Amazingly, it’s nearly impossible to attribute one of the most spectacular inventions of the past 2,000 years—the eyeglasses. While history acknowledges multiple professions for their contribution to this wonderful creation, it was first noted at the end of the thirteenth century that “discs for the eyes” were a modification of an earlier device used to aid in seeing images clearly, especially for the elderly.
From the first pair of handheld eye glasses, which had a long handle down one side of a mounted pair of convex-shaped crystal stones, to our frameless, weightless spectacles of today, the styles and materials used to help us see have transformed the look of eye glasses.
Having the largest medieval glass industry, Florence, Italy became the leader in creating the concept of five-year glasses, as it had already been documented that vision declined after the age of 30. Prescriptions were changed every five years as the wearer aged.
By the 1400s, eyeglasses were being exported throughout all of Europe. Though they varied in style, composition, and cost, they were most certainly affordable and considered a necessity by every level of society
With the advent of Guttenberg’s printing press and the availability of books and newspapers to the common man, the use of eye glasses became even more widespread. Having been previously used mainly by artisans, religious scholars, and intellectuals, eye glasses became the peddler’s ware on every street corner in Western Europe.
By the 17th century, Germany had proved itself the finest forger of frames, while Italy remained the best in lens production. In fact, archaeological digs have produced a few of these early spectacles, though rarely, and modern day museums and collectors covet their acquisition.
In the Far East, eyeglasses developed a style of their own due to the unique Asian facial structure. Brought into the area by Western European missionaries and tradesman, Asia modified them to include a cord on either side to loop behind the ears, and sometimes they weighted the ends of the cords to assist with staying in place.
And yet, spectacles still were mostly handheld and unable to stay on for long. Along came the addition of the nose-bridge and the ensuing development of making it flexible and comfortable. Finally, the creation of eye glasses that would neither press upon the nose too harshly, nor the sides of the head, was heralded by London optician, James Ayscough.
Even in the retro period of the pince-nez, where eye glasses once again went to staying on only the nose, society was beginning to call for eye glasses as a fashion statement.
By the 20th century, eye glasses were created to be functional, comfortable, and stylish, by Americans and Europeans alike. Today, the same can be said as we continue to discover newer, lightweight material for lenses and exhibit both framed and frameless eyeglasses.