The pince nez was the dominant style of antique glasses frames. Now, you may recognize the pince nez from photos of figures such as Teddy Roosevelt. More recently, their appearance is largely limited to film and television shows where they are worn by characters like Morpheus in The Matrix and Hercule Poirot in the latest television series.
As the name implies, pince nez (pronounced like “pance nay”) translates to “pinch nose,” which describes how these glasses stay on the wearer’s face. Using a spring, the glasses gently pinch a person’s nose, staying in place with tension rather than through the use of temples.
Each antique pince nez frame consisted of two lenses, which may or may not be rimless, held together by a bridge with the spring in it. Today these glasses evoke a very Victorian style, but there was a time when these glasses were disliked and almost made it through the entire 19th century unnoticed in American eyewear.
How the Civil War Brought Pince Nez Glasses to Popularity
In the mid 1800s, glasses were still considered unfashionable, especially for women, and primarily worn out of necessity. Civil War era straight temple frames or sliding temple frames generally had very small lenses that sat close to the center of the face, both for stability and to minimize the look of the glasses by making them as inconspicuous as possible.
But there was no hiding glasses altogether. The temples were still highly visible cutting across the cheekbones. Combined with the fact that glasses were expensive and also not comfortable, many people only wore glasses when absolutely necessary.
These limited numbers of glasses wearers still proved a problem during the Civil War as fighting within America disrupted trade with Europe due to military treaties and naval blockades. This cut off much of America’s supply of materials needed to make antique spectacles.
Bausch and Lomb, already a notable eyewear company at the time and later known for such iconic glasses as Ray Bans, came up with the idea to bring the French pince nez style to America. The style was extremely unpopular at that time, but B&L got a number of factors right.
From a production standpoint, this was the ideal style. Without temples, it needed fewer materials, making it easier and more affordable to produce in spite of wartime shortages. Bausch and Lomb designed their pince nez out of vulcanized rubber to further help circumvent shortages with metal.
Pince nez glasses caught on almost instantly with wearers. Not only was the lack of temples more affordable to purchase, the vintage frames were also far less noticeable on a person’s face. The simple clip-on style made them easy to take off and put on when needed.
The Brief Height of Pince Nez Popularity
Other companies quickly joined in on selling pince nez glasses and by the 1890s, this style accounted for more than two-thirds of the eyeglasses sold in the United States. The popularity of pince nez eyeglasses reveals just how important style was over functionality when it came to vintage eyewear.
Indeed, pince nez quickly developed a reputation for falling off the slightest movement. A violent motion of the head could be enough to dislodge them from the wearer’s nose. This prompted early pince nez wearers to attach their glasses to a chain secured by a brooch to avoid glasses falling and breaking when they slipped off.
The instability of pince nez spectacles may have been part of the early popularity. Since they are incompatible with movement and their delicate nature required care, they were most popular with the upper classes where having a pince nez on a chain was as much a status symbol as it was employed for reading.
The popularity of pince nez was intense, but short-lived. Their downfall began in the 1900s as younger generations became more active and classes shifted to bring about a more dominant middle class, causing the desire for pince nez as a status symbol to disappear. Myopia diagnoses also increased with improved medical technology which required doctors to prescribe more functional glasses styles.
The pince nez fell from popularity and eventually disappeared altogether by the 1930s.
The Rise and Fall of Vintage Pince Nez Frames
From their origins to their massive popularity and the eventual disappearance, pince nez are one of the more iconic antique frame styles and an interesting addition to any antique eyewear collection. Because they were so popular, this also means that there are still many original antique pince nez available.
Here at Eyeglasses Warehouse, we have several 19th century pince-nez frames that we have carefully restored. Many of these frames are still wearable today, once replaced with your preferred lenses, for an especially new set of reading glasses or a one of a kind eyewear accessory. Look through our inventory to find the style you like.