Looking at the World Through Regency Glasses

Joanna here, talking about eyeglasses in the Regency period. Franklin6

The idea of eyeglasses isn't new.  Dipping into wayback history, folks were getting a close look at small stuff with a clear, curving crystal in ancient times.

Nimrud_2lens_British_MuseumHere's the Nimrud Stone, a piece of ground, polished rock crystal found in the excavation of a 3000-year-old Assyrian palace.  Lenses like this have turned up in Greek burial sites that are even older. 

These first magnifying glasses gave the users up to 10X enlargement, which is to say they compare favorably with the magnifying glass you have in your desk right now and use for reading the print in your OED or threading needles or staring in bemused enjoyment at the whorls and ridges of your thumbprint. 

Scholars figure these very early lenses were used by Greek and Sumerian craftsmen to produce the unbelievably fine detail in some of their art work.  Or gazing at the rings of Saturn.  Or, y'know, looking at their thumb.

What limited the number and quality of these first lenses — the reason Cleopatra didn't wear eyeglasses — Pectoral_of_Senusret_II_cc attrib John_Campanawas they hadn't got around to making cheap and clear glass yet.  High quality glass was precious. That's why Tutankhamun's hoard of jewels is made of gold, ivory, lapis lazuli, carnelian, turquoise, and . . . glass.  This must have come as a disappointment to the Victorian treasure-seekers in the Nile valley.  They'd open a tomb and pull out a fancy pectoral or amulet and it was brilliant, colorful glass, instead of, say, brilliant colorful emeralds.

Folks finally made reliably clear glass on a large scale in Italy. 

Thirteenth Century Italy was the hotbed of glass technHugh_specsology for its day.  Venice — the Medieval Silicon Valley of glasswork — turned out round, hand-held magnifiers on a regular basis.  About 1280 some bright lad, his name forever lost to history, mounted two of these glass disks in round frames and joined them together.  Presto.  Eyeglasses. 

And, lickety-split, as historical innovation goes, we get portraits of people with spectacles.  This 1352 portrait to the left may be the earliest representation of eyeglasses.

Spectacle and spectacle case c mother or pearl painted totoiseshell silver glass 1700 vandAThere were two kinds.  Perch-on-the-nose glasses, for one.  Pince-nez we'd call them now.  That's a circa 1700 example on the left.  This picture to the right is from 1466.

Lorgnette the met We also get a scissors-type eyeglasses that joined together at a hinge and could be adjusted to fit.  This kind of glasses could be held up as we see to the left, or held up from below.  The scissors glasses seem awkward, but they appear in portraits right along to the Regency so they must have had hidden charm and utility.

You can see the difficulty with both kinds.  They were always ready to fall off.  You had to tie a ribbon around your head or keep one hand on your glasses.  Tedious, to say the least. They'd be for reading and close work only.

In the early 1700s a London spectacles maker, Edward Scarlett, advertised a clever solution.  His glasses had folding hinged struts on the sides and two arms to hold the optics onto the head.  There were even loops, sometimes, to tie the glasses on.  Made in china before 1846 after C17 3rd quart british museum attribNow your spectacles didn't fall off every time you incautiously reached for a new sheet of paper. 

It became practical to walk around wearing the things.  All this improvement in eyeglass technology meant people could pay intelligent attention to where they were going. This lasted till the invention of the ipod.
Crome 1817 detail 2Benjamin Franklin, one of my favorite people — he's up at the top of the page — invented bifocals in 1784.
It was also in the Eighteenth Century that glasses met the masses.  They were no longer for scholars and artists.  This traveling glasses pedlar on the left argues that glasses were cheap enough that a country woman in a cottage was likely to buy a pair. This ragged tailor on the right can afford glasses to pursue his trade. Crussens mid c17
I haven't found examples of these Georgian and Regency glasses with a curve to fit neatly around the ear.  They seem to have hugged the head in a steely embrace, doubtless leading to many a Regency headache.  Some, intended to tuck intMusvisattrib 1750 wig spectacles spearshaped tipso the fashionable wigs of the time, had fierce and sharpish-looking points.

Now, with all this development of practical eyeglasses that gripped the head and stayed on and didn't require constant fidgeting, you'd think the old, precarious sort without side pieces would disappear. 
Not so much.  As the new utilitarian eyeglasses spread through the hoi polloi, the inconvenient older optics were now considered spiffy and upper-crust.

Quizzing glass closeup Quizzing glass 1820 britinsh museum attrib detail 2So, you had your quizzing glass. 
This was a single, hand-held lens, like a magnifying glass. 

Single lenses that you held had long since been replaced by spectacles for everyday use.  Round about 1790 the French, as the French will, turned this passe object into a fashion accessory.  If you needed glasses, or even if you didn't, you could walk around with a quizzing glass handy, maybe hanging it on a long chain worn around the neck. The you whipped it out to inspect something.

The double-barreled version of the quizzing glass was the lorgnette, which is sort of glasses-on-a-stick.  Lorgnette after 1700 the met Like the quizzing glass, the lorgnette was a decorative social prop, capable of depressing pretension all the way across the ballroom. 

Quizzing glass 1801The word lorgnette, you will be pleased to know, comes from the French lorgner, 'to peer at', from Middle French lorgne, 'squint'.  The French, being contrary, call this instrument a face-a-main — a 'face-to-hand' — and then use the French word lorgnette to mean, not that, but a quizzing glass or small telescope.
The word English word 'lorgnette' appears in 1803 so you should probably not have your character raise her lorgnette to intimidate an encroaching mushroom before that.  Unless she is French.  In which case she is talking about a quizzing glass. 
Life is complex.

One thing you notice, when you're looking at paintings of Georgian and Regency crowd scenes, is how few people are wearing glasses.  When you do see glasses in a crowd, they're generally perched on the nose of a plump parson or peering, bent old woman.  I set aside the possibilities of Eighteenth Century Lasik surgery, contact lenses, and a general eagle-eyed-ness in the population and ask myself why.

Regency Romances portray glasses as a bit fuddy-duddy.  Our Regency heroines hide their spectacles in their reticules (and our Regency heroes have better eyesight than the average squad of fighter pilots.)  This is a Regency Romance convention that seems to have good evidence on its side. 

Nimrud stone and quizzling glass attrib British Museum. Scissor glasses and lorgnette attrib The Met. Pectoral of Senusret cc attrib John Compana. Glasses with wig points and glasses with loops Museum of Vision by permission. Spectacles and caseBlack Hawk attrib V&A.
So.  Thinking about the impact of eyeglasses on the world . . .  Imagine a life with no eyeglasses, and you with not-so-good eyes.  What would you miss most?
One lucky commenter will win a still-fairly-hot-off-the-presses copy of Black Hawk.

The Wine Glass over the Water

Desgoffe detail God bless the King
I mean our faith’s defender.
God bless no harm in blessing the Pretender.
But who Pretender is, and who is King
God bless us all That’s quite another thing.
          John Byrom

Bonnie_young_princiJoanna, here, talking about an interesting sort of drinking glass our hero and heroine might have encountered in their travels through Georgian or Regency England.

The Jacobite Drinking Glass.

These are wine glasses that form a body of distinctive Eighteenth Century artwork.


We have these through a confluence of lucky chances.

First off, by 1700, English glassmaking was particularly advanced. 
A century before, the champion glassmakers were Venetian. The best glass in England was made by imported Italian glass artists, working by Italian methods. 

This changed when the English developed flint glass.  'Flint glass' contains a high proportion of lead oxide, an ingredient that makes for tough, workable, clear-as-water product.  Excellent stuff, in short.  And it was an English specialty.

I'd always wondered why this kind of glass was called 'flint glass'.  In researching for this blog, I found my answer.  In the spirit of 'I have done my research and now you are going to suffer for it', let me tell you about flint glass.

The 'flint' part of it comes from flint stone.  Flint is found in the South Downs chalk deposits of southeast England. Think 'White Cliffs of Dover'. Flint 2 wiki Wiki Seven_Sisters

When you go walking along around the South Downs, the ground underfoot is white, which is remarkable.  You're walking over exactly the kind of chalk you use on a blackboard.  In that chalk you find nodules of a brown, hard, glassy rock. 

The chalk is calcium carbonate from the skeletons of billions of microscopic algae and sea creatures. (You can thank these tiny sea critters next time you use chalk.) The calcium carbonate settled to the bottom of the ancient seas to become what geologists like to call 'a white ooze'.  So expressive.

Flint was laid down at the same time.  Flint comes from the remains of sponges and other bottom-dwelling denizens of the early sea that used silica as their support structure.  The silica gelled and flowed through the soft white calcium carbonite muck till it found a void left by the carapace of some crab or sea urchin or the tunnel of some burrower.  There, it settled in.  And, voilà, we have flint, sitting there in the chalk happy as a raisin in a plum pudding.

Flint is a heavy and smooth mineral.  Very glasslike.  Some of these flints fit three in your hand.  Some are big as cantaloupes.  They are just amazing stuff to pick up in the chalk matrix.

Yarmukian_Culture_-Sha'ar_HaGolan,_flint_arrowhead Our pretechnological ancestors found flint nifty stuff to chip into arrowheads and knives.  In the Seventeenth Century folks came up with a new use for it.  They ground it to produce pure, high-quality silica sand.  And silica sand is used for glassmaking.

Turns out, flint is just heavily endowed with lead oxide.  Glassmakers blowing this new sort of glass were doubtless delighted to discover their flint silica produced a heavy, strong, crystal-clear glass exactly suited for engraving.

Edward Dillion, in his book, Glass, talks of the this quintessentially English flint glass.

"The Venetians in the preparation of their cristallo laid great stress on the hard white pebbles, the cogoli, from the bed of the Po or of the Ticino; these they regarded as an essential constituent of a good glass. We in England, during the reign of Charles II, succeeded in replacing these pebbles by our native flints; and this English flint-glass, properly so-called, early acquired a good reputation on the Continent." Airstem glass from v&a detail

Georgian artistic sensibilities and this perfect medium for their expression led to some of the most beautiful glassware ever created.  The slender stem of the glass in the Georgian years holds the bowl upward like a flower.  Just lovely.  The flint glass was absolutely transparent and brilliant.  The refractive index, which is close to that of natural crystal, fills cut surfaces with fire.

Amen glass metro










A characteristic elaboration arises at this time.  There was an older custom of putting a single 'tear drop' shape of air in the stem . . . see it in the example of an 'amen' glass from the Met there on the left.  (More about amen glasses later.)

In the Georgian era, artisans elaborated that single tear drop into twisting lines of light that run the length of the glass stem.  The example at the right is from the Victoria & Albert.  

These bright lines are tiny specks of air, made by pricking a line of bubbles into a rod of heat-softened glass, covering the bubbles with a film of molten glass, and then drawing the glass out thin.  The spiral is produced by twisting and stretching the rod of molten glass.  The twist descends from right to left. Glass in met

A swirl of white ribbons, like in this example on the right, from the Met, would be made by bundling thin, opaque white rods of glass with rods of clear glass, heating, twisting, and drawing out the bundle.  This was very much a Venetian manner of handling glass and doubtless learned from those imported Venetian artisans.

After 1746, the fancification of drinking glasses was helped along by a whopping large excise tax on glass production. 

This is one of those unforeseen outcomes politicians delight us with from time to time.  The glass tax was charged on weight, so producers found it advantageous to 'add value' and sell the final product for a higher price.  The tax was the same for a plain glass sold cheaply or an engraved one sold for much more.  Taxation in support of the fine arts, as it were. 

Summing it up . . . the Eighteenth Century aesthetic gave us English drinking vessels of exceptional quality light, airy, and elegant.  Flint glass provided strength and clarity.  And the English were part of a centuries-old European tradition of engraving on metal that could now be applied to glass. 

Thus, drinking glasses that were works of art.  And since there was this plethora of innovative and delicate artistry lying about, the British immediately put it to use making political statements.  Glasses were engraved with 'No Excise,' or ' Wilkes and Liberty' or 'No 45'.  And among the other political glasses, they made Jacobite glasses.
In England aKing_James_II_from_NPGt this time, the term 'Jacobite' meant a follower of the house of Stuart.  The word Jacobite comes from Jacobus, which is Latin for James.  In this case, the James is James II of England, who was deposed from the English throne in 1688.  Here he is to the left.  One suspects this portrait was not painted by an admirer.
Jacobites attempted to return the Stuarts to the throne in 1689, 1690, Jacobites 1708, 1715, 1719 and, finally and disastrously, 1745.  For close to a century, Jacobites stubbornly schemed.  Secret societies met and pledged loyalty to the Stuarts.  Plots to overthrow William III, Anne, George I, or George II were brainstormed.  Treasonous toasts were drunk to the King in exile; first to James II, then to his son, then to his grandson, Bonnie Prince Charlie.  Glasses were raised 'to his Majesty', and passed above a bowl of water. making this a pledge to 'the King over the water'.

Then all leap'd up, and joined their hands
With hearty clasp and greeting,
The brimming cups, outstretched by all,
Over the wide bowl meeting.

"A health," they cried, "to witching eyes
Of Kate, the landlord's daughter!
But don't forget the white, white rose
That grows best over the water."

"But never forget the white, white rose
That grows best over the water."
Then hats flew up and swords sprang out.
And lusty rang the chorus —

"Never," they cried, "while Scots are Scots,
And the broad Frith's before us."
          The White Rose Over the Water, 1744

Sometimes, they lifted what we call, 'Jacobite glasses', in these dangerous toasts.  

Bolder Jacobites engraved their drinking vessels with symbols or words that showed their loyalty to the Wineglasses v&a with light background Stuart cauAmen 2 glass in V&Ase and their hopes for its restoration.  This sort of Jacobite glass didn't survive the years without a good bit of winnowing.  (One imagines them hastily smashed in the night as government forces search the house.) Glasses that can be identified as bearing Jacobite designs are rare among Eighteenth century glass. 

This led to a lively market in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century fakes.  New engraving was done on genuine Georgian glass.  Very difficult to detect.  Recent scholarship finds the works of forgers in the best museums, including the Victoria & Albert and the Museum of London.

What was engraved on a Jacobite glass? 
Jacobite mottos, for one thing.  Probably the commonest Stuart motto was 'Fiat' 'so be it', or 'make it so'.  (Think Jean-Luc Picard.)  Also used:  Redeat. May he return.  Redditi. Restore!  Revirescit.  It revives.  'Turno tempus erit.'   There shall be a time. 

One group of glasses the most famous and among the earliest are the 'amen' glasses.  The one above  and to the left is from the V&A.  There's another from the Met further up.  Amen glasses show two to four verses of the Jacobite version of 'God Save the King', a crown, and the word 'Amen'. 

God Save the King I pray,
God Bless the King I pray
God Save the King
Send him Victorious,
Happy and Glorious

Soon to reign over us
God Save the King.

God Bless the Prince Of Wales Pettie-Jacobites-1745
The True-born Prince of Wales

Sent us by Thee
Grant us one favour more
The King for to restore 

As Thou hast done before

The Familie.

God save the Church I pray 

And bless the Church I pray

Pure to remain 

Against all Heresie 

And Whigs Hypocrisie 

Who strive maliciouslie

Her to defame.

God bless the Subjects all 

And save both great and small

In every Station 

That will bring home the King 

Who hath best right to reign

It is the only thing
Can save the Nation.

There are 37 known 'Amen' glasses.  Modern forensic scholarship, looking at the handwriting, suggests the work of a single hand, a Scots artist and line engraver, Sir Richard Strange, between 1743 and 1749.  For more information and pictures, see here.

And Jacobite symbols?

White rose 2wiki The most frequent was an open rose and two white buds, representing James II and his son and grandson.  You can't see it very well, but there's an example of this on the glass above with the opaque swir stem.

What else?  Oak leaves and acorns represented Charles Stuart's escape from his pursuers by hiding in an oak tree.  The thistle would stand for the Stuart's Scottish heritage.  A crown for kingship. 


A compass could symbolize true direction and loyalty.  A sunflower or a sun, the restoration of the Stuart kings.  A star, the birth of Bonnie Prince Charlie. 
(When the glass was raised to toast the Stuarts, the star, representing  Bonnie Prince Charming, rose also.)

A butterfly or moth would stand for regeneration and rebirth.  On one 'Amen' glass, the figure '8' hides among the scrollwork to represent the son of James II who would have been James VIII of Scotland.

This is way too many symbols.  It's been pointed out the Jacobites could have used a marketing consultant. 

Since we're talking about roses . . . I'll send one lucky commenter in the comment trail a signed copy of my book, Forbidden Rose.  it has nothing whatsoever to do with drinking glasses or the restoration of the Aaajapanese fb Stuarts, but it has a fine picture of a rose on the cover. 

So tell me . . .  what secret society — real or imagined — would you like a heroine or hero to belong to?