Billions of people around the world regularly wear glasses. Even more wear sunglasses and reading glasses, and eyeglass frames are one of the most universal and well recognized accessories in existence.
But despite being commonplace now, eyeglasses are a relatively recent invention in terms of human history and have undergone numerous innovations, even within the past century. This means that eyeglasses just 100 years ago looked very different from the frames we are used to today.
Vintage eyeglasses come in a range of styles and materials with various different features that came and went throughout history. While some components of antique eyeglass frames are no longer around, these 12 innovations played a significant role in defining the look and functionality of eyeglasses.
The Invention of Glasses
The first glasses were likely invented sometime in the 13th century. From descriptions and portraits of these early glasses, we can determine that they were two magnifying glasses with rims made of animal bone or horn. The rims attached top with a hinge and to put them on, the wearer would unfold them and hold them up against their face.
Although far from the glasses we recognize today, these early glasses would be the initial style that all later frames came from.
These are the pieces of glasses that connect to the rims and go over your ears to help hold glasses in place. Previously, optical manufacturers had attempted to keep glasses in place with bits of ribbon tied around the heads or ears, but such solutions were cumbersome.
Surprisingly, temples that resemble modern styles were not added to glasses until the 1730s. Just over 20 years later, another manufacturer added hinges at the connection point between the temples and rims, enabling the glasses to fold up compactly.
Founding father Benjamin Franklin is credited with inventing bifocals in the 1760s. Previously, glasses used either a convex or concave shaped lens depending on the wearer’s vision challenges. Franklin combined the two lens shapes together, enabling a person who was both far and near sighted to use a single pair of glasses.
First developed for both men and women, lorgnettes became a fashion accessory for women in the 1800s. They were initially used as opera glasses at the theater but soon became popular for both assistance with reading and for ogling people at social events.
The initial lorgnettes resembled the early glasses with two magnifying glasses simply set into rims. By the mid 1800s, lorgnettes were mounted on a handle and decorated with gold, silver inlay, mother of pearl, ivory, and other fine materials. The lorgnette marked the first time eyewear was widely focused on women and one of the first antique frame types to be embraced as a fashion accessory by those women.
Steel Eyeglass Frames
Steel had been in use for many decades previously, but was expensive. In the 1850s, new processes created by Henry Bessemer and others made steel extremely affordable to produce. This offered a new material choice for antique wire rimmed glasses in addition to gold-filled.
Glasses manufacturers were now able to make glasses at a lower price, making them available to more people. Steel is also lighter in weight than silver and gold for more comfortable eyewear.
The pince nez style became extremely popular in the 1890s, at which point it accounted for over two thirds of American glasses sold. Pince nez removed the temples and instead used a spring in the bridge to pinch the nose and keep the glasses in place.
These glasses were viewed as a fashion accessory associated with wealth, class, and intellectualism, despite being more affordable and widely available than previous spectacles.
Improvements in Optometry
Although not an innovation in frames, improvements in optometry in the early 1900s led to increasing diagnosis of myopia and astigmatism. This meant it was necessary to design glasses that could effectively treat these conditions.
Glasses frames to treat nearsightedness or astigmatism needed to keep lenses at a set distance from the pupil, requiring that temples were added back in for additional stability and would remain so going forward.
Improved Lens Grinding and Glass Manufacturing
Prior to the 1900s, most vintage glasses had small lenses approximately two thirds the size of modern lenses. This is partially due to the fact that smaller lenses weighed less and could sit closer to the face, which provided some degree of comfort and stability in spite of the heavy glass lenses. But these small lenses were also due to the high price of optical glass.
New manufacturing processes in the 1900s changed this and meant glass lenses for vintage eyeglass frames could now be made in a much larger size.
As temple shapes changed into more stable riding bow temples and skull temples and glasses materials became lighter, the average lens grew significantly larger. More widespread usage of glasses also meant that people were becoming less self conscious about wearing glasses and there was no longer as much of a desire to have glasses be as small and unnoticeable as possible.
Manufacturers first began adding nose pads to glasses in the 1920s. The early nose pads were made of mother of pearl and later plastic, and were revolutionary in improving the fit and comfort of vintage glasses frames. They quickly took off and became a standard that is still in use today on almost all wire rimmed glasses.
Higher Temple Placement
Prior to 1925, temples had always connected to eyeglass frames at the midpoint since this offered the best fit. But by 1925, more and more Americans were driving and having a temple piece in that location obstructed peripheral vision, leading to more than a few crashes.
The eyeglass company American Optical responded with Ful-Vue glasses that moved the temple connection point to the top 1/3 of the frames and adjusted the lenses to maintain a comfortable fit. This was another almost immediately popular innovation that has been present in the majority of vintage eyewear and modern glasses since that point.
This innovation is hard to spot, but it was extremely important in using glasses to correct vision. In the 1930s, manufacturers developed what later called the P3 glasses style. These glasses are “Panoscopic,” meaning they have a slight tilt and the top of the lens sits further forward than the bottom of the lens. The 3 in the name refers to the 3 mm difference between the width and height of the glasses, which gives them a slightly oblong shape.
The tilt in the glasses enables prescription lenses to provide better vision correction and makes it easier for the wearer to move from reading to distance viewing. Helped in part by being the dominant antique military glasses style for World War II GIs, most of the glasses produced since this time use the P3 style.
In the same way that plastic changed many products, it had a significant impact in eyewear. The first plastic glasses were made of xyl, a form of cellulose acetate, in the 1930s. These early plastics were still incredibly fragile and not yet as easy to produce as they would be later.
Plastic became more durable, affordable, and customizable throughout the 1940s and, by the 1950s, was the dominant material for men’s and women’s glasses.
Plastic was highly affordable to produce and available in a wide range of colors, meaning many cheap glasses and sunglasses flooded the market. But even the high quality prescription glasses relied on various plastics for their frames.
The many possible looks and shapes with plastic glasses was part of the reasons that styles of the time, such as vintage cat eyeglasses, browline glasses, and horn rimmed glasses, finally became as much fashion accessories as they were tools for improving vision.
Find Eyeglasses from Many Eras at Eyeglasses Warehouse
At Eyeglasses Warehouse, we sell vintage eyeglass frames that represent all the different innovations that have characterized eyewear over the past two centuries. Each pair of our antique eyeglass frames offers a unique bit of history as well as being a one of a kind accessory.
Check out vintage glasses frame styles from all different eras in our shop and stop by our website regularly to be the first to see what’s new.