Looking Back: The History of Spectacles


Oct 15, 2014 by Smart Blog

According to the College of Optometrists, in 2013 74% of people in the UK wore corrective eye-wear or had undergone laser eye surgery to improve their eyesight.

Of those surveyed, 69% said that they wore glasses some or all of the time, with a comparatively small 13% wearing contact lenses. In other words, the UK is a nation of spectacle wearers.



Life would have been much more blurred for these people a few hundred years ago. Although Viking 'lenses', ground from crystal, have been found, it is thought that these were largely decorative.

It is difficult to establish exactly when spectacles were either invented or evolved, but there is consensus that it was around 1300, and probably in Italy (although some claim Germany or The Netherlands).

Before this, an English friar called Roger Bacon described the potential use of lenses to correct eyesight in his 'Opus Majus', published around 1260. However, Roger does not seem to have put his ideas into practical action.


Balancing Act

The earliest pictures of people wearing glasses are in Italian frescoes dating from 1352. In these pictures, the subjects sport spectacles that have no arms or sides at all; rather they balance on the nose in a way that must have been rather challenging. This balancing act continued for another 300 years (presumably very few people wore glasses at this stage - and those that did would have been hard pressed to keep them on for more than a few moments). It was not until the eighteenth century that somebody finally had the bright idea of adding arms, or sides, to hold the glasses onto the face.

In fact, the entire eighteenth century was a bit of a peak time for spectacles. Not only did they get arms, but also in the 1760s manufacturers started to produce split lenses, which eventually developed into bifocals. Meanwhile, the Italians (Venetians, to be precise) invented sunglasses!

The use of spectacles spread rapidly and by the nineteenth century, the visually compromised could choose from a whole range of optical aids, such as 'quizzing glasses', lorgnettes, wig spectacles and nose spectacles. The popularity of glasses continued into the twentieth century, powered by two key events. These were the supply of glasses to all troops, as appropriate, during World War One and, of course, the arrival of the National Health Service, which made glasses freely available to all.



In the twentieth century, glasses became as much fashion items as aids to health, and a plethora of colours and styles became available. However, by the end of the century the cost of glasses was an issue for many, with some manufacturers charging premium prices for fashionable frames.

Now, some 700 years after glasses came into existence, the frames that most British people wear are made outside this country. The UK does, however, have a thriving industry providing specialist frames. The problem of pricing seems to be abating a little, helped by the arrival of low-priced web-based providers and interestingly, many of the currently fashionable frames look more than a little retro. Will spectacle fashions progress or regress during the rest of this century? We will have to wait and see...