"To See Or Not To See, That Is The Question"

by James E. Newell

As re-enactors there are some aspects of Eighteenth Century life that we would prefer not to re-create. While not in the same category as Typhoid Fever, the setting aside of our eyeglasses while re-enacting is not an option most of us would choose. Fortunately, both recreated and original frames are in reasonable supply at moderate prices so we really do not need to go without. The only question, as with most other aspects of Eighteenth Century life, should be to come as close as possible to what was actually available and used during our period.

Eyeglasses date back at least to 1352 when Tommiaso de Modena painted a set on a figure in a church fresco in Italy.(1,p.3384) At the time, the manufacture of high grade clear glass was the virtual monopoly of the Byzantines in Constantinople,(ibid.) and lenses were limited to the convex type suitable to the aged.(1,p.3385) By the Eighteenth Century, Diderot's Encyclopedia could picture at least fifteen different lens configurations both convex and concave. Custom grinding of lenses to particular corrective prescriptions would, however, wait until the early part of the Twentieth Century.(ibid.) In the Eighteenth Century a customer would be presented with many pre-ground lenses and had the responsibility of trying them all until finding one that more-or-less did the job.(2,p.67) Since this practice persisted into our century, old spectacles with standard prescriptions are very common, allowing those with simply the need for "reading glasses" to still find and use an acceptable set without even changing lenses. With those of us with astigmatism, having a prescription fitted is a necessity.

A very wide variety of assists to the visually impaired were available and used in the Eighteenth Century:

  1. The early Eighteenth Century style of temple spectacles with wide frames and with large rings or even heart shapes on the ends of the temples were still being worn.(2,p.74)
  2. The Seventeenth Century and earlier "Nose glasses" without temples were also still being used.(ibid.) Some of these were hinged in the middle of the nose piece and some were not. They perched loosely on the nose and the head was held erect to prevent their falling off. The small pads added to the inner pan of the lens frame to grip the nose were a feature of the "pinch-nez" glasses of the late Nineteenth Century. and are not correct for our period.(2.p. 122)
  3. "Quizzing Glasses", earlier known as 'perspective glasses" were also still in use. These were single lenses mounted in a frame with a small handle almost identical to modern "magnifying glasses". Unlike our modern versions, however, the Eighteenth Century "Quizzing glasses" were used for distance vision by closing one eye and sighting through the glass with the other. They usually had a ring on the handle and were worn on a silk chord or ribbon around the neck. The Opticians of the time preferred the use of a lens for each eye and condemned the single lens glasses as being tiring on the eyes.(2.p.82) Some people wore them "screwed into the eye", although the term "Monocle" would not come into use until the l800s.(2.p.79) They were popular but as was the case with all eye wear of the period, not very fashionable. As a result, they were often highly decorated to resemble a medallion hanging around the neck.
  4. "Scissors Glasses" solved the problem of the single lens by providing two lenses on a "Y" shaped frame. George Washington owned a pair of these.(2.p.84) "Scissors glasses" also usually had a ring in the end of the handle so that they could be worn on a ribbon or gold chain around the neck.(ibid.)
  5. "Prospect Glasses." were very popular in Europe in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.(2,p.85) These were actually miniature telescopes and were used to observe others from a distance, hopefully without being caught. A variation was the "Jealousy-glass" which contained a mirror and hole in the side, allowing the user to observe people to the side while appearing to look forward.(ibid.) Some Prospect Glasses were built into fans, walking stick handles, perfume bottles, and other objects to further conceal their use.(2.p.90) In 1745, Anne Marie Lepage complained of being observed by about twenty of these as she entered her box at the theater.(2,p.85)

The lower classes probably did not utilize any of these more ornate types of eye glasses and contented themselves with spring glasses from Germany.(2.p.85) "In London in 1773, the cheapest English nose-glasses sold for a shilling but imported German ones could be had for four pence." In 1799, according to Von Rohr, the best double-jointed standard gold spectacles with gold case included were sold for sixteen guineas.(2,p.77) The cheaper lenses were greenish. (2.p.63) which was a sign of poor manufacture.

There were, however, intentionally tinted lenses sold in our period. In 1752, Ayscough advertised green and blue besides the "offensive glaring light" of white glass.(2.p.70) In 1763, Pablo Minguet of Spain, recommended turquoise, green, or light yellow, but not amber or red.(2.p.71) Oval and rectangular lenses were patented by Dudley Adams in 1797 although the oval shape had already been in use for some years. Rectangular lenses would not come into general use until about 1819. (2,p.122)

As noted above, single lenses were often disguised as medallions since, with the exception of Spain. eyeglass wearing was not fashionable in most countries. Actually, it did not become really acceptable until the l92Os. (3,p.SS) George Washington felt the need to apologize for wearing his, saying "Gentlemen you will permit me to put on my spectacles; for as you see, I have not only grown gray. but almost blind in the service of my country".(2,pp.73-74) In 1784. Benjamin Franklin was unwilling to give in to his failing eyesight as did the famous diarist Pepe, and improvised what later came to be known as bifocals. There is no indication of bifocals becoming widely used until well into the Nineteenth Century. Franklin also owned a pair of French-made silver spectacles with sliding temple pieces and these also did not become popular until much later.(2.p.77)

Spectacle frames in our period were made of iron, brass, gold, silver, leather, and horn as were the temple pieces which were universally straight, with or without rings or small loops on the ends. Dr. York, the author of one of the articles cited owns a pair of frames made of hammered iron which he dates at about 1770, and which has a metal case with hex signs indicating possible Pennsylvania Dutch manufacture and use.(3,p.85) Chord loops passing entirely around the ears were used only in China, and earlier metal bands passing over the top of the head were tried but never very widely used. The metal wire temples curved to fit behind the ear date from about l85O.Q,pp.l78 to 183) Although these are later than our period, the curvature is not visible while being worn. Most of us won't find a scissors or templeless pair of frames and almost any round or oval lenses set in the common wire frames without nose pads is reasonably period-accurate.

In summary, in 1756 the following advertisement appeared in the Boston Evening Post, illustrated with a pair of nose glasses probably of horn or leather, and answers the question of what was actually available on this continent.

"Just imported in the Scow Two Brothers, Capt. Marsden, from London and to be sold by Hannah Breitnall at the Sign of the Spectacles, in the Second-Street near Black-Horse-Alley, Variety of the finest chrystal spectacles set in temple, steel, leather, and other frames. Likewise true Venetian green spectacles for weak or watery eyes of various sorts. Also concave spectacles for short-sighted persons, magnifying and reading glasses, telescopes, perspectives, with multiplying glasses, and glasses for Davis quadrants. Etc. Etc."(2.p.66)


1. The New Illustrated Science and Invention Encyclopedia, Vol. 25 Historical Inventions and Discoveries,(Westport. CT., H.S. Stuttman, Inc., l987), pp.3384-3385.

2. Corson, Richard, Fashions in Eyeglasses, (Chester Springs, PA. Du Four Editions, Inc., 1967)

3. York, Allen, "Eyeglasses - Fads and Fashions in Spectacles in DiNola, Andrea, ed., The Encyclopedia of Collectables, (New York, Time Life Books, 1978), pp.85-92.

Copyright © 1995 James E. Newell. All rights reserved.