Historians often describe World War I as the first time technology and science were bought onto the battlefield.
We can see evidence of these new technological innovations throughout the war effort, used by both the Allied powers – predominantly Britain, France and later the U.S. – and the Central powers – Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. Machine guns, poison gas, automotive technology, aeronautical technology, and more changed the way that countries did battle.
But a major global conflict also necessitated change in eyewear. From the optical glass that allowed soldiers with poor vision to adequately see to eye protection from flying debris, World War I demanded many different eyewear innovations, and scientists and optical companies hurried to meet demand.
At the same time, improved technology and increased manufacturing capabilities across various industries also enabled advances in eyewear during the Great War that would form the foundation of both military and mainstream glasses in the decades following.
If you’re looking for original, vintage WWI glasses, or replicas that match the style of the era, browse our website today. You’ll find eyeglasses from the 1700s all the way to the 1980s, most of which are original antiques.
War and the Optics Industry
World War I began in 1914 when, through a series of international treaties, a large number of European, North American, Asian, and Middle Eastern powers commenced fighting. A global conflict of this scale on multiple fronts required millions of infantrymen. It also required a range of technologies that relied on optical glass.
In addition to the millions of soldiers and civilians that required optical glass for their eyeglasses and vision correction, the military now also needed a source of high quality optical glass for things like telescopes, binoculars, cameras, and viewfinders – all essential equipment when surveying while at war, especially now that airplanes, used mostly only for reconnaissance rather than fighting during WWI, made it possible to observe the situation on the ground from greater distance.
The problem, at least for the Allied powers, was that the majority of optical glass during the 1910s was produced by Zeiss, a German company. With Germany as one of the main powers of the opposition, Britain and France were forced to resurrect their old optical glass production to meet their needs.
They succeeded, but the production process was still considered a wartime secret, even amongst allies, and they did not share their methods with the U.S.
This left the U.S. with a significant shortage on optical glass for eyewear and other equipment since, although they were not actively fighting the war prior to 1917, they were still allied with France and Britain and their trading with Germany for optical glass was cut off.
At the time, optical companies in the U.S. were producing an estimated 2,000 pounds of optical glass per month, and what was being produced was done largely on a trial and error basis which led most glass produced to be of inferior quality. In order to meet demand, however, it was estimated they would need 2,000 pounds per day.
Eyewear manufacturer and optical company Bausch & Lomb was one of the first to focus their efforts on producing the amount of military grade optical glass that was needed for the war effort. After careful study of German samples and implementation of the scientific process, B&L was able to make 20,000 pounds of glass per month by November 1917, just seven months after the U.S. had entered the war.
This significant increase in optical glass would sustain the American forces and the public for the remainder of the war. It would also enable military production to move more quickly when World War II began approximately two decades later.
But in the interwar years these optical advances were significant. Since there was no longer a need to import glass and the manufacturing processes were now in place, the cost of eyeglasses for the average consumer came down, allowing eyeglasses to begin their transition from medical tool to a fashion accessory.
Military-Issued Eyeglasses for WWI
The military ordered several million glasses for World War II to supply as part of uniforms for those who needed them.
Vintage WWI glasses needed to be durable enough to sustain combat, and the Windsor style was the main choice for military glasses. Windsor glasses had:
- Thick Metal Frames
- Cable Temples
- Saddle Bridge
- Round Lenses
The cable temples, or riding temples, were important for keeping glasses in place while infantrymen were fighting or running since the temples curved behind the ear. They were often wrapped in rubber as well to further prevent slippage.
One of the leading companies to supply antique WWI glasses was American Optical. They were already the largest glasses manufacturer in the world at the beginning of the 1900s, and they provided over 2.5 million pairs of eyeglasses to the war effort. Their styles for soldiers included the “Liberty” and “Victory.”
American Optical provided their glasses to the US troops via 8 mobilized units that would travel around the frontlines to meet with soldiers who required eyeglasses. Attached army physicians would perform an eye examination and then fit the correct prescription lens into the glasses frames for the soldiers on site.
The Challenge of Wearing Glasses on the Front Lines
Wearing eyeglasses was often not compatible with fighting on the front lines. Eyeglasses in the mid 1910s were fragile. A bomb blast nearby could cause the glass to shatter or become splattered with mud, immediately reducing visibility if it did not cause harm to the person wearing glasses.
For this reason, most people who required glasses for vision correction were not accepted into the military, particularly in the earliest days of war when wearing glasses was considered a medical exemption.
This is not to say that everyone in the military had perfect vision. Many soldiers and commanders who are not actively in the field could easily wear glasses, and as the war effort went on and all countries involved sustained heavy losses, militaries around the world started accepting a wider range of soldiers. By the end of the war, wearing glasses was no longer a disqualification.
Vintage Glasses to Fit Under Gas Masks
The other challenge with wearing glasses in WWI was the new innovation of chemical warfare. Military powers were now using gases, such as mustard gas and chlorine. They would distribute these gases on the field and in trenches. Coming into contact with gas could be deadly and often caused chemical burns and severe respiratory issues.
In response to this new threat, gas masks were quickly distributed amongst troops. The earliest versions were nothing more than a flannel hood with eye pieces sewn in. Later masks had a Small Box Respirator that would filter gas from the air, allowing the soldier to continue breathing.
All of these mask designs were a significant issue for those that wore eyeglasses. With early masks, it was difficult to fit glasses underneath the hood and the glasses would often fog up as the wearer was breathing, making a soldier momentarily blind.
The Small Box Respirator masks depended on a close fit to the side of the face. Wearing glasses would compromise that fit and enable gas to get inside the mask.
Since gas was such a significant concern in WWI, not being able to wear a gas mask during combat was not a risk most soldiers could take. Some countries, such as Germany, designed eyeglasses specifically to fit under gas masks, which they called “Maskenbrille,” or “mask glasses.” Germany’s design replaced cable temples with loops of fabric that hooked over the ears. The fabric was thin enough that the gas mask could fit properly while lenses still provided vision correction for those who needed it – until of course they began to fog up.
The drawbacks to glasses used during combat were significant, but with the desperation for troops near the end of the war, these solutions were often considered adequate.
WWI Vintage Goggles and Sun Protection for Pilots, Drivers, and Motorcyclists
The other important eyewear of World War I, and what is today often the most recognizable, were safety goggles. Safety goggles had already been in use for a number of decades for some jobs and early motorists. But WWI pushed production of vintage safety goggles into overdrive.
These goggles were needed by those on the front lines driving motorcycles or in automobiles. Both of these military vehicles were in the early stages and driving them on unmaintained dirt roads and over fields often resulted in kicking up lots of debris.
The other group that suddenly needed safety eyewear were pilots. Safety glasses for pilots were often fitted with amber lenses, or sometimes blue or dark green lenses. The tinted lenses could protect the viewers’ eyes from the glare of sun while flying, while amber specifically would also cut down on haze when looking at objects close to the horizon from a plane.
American Optical was the first company to supply goggles specifically designed for military pilots, as opposed to safety goggles that many pilots had used up to this point. Starting in 1914, they distributed goggles with wide lenses that covered the entire eye socket. They were backed with a soft rubber that enabled them to sit flush against the skin. An elastic strap wrapped around the head to keep the goggles in place.
These vintage AO goggles were highly effective at keeping debris out, and their rubber edges mean they could not fog up while the pilot was in the air. Still, they were large and cumbersome, occasionally making the lighter safety glasses a more attractive alternative.
Many of the other safety glasses made for WWI were designed and manufactured by Willson. Willson had already risen to prominence as the premier safety goggle manufacturer at the beginning of the 20th century, and the company had the capabilities to modify their glasses for the war effort.
Willson’s early safety goggles usually had two round lenses connected by a saddle bridge. Around the outside edge of the lens, a metal protective piece shielded the eye socket from the side, protecting the glare and wayward debris. These goggles often used cable temples for stability. Willson designed their glasses to fold up compactly with the metal side pieces folding in on themselves for easy storage in a standard case.
The main drawback to these safety goggles was that they did not fit well under pilot flight helmets or motorcycle helmets. For pilots in uncovered cockpits who generally wore masks over their noses and mouths to protect them from cold temperate cold winds, the glasses were also notorious for fogging up.
This individual style of antique goggles from World War 1 is one of the more iconic pieces of eyewear from the Great War. Newer technology and materials replaced them shortly after, giving goggles and protective eyewear for later wars a significantly different appearance. These early goggles have a distinctly vintage look and, while many were first used in a terrible conflict, vintage goggles today are an extremely interesting piece of history whether you choose to wear them as a costume or an innovative pair of sunglasses, or you collect them.
Authentic Antique Glasses from WWI Online
World War I glasses made between 1914 and 1919 come in a wide range of styles depending on what use they were originally made for. With millions of military glasses and safety goggles produced for the war effort, all generally designed with durability as the most important feature, it is possible to find many antique glasses from this time period available today.
Eyeglasses Warehouse sells historic glasses online with options from many decades in a range of styles. Our World War I glasses are authentic eyewear produced during the war with options for military issue wire rim glasses, antique safety goggles, and other eyewear from WWI.
You can find glasses in our inventory that are both unique and highly functional, even for modern use. Look through our inventory to find early 1900s glasses and visit regularly to be the first to see new glasses as they become available.