Reading glasses and magnifiers

The term 'reading glasses' meant something rather different from what it does today.

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Folding reading glass

The term 'reading glass' had a specific meaning in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a form of magnifier the reading glass was hardly an innovation but some very ornate examples were produced which are now highly collectible. On 4 March 1707 Willdey and Brandreth advertised in the Daily Courant that they could supply 'True Spectacles and Reading-Glass by the use of which young Persons might preserve their Sight to the greatest Age, allowing the finest of work and Reading the smallest Print'.

desk magnifier
Desk magnifier
Early-mid 20th c.

Dr Allan Mills has attempted to define a reading glass as a convex lens of large diameter (though not necessarily round) but of comparatively long focal length (usually greater than ten inches) and modest power. Larger lenses allowed both eyes to be used by the reader. The use of the reading glass was most associated with elderly people experiencing partial loss of ocular accommodation and who might otherwise struggle with close type. Practical experimentation with antique examples has suggested that holding the visual aid a few inches above the reading matter but at considerably greater distance from the eye provides the most comfortable position.

Horn reading glass

This item with a horn rim is, perhaps, an unusually small late 18th century reading glass. The lens is just 28mm in diameter, but the +1.25 D power would be consistent with use as a reading glass and the slight tint advises against seeing this as a 19th century trial lens. It was originally in the Blackham Collection and dated to c.1700 which is, however, surely too early.

M.O.P. and silver reading glass

The example on the left from the early nineteenth century features a large oval lens with an engraved silver rim, folding into a carved Mother-of-Pearl case. Note how there is no distinction between the handle and the case. The museum possesses other examples in wood, horn, tortoiseshell, enamel, papier-maché, ivory and brass. Sometimes another useful instrument such as a compass was incorporated into the handle although such instruments may not have been so useful if their owner needed another enlarging device to see them!

MOP magnifying glass

'Magnifying glasses' are generally smaller and have shorter focal lengths, but people used the terms loosely both then and subsequently, so categorising these hand-held devices is far from simple. It is not uncommon to hear speak of a 'large magnifying glass'. The materials used to make magnifiers were generally the same as reading glasses with perhaps a greater incidence of precious materials. The lenses could also be tinted for therapeutic reasons as seen in the example on the right dating from c.1790 which may have been used in a hot climate. The lens is about 58mm in diameter and its optical power is slightly less than 3 dioptres.


Either a reading glass, or a magnifying glass, this triple-lens item is likely to to be French and is most probably made of horn. It has a look of bakelite about it but is probably earlier than the period in which that material was used. Horn ('buffle' in French) was commonly used. 'Loupes Buffle A Recouvrement' were advertised by S-L in 1901 and in France these objects were called a 'triloupe'.