18th Century Spectacles & Eyeglasses

A description of the wearing of spectacles, from The Annals of Philadelphia:

Even spectacles, permanently useful as they are, have been subjected to the caprice of fashion. Now they are occasionally seen of gold — a thing I never saw in my youth; neither did I ever see one young man with spectacles — now so numerous! A purblind or half-sighted youth then deemed it his positive disparagement to be so regarded. Such would have rather run against a street post six times a day, than have been seen with them! Indeed, in early olden time they had not the art of using temple spectacles. Old Mrs. Shoemaker, who died in 1825 at the age of 95, said that she had lived many years in Philadelphia before she ever saw temple spectacles — a name then given as a new discovery, but now so common as to have lost its distinctive character. In her early years the only spectacles she ever saw were called “bridge spectacles,” without any side supporters, and held on the nose solely by nipping the bridge of the nose. Such as these, were first invented in 1280. What a time for those “eyes were dim with age!” before that era! happily, they had no reading then to manage.

(Eyeglasses and spectacles from the 14th-16th centuries may be found elsewhere on this site.)

A few brief note on green lenses: It appears that these were recommended for weakness of the eyes (see Pepys’ diary entry for December 24, 1666, and also “The Big Brown Eyes of Samuel Pepys”); but in the 19th century, doctors were recommending against their use (see The Economy of the Eyes [1824] and Clerical Health: The Eye [1857]).

Nose spectacles (“bridge spectacles”)

Double folding frame spectacles

Scissor spectacles

Turn-pin spectacles

  • EW 2157-39, steel, though “at one time, this frame was coated with a gold finish,” c. 1740
  • EW 2077-15, mid-18th century
  • MoV 1988.012.00071, octagonal lenses, 1750
  • EW 1005-39, brass, Germany
  • EW 2153-12, brass with green-tinted lenses, Germany, c. 1775
  • PMA 1908-11, steel, with round lenses, America
  • EW 2291-05, America, around the Revolutionary War; silver frames with round lenses
  • EW 1027-12, late 18th century; “The right lens is frosted to allow less light to enter the eye. It may be that the original owner had one eye missing or sensitive to light.”
  • EW 2066-33, steel frames, late 18th century
  • MoV 1999.024.00015, “tortoise shell frames have oval lenses with coin silver turn-pin temple pieces,” England, c. 1795

Straight-temple tortoise-shell frames

See also Slide Show of Objects Made of Tortoiseshell.

Sliding temple spectacles

Lorgnettes

  • Gilai OIS629, “an Adams Style Lorgnette made in England under the name ‘Pocket Spectacles,’” late 18th century

Cases

Depictions of 18th century eyewear