Rivet spectacles

The earliest form of spectacles.

Share options

Replica rivet spectacles

Replica (oversized) rivet spectacles
made for the museum to demonstrate
the principle of their construction

It is easy to see how the first spectacles may have been contrived. The frames of two magnifying glasses were simply rivetted together at the ends of the handles.

The earliest type of spectacles had no sides. They secured to the face by clamping the nose between two rivetted lens rims. Even then the wearer could only keep them in place by remaining relatively still. Sometimes it was necessary to tilt the head back a little to prevent them falling off. All of these spectacles contained convex lenses for the correction of presbyopic long-sightedness. They were generally suited only to those few who lived beyond their forties and had the ability to read.

Rudimentum Novitiorum 1475

We have already seen, in our web page on The Invention of Spectacles, how the earliest painted depiction of spectacles, from Treviso, shows Cardinal Hugo of Provence wearing rivet spectacles. The earliest illustration of spectacles in a printed work also shows spectacles of this type. The claimant to the title would appear to be the Rudimentum Novitiorum by Lucas Brandis, produced in Lubeck (1475) but this shows the spectacles being worn from the side and only one rim is visible.

Plaster cast of 15th century corbel

This plaster cast is of a corbel displayed high up in the church of St Martin, Salisbury in Wiltshire. It shows what has long been assumed to be a nun wearing rivet spectacles with long shafts reaching so high that they don't really rest on the bridge of the nose at all. An indication of the appearance of the pupil as seen through a lens has been attempted by the sculptor.The original sculpture has been dated to between 1430-1440 but could be up to a hundred years older. If so it would be the earliest figurative representation of spectacles of any type.

The original of this sculpture has recently (2015) been the subject of renewed study. It has been tentatively suggested that it does not show a nun at all, but a lay brother! We can still assert, however, that to begin with there was no difference between men's and women's spectacles.

The Wienhausen find

Kloster Wienhausen in 2005

The earliest surviving spectacles were found beneath the floorboards between the choir stalls at Kloster Wienhausen, a Cistercian convent on the Lueneburg Heath near Celle. Founded in 1221, about half the building had been reconstructed in 1306. When it was investigated in 1953 numerous articles were found associated with both pious practices and daily life. The finds included four black leather bow spectacles (15th-17th c), two complete wooden rivetted spectacles with plano-convex lenses and nine other rivet spectacle fragments. Precise dating of these latter items is difficult but they are generally accepted to be circa 1400.

The Wienhausen spectacles fell into three types that are more or less contemporaneous. We illustrate these types here with models from the BOA Museum:

Type 1 rivet spectacles - These resembled those in the Treviso fresco of 1352. They were of 2mm thick boxwood with a slit in each grooved rim to permit the insertion of the lens. The slit was then tied up with string. Straight handle-like shafts led up to the rivet. These were literally two magnifying glasses fixed together.

Gallery images: Impressionistic Type 1 replica in the BOA Museum and another example with shorter stems.

Type 2 rivet spectacles - had a gently curving shaft permitting a tighter grip on the nose and some support from the natural bridge. This placed less strain on the rivet (the weakest part of the frame). They were generally less ornamented and have been likened to those seen in paintings from the 1450s.

Gallery image: Type 2 replica (but of a later decorative style) in the BOA Museum   

St Luke with spectacles

Type 3 rivet spectacles - had a much flatter pair of shafts that together resembled a modern bridge. The lenses were inserted between two bevelled layers of basswood that were then glued together. This technology had only recently been introduced to the cabinet-making trade. They have been likened to pair worn anachronistically by St Luke in an altar painting The Day of Pentecost from Niederwildungen by Konrad von Soest. The detail is from an image of this painting, first published by the British Optical Association in 1929.

The gallery images show two non-rivetted replica impressions of early spectacles of designs anticiapting the 16th century bow shape.

Replica of rivet spectacles from Wienhausen

The museum also displays another very loose wooden replica of the Wienhausen find. This was produced in a limited edition in West Germany in 1975 and one way to recognise it as a replica is that the rims are far too wide. Our copy was donated by BOA Fellow Walter Gasson - he obtained it from Carl Zeiss Oberkochen in exchange for a copy of the 1975 BOA Diary...a bargain swap if ever there was one!

Rivet spectacles shown in the Liber Chronicarum 1493

The first printed image of a complete pair of spectacles dates from the 1480s (four works are known up to 1491) but the clearest example is still considered to be in the infamous Liber Chronicarum of 1493 in which the same wood cut illustrations were used multiple times to depict various different people. Therefore the illustration on the left, though it is captioned as Rhazes the doctor (who died about AD 925 - so was never a spectacle user), cannot be identified as any one individual. The spectacles have a hinge and this appears to be the ideal spot at which to hold the frame, perhaps because it afforded a better grip.

Almost all the finds of rivet spectacles have been in northern Europe, with very few indeed from Italy. If we went by the archaeological evidence alone we would not ascribe their origin to the Mediterranean region.

The Bergen Op Zoom Spectacles

Rivet spectacles from Bergen Op Zoom

In 2000 an important Type 1 find was made in the Dutch town of Bergen op Zoom. This was a pair made of bone with decorative shafts featuring a stylised human face. By replacing the missing areas of material with epoxyresin (during 2002) it has been possible to make these look something close to their original appearance. Stratigraphic analysis has placed this find within a fifteenth century context.

During the fifteenth century the rivet-types existed alongside the bow-type bridge. Although the corpus of surviving examples has grown with the years thanks to new discoveries, such items are still very rare. This might mean that they were scarce at the time and only used by a privileged few....or it might simply mean that because they were weak they have broken into too many pieces to be recognised when excavated centuries later.

Trig Lane and Swan Stairs examples

Two pairs of fifteenth century rivet spectacles have been found in London on the shore of the River Thames. As the English capital was a major trading centre it is impossible to conclude whether these were British-made or imported from Europe. Alternatively they may have been made by a foreigner active in England. We know for instance that one Paul van de Bessen, a Dutch spectacle-maker, was active south of the river in Southwark around 1458-9.

The Trig Lane spectacles were found by Gustav Milne during a 1974-5 Museum of London excavation. They were discovered in a Medieval rubbish dump tipped behind a river wall that we know to have been built in 1440, so they probably pre-date the wall by a few years. The Type 1 rims are incomplete but have mostly survived. They are made of 2.5mm thick bone (from a bull's leg, the only bone long enough to provide sufficient raw material) and the lenses were secured with copper wire.

The notched 'teeth' and holes where the shafts join the rims have been interpreted as a functional attempt to increase nasal grip. The long shafts mean that they would have been worn low on the nose, ideal for reading with head bowed and allowing the wearer to peer over the tops when holding the head upright. At the time of their discovery the small holes were even considered to be pinholes allowing for a very crude myopic correction. Leonardo da Vinci would certainly explore the nature of pinholes in the late 15th century, but the holes on the Bergen-Op Zoom pair seem to confirm that this was merely a decorative device.

Subsequently a second pair of spectacles has been found at the Swan Stairs site, but this pair was far less complete. Both the Trig Lane and the Swan Stairs spectacles are presently on display in the Medieval Gallery at the Museum of London which reopened in November 2005.

The Syon House fragments

In 2003 Wessex Archaeology Ltd found two fragments of bone during excavations at Syon House near Brentford, West London. The fragments were found in Trench No 2 and have been identified as a very early pair of English spectacles, dating from the mid-late 15th century. They are so insubstantial that the archaeologist who realised they came from a pair of spectacles deserves our special admiration.

Rivet spectacles from Syon House reconstruction drawing
The Syon House fragments
photographed in 2006 and
overlaid on a reconstruction
drawing by Dr Jonathan Foyle

The fragmentary rims are grooved on the inner edge to take lenses about 30mm in diameter. Although no lenses were found they would have been of a convex form to correct long sight as concave spectacle lenses for short sight (myopia) had not yet been invented.

Yet again this was an archaeological find discovered within an ecclesiastical context. Syon House is an eighteenth century mansion but it was built over the site of a Brigittine monastery dissolved during the English Reformation in 1530. The order of St  Brigit was founded in 1346 at Vadstena in Sweden and spread across Scandinavia, eastern and western Europe. Syon Abbey was established in 1415 by Henry V whose sister was married to the Swedish king Erik XIII. It now appears to have been one of the largest abbeys of the order. Foundation trenches uncovered in a televised ‘Time Team’ excavation in 2004 revealed a colossal church 100 by 40 metres in size as well as a southern nuns' cloister.

Detail from Der Brillenmacher engraving

Bow spectacles

Bow spectacles were in common use by the early sixteenth century as seen in the statues of St Matthew and a philosopher adorning Henry VII's chapel at Westminster Abbey (built 1502-9) and in the famous print Der Brillenmacher of the spectacle maker's stall of 1568 (see the BOA Museum's 17th century version of this print to the left). These had a bow-shaped continuous bridge, almost of a modern appearance, that was sometimes flexible depending upon the material e.g. leather. The bridge was as much an area to be gripped as to rest on the nose. Spectacles were frequently held in place with the hand whilst being used temporarily for a brief period of reading or close inspection.

Rivet spectacles from the Royal Armouries 1511

Bow spectacles gradually superceded the rivet type though these may have persisted in use until about 1600. There is, for example, a 'joke' pair of rivet spectacles attached to a helmet of German origin (circa 1511-14) in the Royal Armouries, supposedly worn by Henry VIII's court jester, Will Somers. Rivet spectacles may thus have enjoyed a lifespan of some 250 years.