World War II was a massive military conflict that spanned multiple continents, included dozens of countries, and sent approximately 300 million men into combat. Thousands more men and women were part of armed forces at home and abroad to further support their country’s war effort.
Universally, these millions of men and women needed reliable eyewear to correct vision in the field and off duty, protect their eyes from flying debris, and shield them from glare of the sun while in the air. Above all, this eyewear needed to be durable enough to last through the demanding conditions that war creates.
Meeting the extensive need for eyeglasses and other parts of military uniforms, as well as all of the weaponry, vehicles, and extensive amounts of technology necessary to compete in modern warfare of the time required extensive production networks. Companies around the world significantly increased their output for goods like eyeglasses, designing new materials and processes to keep up with demand.
As a result, military needs and specific wartime innovations between 1939 and 1945 brought a number of changes to the eyewear industry, including new styles of glasses and goggles that met particular functional needs, as well as looks that appeal to civilians and would quickly become lasting styles in eyewear.
Eyeglasses Warehouse has genuine, vintage WWII eyeglasses – both from the war and from the era – along with all different types of antique glasses from before and after World War II. Browse our website to find the styles of eyewear that match your needs.
GIs and Vision Correction
20 years prior, in World War I, soldiers that needed vision correction were largely exempted from military service simply because wearing eyeglasses was too much of a hindrance when fighting. Glasses were prone to breaking and they did not fit under gas masks, which was a key issue during that conflict.
For the first part of WWII, at least among U.S. forces, it seemed that the case would be largely the same. Those who needed glasses were rejected from the draft when it first went into effect. Over one third of those who answered the draft were rejected, with vision problems being the most common reason for the exemption – followed, surprisingly, by bad teeth.
Thousands of men were rejected, and the military was not able to meet their quotas for soldiers. On February 16th, 1942, a year and a half after the draft was first issued, the army lowered their vision standard for draftees and only required that all soldiers must have vision of 20/200 or above, as long as it could be corrected 20/40 with glasses.
Reducing the standard down to 20/200 – which is today considered legally blind – enabled millions more men to join the service. Many of these men were assigned to non-combat service or light duty, although those numbers changed over the course of the war as more people were needed to fight on the front lines.
But wherever they served, these men now needed effective and reliable glasses. Additionally, the military needed to be able to produce these glasses affordably.
P3 Glasses – The U.S. Military Spectacles
The period between World War I and World War II had already seen some significant advances in eyewear for a number of reasons.
American Optical had debuted their Ful-Vue glasses in 1925. The design altered the existing antique glasses frame by moving the temple connection point from the center of the lenses to the top corners. The original purpose was to remove obstructions from the peripheral vision for drivers as an increasing number of Americans bought automobiles.
Peripheral vision is also incredibly important in combat, when soldiers need to be able to see what is happening on either side of them.
Ful-Vue style glasses lenses had to be slightly wider than they were tall, and nose pads were added to glasses during the 1920s as well to provide additional stability for the increased weight of larger lenses. Nose pads also offered the wearer the ability to adjust the fit slightly.
The other innovation during the 1930s was what came to be known as the P3 glasses. The “P” is for pantoscopic, which means that the top part of the lens is tilted slightly forward. This has the advantage of reducing glare and enabled opticians to more precisely correct vision. The “3” in P3 references the fact that the width of the lenses is three millimeters wider than the height.
Due to all the advantages with this vintage frame style, the military chose it to be the designated safety glasses for soldiers in WWII. The frames were made by the millions and provided to any GIs who required glasses and did not have their own. The frame style became so synonymous with the military that these glasses are known today as military glasses, GI glasses, or P3 glasses.
The standard pair of vintage GI glasses used:
- The P3 frame shape.
- Had nickel alloy frames that were silver in color.
- Use nose pads.
- Had riding bow temples.
The riding temples in particular were helpful in keeping glasses on while soldiers were running or moving about on the field of combat because they wrapped around the ear. The temples were wrapped in plastic or rubber to keep them from moving around.
GIs who had their own glasses were able to wear those, and many did. These glasses were often of the older Windsor style that was common in WWI, although these began to fade out as P3 glasses had already been catching on rapidly with civilians.
American Optical and their Portable Optical Units
There were a number of manufacturers of P3 glasses. These included:
Despite efforts towards durability, antique eyeglasses still remained likely to break in the field. American Optical responded by launching Portable Optical Units that contained everything a military optician needed to examine the eyes of a GI and produce a pair of regulation glasses right on the field. The two field chest American Optical provided to the US military each weighed 200 pounds and could be carried from place to place.
A main benefit to these kits was that soldiers did not need to be taken out of the field to be fitted with their new glasses, maximizing the number of GIs on hand to fight and reducing the inconvenience of a broken pair of glasses.
Vintage WWII Goggles
Goggles were another prominent form of eyewear in WWII. These were a necessity to protect the eyes of flight crews in the Army and Navy. They were used by pilots, gunners, and navigators aboard ships and planes.
The predominant WWII military goggle was AN-6530 goggles. The U.S. Army contracted this design from American Optical and Bausch and Lomb, as well as other optical manufacturers.
These goggles had eye cushions and face pads made of a soft rubber surrounded by leather straps to hold the goggles in place. Frames were nickel plated with a steel interior. Each lens was military optical grade and they were often tinted green or amber to help reduce haziness and help gunmen aim more accurately. Clear lenses were also available to protect the eyes from wind, debris, and glare.
Developments with Aviator Glasses
Prior to the start of WWII, the military had already asked optical companies to begin working on glasses specifically for their pilots. While goggles were primarily in use, they did have some drawbacks in that it was difficult to fit them under a pilot’s helmet. Other glasses could not efficiently keep out glare or avoid becoming fogged up.
Bausch & Lomb was one of the first companies to work on an eyewear style for military pilots. The result of their work was the aviator style frame. This frame uses large lenses that cover the entire eye socket and fit close to the face for maximum protection against the sun and cold wind. A double bridge supports these large lenses and distributes the weight of them evenly on their wearer’s face.
Because the main purpose of these glasses was to protect a pilot’s eyes against rays of sun, B&L soon spun these glasses off into their own line called Ray-Ban. Vintage Ray-Bans were available to the public by 1938, but remained a predominantly military style as Bausch and Lomb continued to supply them to pilots who opted for glasses that were easier to wear where possible.
Iconic Ray-Bans and How General MacArthur Defined a Decade of Style
Those on the ground could also wear vintage aviators into combat. Most notably was General Douglas MacArthur. General MacArthur was a World War II hero who acted as supreme command commander on the Southern Pacific front of the war and oversaw fighting in the Pacific Theater. He was also the one to accept Japan’s surrender at the end of the war.
His look included a corncob pipe and a pair of Ray Ban aviators. When he was photographed and interviewed in 1944 during his service, the image of him and his glasses became a defining photograph of World War II and American victory.
When the war ended in 1945 and America began to rebuild in a jubilant post-war economy, General MacArthur’s aviator look maintained its appeal and many American men adopted the style as their own throughout the 1950s, evoking a sense of manliness and heroism.
The Use of Plastic Frames During WWII
One innovation that was not used during World War II although it became available in the 1940s was the use of zyl, or cellulose acetate, in frames. Although plastic glasses had been invented and plastic glasses frames were suggested for combat use, the military deemed early cellulose acetate too fragile to withstand conflict. It was not until after WWII that zyl glasses became a standard military issue.
The war did, however, have a lasting influence on plastic glasses for civilians. As existing plastic technologies entered mainstream use for war production, it was now possible to affordably design glasses and endlessly customize them. This new material quickly took off with its significant appeal to the masses, but any cellulose acetate frames advertised as WWII glasses are almost guaranteed to be reproductions.
Where to Purchase Authentic WWII Eyewear
World War II is an exciting period for many reasons. The original glasses from WWII come with years of history, reflecting several decades of important developments that enabled the Allied powers to achieve victory.
These glasses also offer a distinct vintage look for reenactors, WWII history buffs, and those that appreciate vintage fashions. Original WWII glasses are a great way to connect with the history of that time.
Fortunately, because the military had so many vintage GI frames made and prioritized designs that offered durability, there are many WWII glasses in existence today. Some have seen combat and some are brand new and never worn. They all offer the authentic look we associate with WWII.
Eyeglasses Warehouse is a top online seller of original vintage eyewear from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, including iconic World War II glasses, authentic vintage Ray-Bans, and antique goggles. Browse through our site to see our full selection of vintage military eyewear and bookmark us as a reminder to check back frequently as vintage military eyewear becomes available.