Eyeglass History: Seeing Through the Ages

Eyeglasses have a fascinating and rather poorly recorded history. Today, we take for granted the ability to correct our vision, but this easily acquired luxury today has not always been so readily available. This blog will review the significant historical events in the evolution of eyeglasses.

It is the Italians who are credited for the invention of eyeglasses to aid vision. Believed invented in the 1200’s by someone whose name has been lost to history, these first Italian glasses were used primarily by monks for reading. The first written mention of the use of eyeglasses was by Robert Grosseteste in the book De iride (“On the Ranbow”) printed in 1235. It mentions using a lens to “read the smallest letters at incredible distances.” There is also written record of a sermon given in Italy in 1306 which mentions “It is not yet 20 years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses.” So based on these records, the most accurate date for the first pair of recorded glasses used for correcting vision has been placed sometime in the 1200’s. The earliest painting of a person wearing glasses was done by Italian painter Tommaso da Modena. The paining is of a Cardinal by the name of Hugh of Saint-Cher in 1352.


Cardinal Hugh of Saint-Cher, by Tommaso da Modena in 1352

In the 1200’s, the Italians were undergoing a Renaissance in glass making. At that time, they had the most advanced glass making industry in the world with the tools to experiment with the limits of glass making capabilities. This period of emerging glass making techniques helped make Italy prime for the development of eyeglasses by Italian glassmakers.

It was not until the invention of the printing press in 1452 that reading glasses became mainstream in peoples lives. While reading material was scarce before 1452, the printing press made material far more affordable and accessible for everyone. Almost overnight, everyone over 40 years of age was looking for help to more easily read the flood of new reading materials being printed. As a result, reading glasses became a household commodity.


Example of reading glasses produced as a result of the printing press

The 1700’s ushered in what might be considered the introduction of modern eyeglasses. Until this time, glasses had to be held by hand or sat on the nose unsupported. The 1700’s saw the introduction of temples on frames to add support from behind the ears. Benjamin Franklin is widely credited for the invention of the modern bifocal in 1784 when he glued the top of his distance glasses to the bottom of his reading glasses.


The early 1900s ushered in the next leap forward, this time it was in the area of fashion and reduced costs. During the early to mid 1900’s, frames began to be factory produced, helping to reduce their cost. Frame manufactures also, through the use of the newly created movie stars, began marketing eyeglass design as a fashion statement and movie stars became their advertising billboards. The 1900s and its movie industry helped eyeglasses become as stylish as they were functional.


Sunglasses, as opposed to glasses intended to aid visual clarity, have a history of their own. Archaeologic sites have found evidence in prehistoric time of Inuit Eskimos use of walrus tusk glasses to block the sun. These glasses were made without lenses, but rather used a thin slit carved in the walrus tusk reduce light transmission. The earliest written reference to sunglasses dates back to ancient Rome. The Roman emperor Nero watched gladiator fights through polished emerald which was over an inch thick. Although the exact purpose of these emerald lenses is unknown, it is believed it was in order to reduce the intensity of the bright Roman summer sun.

Example of ancient sunglasses used by Inuit Eskimos

Example of ancient sunglasses used by Inuit Eskimos

Although today we typically think of sunglasses being protective from harmful UV rays and light sensitivity, in the 16th through early 20th centuries tinted glasses were believed to be curative for everything from stomach aches to arthritis. In the 1800’s, lenses tined green or yellow were even prescribed in the belief that they could treat the symptoms of syphilis.


Glasses for the treatment of syphilis, circa 1800

It was not until 1929 that sunglasses advertising the benefits of UV protection were sold, the first of which by Foster Grant. It was shortly thereafter that Ray-Ban introduced polarized sunglasses to World War II aviators to help reduce glare. As we have seen, the 1900’s saw the advancement of sunglasses from mistakenly being used to treat disease to being used proactively to prevent disease from ultraviolet damage and to help reduce glare related symptoms.

First Foster Grant sunglasses, circa 1929

First Foster Grant sunglasses, circa 1929

Today, 64 percent of the adult population in the US wears prescription glasses. Far different than when Nero watched Gladiators through an inch thick emerald. What will future history books say about the glasses we wear today?

~David McCleary, OD
California Optometric Association

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