasses, while the glasses are frequently twice as thick on one side as they are on the other.

The page shown is an illustration from the 3rd edition of Browning's book (1894). Note the variety of available bridges, sides and eye shapes.


Richardson-type spectacles with side visors

The idea of supplementary lenses was first introduced by Richardson's patent of 1797, in which two side lenses hinged to the eyerims and could be folded over the main lenses to combine the powers of the two.

Out of this idea grew the concept of side visors.

Portrait of a Spanish Gentleman

A Spanish Gentleman
by José Buzo Caceres, 1839

In the nineteenth century rail travel began with a passengers being carried in open-top carriages with the wind, funnel smoke and sparks from the track in their faces. A particular type of protective spectacles with D-shaped lenses arose shortly before this time and came to be known as 'Railway spectacles'. Sometimes such spectacles had tinted lenses and can be seen as early sunglasses in that they were for outdoor use. Later examples may have a horseshoe shape.

The BOA Museum's painting of A Spanish Gentleman shows part-tinted D-spectacles being worn in Southern Europe in the late 1830s. It is possible that these may have been brought back to Spain by their wearer from the United States of America.

The gallery below displays some variations on the D-Spectacle theme:

Finally, if you couldn't decide which optical device to use, or needed to carry too many other items around with you, Victorian inventors had just the thing for you.

Print of revolving hat

This coloured print, printed by J. Netherclift in 1830, shows two men with top hats featuring drop-down lenses and spectacles. As the inscription says: 'LIVING MADE EASY. REVOLVING HAT which by a slight touch presents its wearer with, Eye-Glass, Cegar, Scent-Box, spectacles, Hearing-Trumpet, &c &c. without the intolerable trouble of holding them'.