Glasses designed to reduce either the intensity of the sun’s rays or the exposure to them have been around for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1920s when sunglasses became a stylish accessory. In the 1800s, sunglasses were only for health and sunlight reduction.
The first use of tinted glass in glasses was likely in the mid-1750s by British optician James Ayscough used green and blue glass as a means to help improve vision in standard eyeglasses. By the 1800s, opticians and ophthalmologists were using tinted glass of several different colors to help protect their patients’ eyes from harsh sunlight.
Uses of Sunglasses in the 1800s
Rather than being fashionable, sunglasses began the 19th century as a sign of old age or illness when they were most often worn by people whose eyes were too sensitive for exposure to sunlight. Syphilis patients were the first to have colored glasses prescribed. Light sensitivity is a symptom of syphilis, as is deterioration of the nose. Tinted glasses could dull sunlight and the bridge of the glasses provided a convenient place to attach a metal nose.
Elderly people or those who were blind or suffered a visual impairment frequently wore glasses with colored lenses in the 1800s to help reduce discomfort. Throughout the 19th century, some doctors also suggested that different colors of lenses could have health benefits for the wearer.
By the 1850s, the use of tinted glasses was more widespread. Coquille glasses with colored lenses became popular with women and men, and were imported in mass from abroad, often cheaply as they were made with inexpensive steel frames. During the Civil War, soldiers commonly wore Coquilles to help protect their eyes while marching.
The majority of 19th-century sunglasses kept the same shape as other glasses of the era. Straight temple sunglasses, sliding temple sunglasses, and turn-pin sunglasses were all available. One possible addition was the use of double lenses that would fold out to the sides for extra protection.
With sunglass styles mirroring eyeglass styles in the 1800s, our customers at Eyeglasses Warehouse can create a pair of vintage sunglasses by fitting their antique glasses with colored lenses in blue, green, grey, or yellow shades. We carry a wide variety of refurbished 19th century eyeglass styles here on our site that can be the basis of your antique sunglasses.