Seventeenth century spectacles

Eyewear in the 1600s.

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17th century old man

In the seventeenth century spectacles became more widespread in use, though they were still mainly for the elderly and often carried negative connotations with them. To the right is a detail from a Flemish morality picture of the 1640s, in which the old man is treated as a bad example for the young to follow.

Note also the way he holds his head upright and back; spectacles were not easy to keep in place. This man's wife, who appears on the Museum Home Page, had to support her pair of spectacles with one hand whilst holding her reading material with the other.

Spectacles in the seventeenth century did not have sides. For this simple reason we can dismiss the claims of ownership made for certain surviving spectacles in respect of figures such as King James II and Oliver Cromwell. The Museum recommends that historic re-enactors engaged in battlefield displays relating to the English Civil War should also avoid spectacles if possible as the limited types available would have been for sedentary use and too inconvenient for use in action.

Common Spectacles

Bow spectacles, with their distinctive curving bridges, continued in use throughout the century. The general design changed little, though certain refinements increased the flexibility and comfort for some customers. The bridge was often slit in one or two positions for added flexibility. Indeed there were some examples that had three or four such slits, requiring quite intricate craftsmanship to produce. The sprung steel bridge was introduced about 1690 resulting, in a sense, in the first combination frame since the eye rims were invariably of another material such as horn or whalebone.

The appearance of the frame that was sold at the time may have been altered completely in the surviving examples by amateur attempts to add padding, seen for instance in the use of thread wound round a bridge. This sometimes occurred at the manufacturing stage as well, as was the case with the mass-produced Nuremberg wire spectacles, which were frequently bound nasally with thread. Sometimes this thread has perished meaning that the surviving antique has lost its original appearance when in use and is therefore liable to historic misinterpretation.

The highest quality frames were made in German centres such as Nuremberg and Regensburg and optical goods from these centres would sometimes be imported to England. The German craft was regulated earlier than in England, the Nuremberg Spectacle Makers Guild issuing a regulatory code in the previous century, as early as the 1530s.

The Nuremberg-type one-piece spectacles were very common and persisted into the eighteenth century. Dating individual examples is almost impossible without additional contextual evidence.

Spectacles of this type were sometimes supplied in a paper envelope or provided with a wooden dug-out case, examples of which can sometimes be dated and which are very collectable.

The Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers (SMC)

London Stone

King Charles I granted a charter to this City of London livery company in 1629 probably with the prime motivation of earning money for the Royal treasury. Several spectacle makers, notably John Alt, had previously been associated with the Brewers Company. In the seventeenth century the company made 'visits' to business premises in the City and confiscated sub-standard products. These were later smashed ceremonially on the London Stone in Cannon Street.

The SMC particularly disapproved of leather frames, a forcibly held position that might explain the growth in popularity among the makers for using horn. Leather frames were seized from the noted optician John Yarwell by the Company’s inspection team in 1692. The SMC was generally more concerned about lens quality, however; hence the search of April 1669 when they smashed inferior glass lenses but left some decidedly poor quality whited copper frames well alone.

Masterpiece Spectacles

Mastterpiece spectacles 1663 with case

Many of the most wonderful examples of the spectacle maker’s art to be found in museums are, of course, quite untypical. The antiques trade has caused perhaps too much attention to be paid to prestige pairs, for example the Nuremberg ‘Masterpiece’ frames made by qualifying apprentices. These are extremely rare; they were also made at Regensburg though none are known to have survived from that city. The BOA Museum has one by Melchior Schelke dated 1663, made out of buffalo horn with a filigree pattern of hearts and clover leaves.

Near identical frames were still being made in the eighteenth century, for example by Paulus Bayr in 1707. They were not designed to be worn and are important only as collectors’ pieces.

Masterpiece spectacles 1663

To the right is a photograph taken in 1944 after the pair with the crazed lenses seen above had been brought to London by a European wartime refugee.

The writings of de Valdes

In 1623 the Spanish writer B. Daza de Valdes produced a semi-fictional pamphlet with the somewhat lengthy title: Vso de los antojos para todo genero de vistas: en que se ensena a conocer los grados que a cada vno le faltan de su vista, y los que tienen qualesquier antojos. Y assi mismo a que tiempo se an de vsar, y como se pediran en ausencia, con otros auisos importantes, a la vtilidad y conseruacion de la vista.

Cover of Daza de Valdes book

In this work he describes a user of spectacles in Seville, whom he names Marcel, complaining that his leather spectacles were of clumsy manufacture and kept falling off. As a result Marcel aspired to upgrade to a silver pair though, in fact, a well-made leather pair would have stayed on the nose better due to its greater flexibility and lighter weight. A spectacle maker informed Marcel of this; the set-piece conversation, if it can be believed, is interesting evidence of a dialogue between manufacturer and customer. A passing reference is made to looping the spectacles over the ears. This Marcel rejects on account of it looking less smart and being associated with older people. It seems he would rather break more pairs than benefit from the convenience of ear loops; perhaps the spectacle makers were happy to acquiesce in this if it meant a higher demand for new pairs?

There is a pair of German spectacles, dating from c.1625-1631, in the so-called 'Augsburg Cabinet' presented by the City to King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in 1632 (after its maker failed to find a buyer). This pair has a frame of silver-gilt with concave lenticular lenses suitable for the correction of myopia (short-sight). A second pair with a blackened leather frame features polyhedral lenses which might serve as a therapeutic aid to relieve myopic strain. Sometimes known as 'multiplying lenses', these glasses may have been just an aristocratic amusement.

Samuel Pepys

Leather nose spectacles with green lenses

The great diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) purchased a pair of spectacles with green lenses from the respected and 'great' spectacle maker John Turlington in December 1666 in the hope that the tint might relieve the soreness of his eyes caused, so he believed, by labouring under candlelight. They may have looked a little like this pair with a leather frame. Turlington was Master of the Spectacle Makers Company at the time. Dating these spectacles is problematic. Whilst they are perhaps most likely to be from the second half of the century, stylistically they could date from as early as 1600.

Pepys was a regular drinking partner of Sir Isaac Newton, who discovered the colour spectrum and may possibly have discussed optics with him. Aids to vision had many uses as one entry from his diary of May 1667 will show: I did entertain myself with my perspective glass up and down the church, by which I had the great pleasure of seeing and gazing a great many very fine women; and what with that and sleeping, I passed away the time till sermon was done.