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.
Here'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 — was 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 technology 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.
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. Now 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.
Benjamin 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.
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 into 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.
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. Like the quizzing glass, the lorgnette was a decorative social prop, capable of depressing pretension all the way across the ballroom.
The 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 case 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?
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