The past wasn't dark.

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The concept of sunglasses is far more recent than even some historians will admit. Tracing the earliest is fraught with difficulties of definition and function. The word itself appears to be of very late 19th century origin.

19th century blue tinted spectacles

Often mistaken for sunglasses:
19th c. spectacles with
'therapeutic' tint

Although the manufacturers of sunglasses might like to pretend otherwise, the fact is that sunglasses (as opposed to prescription spectacles) have a very short history and even the current burgeoning market for sun eyewear has scarcely been design-led. Attempts to place the origin of sunglasses in earlier centuries, or even as far back as the ancient world, have foundered on a technical misunderstanding of the function of tinted lenses which may serve various protective, ceremonial, industrial and therapeutic roles. The very word ‘sunglasses’ is still not afforded a separate definition in the Oxford English Dictionary and it is to related phrases such as ‘sun lenses’ that we must look. References to these appear in the American trade literature in the period just before that country’s belated entry into the First World War and in the popular press a little earlier. It is clear that otherwise conventional spectacle frames were glazed differently at this time for specific ‘lifestyle’ purposes including the relatively new leisure pursuit of sunbathing and the still only partly leisure-driven travel on ocean liners.

Precursors to Sunglasses

Pliny the Elder's Natural History (c. AD79) preserves a story of the Roman Emperor Nero watching sporting events through an emerald (smaragdus). One, of several, interpretations to have been put forward in the subsequent centuries is that this was some sort of sun shield, but in any case it was held in the hand and there is no suggestion that the precious stone was either framed or worn on the face. Any proper historian of sunglasses would regard this reference as a red herring.

In 1459 Nuno Fernandes, 'scientist of Portugal' requested a pair of spectacles for horseback riding in the snow (uno paio d'ochiali da cavalchare per la neve). The late Vincent Ilardi speculated whether these might have involved coloured lenses but that aspect simply isn't discussed in the documentary source. Ilardi also drew attention to a 'vocabulario' of Tuscan art, published in 1809, that protective coloured glasses to shield from glare had been available for some time previously.

Gondola glasses shown side on

Certainly the Gondola glasses popularised in Venice by Goldoni at the end of the 18th century fit in with this anti-glare function that may be a feature, if not the raison-d'etre, of more recent sunglasses. Gondola glasses combined green tinted lenses with green silk shades sewn to the rims. These shades have usually rotted away on surviving examples.

Walter Alden wrote in 1866 that during the American Civil War (1861-5) many soldiers used 'shell spectacles' (verres de cocquille) 'during their long marches in the sun'. This definitely seems to refer to eyewear intended for sun protection, but the reference is lacking any and all claims to the style of these spectacles!

We often point out to visitors to the museum that the British acquired the most extensive empire the world has known, much of it in some of the sunniest countries in the world, equipped with nothing more than broad-brimmed hats and parasols!

There are, however, isolated incidents of the use of tinted 'goggles'. For example the military Surgeon-General T. Longmore in The Optical Manual (1885) writes of British soldiers 'in the recent military operations in Egypt' being supplied with 'two oval flat pieces of blue-tinted glass, set in front of two boat-shaped fine wire-gauze sides' which completely enclosed the eyes. In a wider discussion of 'Eye protectors' Longmore noted some way down their list of uses that they could be useful 'against the glare of the sun, as in India and other tropical countries'.

The first proper sunglasses

Historic American newspapers now available online have produced some interesting references to both the single word 'sunglasses' and the compound term 'sun glasses', with at least one use of both in the same article.

Baseball cap

Baseball caps are still used to
promote sunglasses, although this
Carrera sportsglasses hat is of the
type used in Formula One motor
racing in the 1980s

The Chicago Herald (24 June 1891) in a report on a recent baseball match against the Cincinnatis noted that an opposition player, Reilly, was unable to catch a ball that had been hit high: 'When it came down Reilly ought to have been under it, but he had lost his sunglasses and misjudged the ball frightfully'. This is therefore a very early use of the single word, employed by a sports journalist. Whilst on the subject of baseball we may observe that the magazine Science Siftings (reported in the UK journal The Optician and Photographic Trade Journal on 18 September 1914) mentioned drop down glasses attached to a baseball cap. The more interesting aspect of this report is the reference to 'the old style of spectacles', stated in the same line to have been 'dark glasses', that baseball players must have been wearing for some time.

The Sioux City Journal (13 June 1895) contains an advertisement for a store called Parsons-Pelletier which was offering a sale of a bankrupt opticians shop. In large print it announces the 'Entire stock of spectacles, eyeglasses, sunglasses, pocket mirrors etc.' and details these below, offering '1,750 pairs of Sun Glasses, tempered steel rim. Optician's price, 50c and 75c. Our price 10c.'

The Riverside Independent Enterprise (29 July 1896) contains an advertisement for the Boston Optical Co. in West Second Street, Los Angeles. It offers 'Sun Glasses, including frames' for 25 cents. We may note that the term 'Sun Glasses' specifically refers to the lenses.

1914 Pawtucket Times advert

Pawtucket Times, 26 May 1914
Possibly one of the earliest
American illustrated
advertisements for
'Sun Glasses'

For 39 cents you could buy the 'Sun Glasses' advertised in the Pawtucket Times (Rhode Island - 26 May 1914). It stated 'Don't go on your Memorial Day outing without a pair of Sun Glasses. We have them in different shades of amber and smoke'. This appears to be one of the earliest advertisements for sun glasses to contain an illustration, albeit a very rough woodcut image.

1916 Wellsworth advert detail

Wellsworth May 1916 promoted
various types of special-purpose
glasses including 'Sun Glasses'

Wellsworth, the in-house journal of the American Optical Company carried a front page advertisement in its May 1916 issue, amongst which 'Sun Glasses' are featured. This is an important early use of the term by the manufacturers themselves and it also featured on the front panel of counter-top display units supplied by that company to optician's practices in the USA and Europe circa 1918.

Slowly the British market picked up on the concept, usually however employing the terms sun spectacles or specifically sun lenses.

What were termed 'scenery spectacles' or 'scenery glasses' may arguably be seen as examples of early 'lifestyle' sunglasses, as they were heavily marketed to the US customer for visits to the seashore, mountains and so forth. The advertisements describe these as 'leisure activities'.

Anti-glare goggles manufactured for aviators and mountain guides in European alpine regions transmuted in peacetime into outdoor glasses aimed at a wider public in the 1920s. It is likely that the contemporary glamour of Hollywood film stars fuelled this development which was already in motion.

Persol 650 sunglasses
Persol 650 sunglasses
Ratti Industria Ottica S.p.A.
Turin, 1986

Ratti of Italy and Bausch & Lomb of America led the way with what would become Persol (‘for the sun’) and Ray-Ban (one of the most descriptive brand names of all time). The emphasis was on the technical performance of the lenses, such as Crookes tints or branded lens tints such as Calobar. The mass marketing of cheap plastic sunglasses was pioneered in the USA from 1929 by Foster Grant, a company with no previous background in the optical industry, selling from beach-front stores and the occasional chemist. By the late 1930s sunglasses appeared as incidental details to main features in fashion magazines such as Vogue, but female fashion models were notoriously reluctant to be photographed in what were still regarded as primarily medical accessories until well into the 1950s.

The emergence of ‘styled’ spectacles in the 1950s was pioneered concurrently by American Optical, catering to the deeply conservative market in the USA and, with significantly greater success, on the continent of Europe by firms such as Rodenstock and Wilhelm Anger. Meanwhile celebrities flocked to individual opticians who were building their own reputation such as Pierre Marly in Paris and some of those celebrities such as Jackie Onassis, Audrey Hepburn or Princess Grace of Monaco inspired ordinary women to demand similar frames, frequently oversized and outlandish but surprisingly seldom identifiable as a particular brand name.

Polaroid Rider sunglasses 2012
Polaroid 'Rider' sunglasses
inspired by those worn by
actor Peter Fonda in the film
'Easy Rider' (1969)

The men sought to copy racing drivers or actors like Steve McQueen, Peter Sellers and Peter Fonda although, again, even if the actual models they wore were identifiable (and even opticians rarely knew the details), they were often unavailable on the typical high street.

Several sunglass brands such as Carrera and Cébé grew out of the sports and ski-wear trade. Others such as Christian Dior came to bear the names of the major fashion houses, but none before the second half of the 1960s and then only under licence with the actual input of the haute-couturiers being minimal. From the late 1960s there was a new trend for re-glazing so-called ‘granny glasses’ with coloured lenses. The influence of movies and the music industry, surf culture on the California beaches and designer bling on the urban streets variously gave sunglass wearers the aura of sophistication, mystery, ‘cool’, or rebellion.

Cazal advert 1997

Cazal Brillen
advertisement 1997

You could also become a victim if your Cazal sunglasses were ripped with violence from your nose. It became economic to specialise in sunglass manufacture; indeed a corporation as big as Polaroid only rescinded its licensing arrangements and started to produce its own frames after 1972, the same year that those exponents of the quality handmade frame at Oliver Goldsmith ended hand manufacture in order to chase larger markets.

To buy up the various fashion names in order to offer them as sunglasses to the public became the principal sport of the German, Austrian and Italian industry giants. Many of the brands changed hands numerous times. Brands were revived or refreshed by collaborations with independent designers but sometimes businesses were only saved through behind-the-scenes deals to manufacture product ranges on behalf of public rivals. In the 1980s the lure of retro-appeal prompted the reissue of many vintage styles in a trend which has continued to the present day, although many designers claiming vintage inspiration seem remarkably confused as to what actually were the prevailing styles in the decades they claim to be emulating. Even the music of the era took on a 60s retro sound as Tracey Ullman sang about sunglasses that were to hide behind, cry behind and die behind. As late as the early 1990s several frame manufacturers bit the dust and those that survived only did so by offering additional product options such as prescription sun lenses, interchangeable frame components and associated fashion accessories such as clothing, watches, jewellery and perfumes. The manufacturers tapped into celebrity culture like never before, for example David Beckham became a global icon as the international face of Police sunglasses. ‘Rebel’ brands like Oakley were swallowed up to become part of much larger business concerns.

By the Millennium it was clear that no one was certain what the future held in store for sunglasses. Some were predicting the death of spectacles despite the fact that, ironically, the growing ranks of contact lens wearers represent one of the largest sectors of market demand for sunglasses. Others thought that self-transitioning photochromic lenses would spell the end of separately purchased sunglasses or clip-ons. In fact there has been a greater trend towards owning multiple pairs of glasses for different activities and different times of the day, whilst innovative designer clip-ons are still being introduced to the market right now. Some predicted that rimless spectacles were the cult of the future whilst other designers placed more emphasis on the frame than had been seen since a quarter of a century before.

Chanel 4017 sunglasses

Chanel 4017 sunglasses by Luxottica
Early 2000s - a 'French' designer
brand, but made in Italy

A sign of the success of the sunglasses industry was the growth in large-scale counterfeiting of designer brands such as Chanel. The manufacturers also felt empowered by new methods of social networking to promote their wares on the back of (or should that be the face of) ‘ordinary’ people rather than celebrities. These same advantages of global reach and instant communication have likewise benefited the small independent designers, whose work may well rise to greater prominence in the 21st century.

An appreciation of history and an understanding of its sometimes fickle nature would serve the sunglasses business well. Nevertheless even in these days of economic recession it still appears that the future’s so bright, we gotta wear shades.



Some of this web page is based on the article by Neil Handley, curator of this museum, 'Peering into the Shade: Towards a History of Sunglasses'. This article originally appeared in the catalogue for the temporary touring exhibition Shades Down in Tokyo Town, shown first at the Calm & Punk Gallery, Tokyo in November 2010 and subsequently at venues in London, Gothenburg and Stockholm.

The additional content on this web page was written with the invaluable assistance of  Dr Vanessa Brown and Mr Alan McBrayer.

Historical Feature: The Pol-Rama sunglasses court case 1977

Trade marks are fiercely protected and the sunglasses shown here caused the mighty Polaroid corporation to launch legal action....which they lost.

Polaroid and Pol-Rama trade literature

The Pol-Rama court case was a major victory for the small manufacturer, in this instance Lessar Brothers of Birmingham. In 1966 Lessars had launched a range of sunglasses called 'Polarama', a conflation of the words 'Polarising' and 'Panorama'. Polaroid's agents objected and although Lessars denied that they had infringed any registered rights they changed the name to the hyphenated 'Pol-Rama' from 1968.

In 1971 they moved to register this as a trade mark for sunglasses and Polaroid Corporation objected. The big company wanted to teach the smaller company a lesson.

Pol-Rama Sunglasses from the 1970s

The case came before Mr Moorby on the 13th January 1977 and centred around the possibility for confusion of the two marks. Evidence was presented by a phonetics and linguistics expert from University College London to the effect that if 'the word Polaroid' was spoken quickly it was liable to sound like a two syllable word beginning with a sound like 'pole', but a National Opinion Poll survey from 1973 was presented to show that the public responded more significantly to the end of the word '..roid' than the beginning 'Pol...' The judge concluded that there was thus very little likelihood of confusion from the sound of the two names (besides the fact that no evidence was presented that any confusion had actually occurred). He also considered the size and visual appearance of the name as written on the inner sides of the spectacles or embossed on the vinyl spectacle cases and, again, saw no reason to refuse the application by Lessars.

Polaroid sunglasses were first made available in Great Britain in 1937, the trademark being registered several times for various categories of goods, but only for 'eyeshades, goggles, eyeglasses and sunglasses' in 1950. In the year the legal action was launched, 1971, sales of Polaroid sunglasses amounted to £3,100,000, approximately a 20% share of the market, as opposed to sales of £40,759 for Pol-Rama. Although the sales from the smaller company could be shown to have increased significantly in the last year the court decided that this was not in itself an unusual commercial occurrence. Furthermore it was demonstrated that the company had advertised in various pharmaceutical publications using the 'Pol-Rama' name long before their application to the Trade Marks Registry and so the surge in sales could not be linked directly with the use of the new name. It was the job of the registration authorities to flag up any potential conflicting names...and they hadn't come up with 'Polaroid'.

This celebrated case was heard under the Trade Marks Act of 1938. Legal students need to be aware that this has since been superseded by newer legislation. No doubt the court costs, of £200, would be much higher these days as well!

The full judgment is recorded in Reports of Patent, Design and Trade Mark Cases (RPC) 1977 94 (25): 581-587