Wednesday, June 24, 2009

To be Fashion-Offensive or to See?

Ah glasses, the burden of many a fashion-conscious and budget-conscious person. I've been shopping around for a new pair and it seems the best deal for an attractive set is $200! Well, would you believe that was about the same asking price for them in late 18th century America as well? Spectacles were pricey!

Spectacles have been around forever but they underwent some of the most important changes in the eighteenth century that have given us the glasses we have today. One of the biggest issues with spectacles was how to keep them on your face. It was in 1730 that a London Optician, Edward Scarlett came up with the genius solution of creating sidepieces that could rest atop a person's ears. Before that there were balancing acts on noses and ribbons going every which way (the Chinese took that Western aspect and added weights to keep them on). By 1752 the glasses now had hinges thanks to another British Optician, James Asycough. With these adjustments, Spectacle sales increased.

Spectacles could be made with clear or tinted glass. After Georgiana went through the trouble with her eyes she would wear spectacles of black crepe to keep the light out of her sensitive eye. Lenses were available in a variety of colors, usually blue or green in England. You might think, with all these fabulous color combinations that Spectacles could be trendsetting, they weren't. People were extremely self-conscious about wearing glasses in public. Think teenagers going to the grocery store with mom in complicated orthodontic headgear. The fashion-conscious French were especially notorious for their hatred of spectacles; they would much rather walk into a door at Versailles than be seen in spectacles. When Princess Sophia needed glasses, she fretted about wearing them to the opera, worried about what the newspapers would say. Her sister Augusta scolded,
"...What...can they say? That Princess Sophia wears spectacles! Well, and what harm can that do her? Would it not be better they should say it, than she loose all sight of the performers?"
I think Augusta and I would get along.

Yet another improvement in spectacles came in 1784 from America when Ben Franklin was getting frustrated reading one night. Franklin had two sets of spectacles, one for his near-sightedness and one for his far-sightedness. He found himself constantly switching from one set to the other. He sliced both sets of lenses in half, glued (so to speak) them together, and thus created the bifocal. Clever Ben!

So it is safe to say that the modern glasses as we know it, is strictly an eighteenth century invention. This invention comes with the same price and the same occasional insecurity about how one looks in their glasses. You would think after a couple of centuries of improvements in ophthalmology we would finally be rid of the glasses stigma!


  1. You're right about that stigma! Even Napoleon tried to hide the fact that he needed glasses. He was extremely secretive about it. With him, I wonder if he saw this as some sort of weakness...
    I didn't know about the black crepe for the Duchess! Thanks:)

  2. WOW...and I felt self-conscious because I couldn't adjust to LEAST I didn't have to wear black crepe!

  3. Ha, I was about to quote Augusta! She was right about the glasses--right and wrong, I guess. I mean the press would make fun of Sophia for wearing glasses, but if they didn't make fun of her for that, they'd find something else to make fun of her for (like they did not too long after; wasn't she the most scandalous of the sisters?). But Augusta was also wrong; she was the prettiest of the sisters and I don't reckon she had to worry about being mocked for her looks, so she didn't know what it felt like for Sophia, who already had to deal with criticism without the glasses.

    I wore glasses for a while but switched to contacts a couple of years ago. Contacts are so much better (once you get used to them)! I feel like I can see better (because my peripheral vision still has sight and there is no frame line), I don't have to adjust them or slide them on my nose, they don't get all wet in the rain or fog up in the winter, and I can look down over a bridge without worrying that they're going to fall off! The only downside, other than the ritual of taking them out and putting them in every day, is the price tag.

  4. Very interesting! Thanks for the post! The irony of course is that the screenshot from the Affair of the Necklace has it all wrong...

  5. I do love my Dior spectacles. The best things about them are: (1) I can take them off and hold them in my hand ostensibly. This is the best way to ignore people you do not like in a social event. Later you always can say «Sorry darling I was not wearing my glasses and you know that I am blind as bat..»
    (2) Put your spectacles on the tip of your nose and then look up on people (over the lenses). It is the best way to make someone quite! Then, with one pointy finger, pull them back and sneer.

  6. Interesting! And that Ben Franklin was such an all-around practical guy. I really should read more about him, but am always waylaid by Tarts and Art.

    When you say black crepe, do you mean the matte cloth used mainly for mourning wear? Or was there another crepe?

    I've always wanted a quizzing glass myself so I can depress Pretention and Over Familiarity. (I must have an inner Lady Catherine de Burgh.)

  7. I'm usually in my contacts (which I wear so long that even they are blurry for me now) but my last pair of vogues are now blurry and sooo '06. Time for a new, fashionable pair. I think Fabulastic should lend me his Diors ;)

    Lucy- I didn't know Napoleon needed glasses!

    Lauren- You're absolutely right! That's one of the reasons I included it, MA wearing shades with pride? Can you imagine!

    Faboo-You should have been in 18th century France giving lessons on how to make glasses sexy (in a non-hot librarian way). They needed you!

  8. Polonaise- I'm going to have to look it up again, but I found it in one of her letters. I believe she referred to it as black crap [sic], which sounds not so good. "Crape" is another spelling for crepe. It made sense in my head when I read it too, because black crepe would be good for sensitive eyes. It reminds me of the ol' black construction paper during solar eclipses trick.

  9. glasses are difficult but at the end of the day i'd rather see and see that i look stupid than not see at all:)

    btw, i've tagged you!

  10. Heather, what kind of frames are you getting?

    I have had my tortoise shell ones for 10 years and realize I need an update. Sadly my prescription may preclude the smaller styles of which case I will probably get ANOTHER pair of tortoise shell ones but still smaller than I currently have.

  11. This is too funny bc I am buying some new specs!

  12. Alli- Exactly! Augusta's point as well

    Judy- I found a cute pair of square frames that are pretty snazzy but there was also some Harry Potter-looking ones that would make me look like a total artsy fartsy nerd (which I am anyway, right?)and I think that style is probably the next big thing. I swear I saw Dita Von Teese in them, but she can make just about anything look good. If I had money to burn I'd get both.

    There was still an abundance of tortoise shells frames, not to worry!

  13. I can't get back to wearing glasses- my sister and I have such bad eyesight that our eyes look tiny with glasses on! Contacts are so great...I always am grateful that I live in a time period where we have sight correction without stigma, because otherwise I'd have to be led around like a blind person!

  14. The Harry Potter look...I'll keep that in mind when I browse!! Thanks, Heather.

  15. I'm working on developing a new linkspage with images of 18th century people wearing spectacles, and the many different varieties of 18th century eyeglasses, and thought you might like to see it; it's at

    If you're still shopping for reproductions of 18th century eyewear, this'll at least give you some ideas in terms of who was wearing what -- and what sorts of things were available and when. :-)