Italian Glass and a Founding Father: The History of Glasses

Most of us can’t envision a world without glasses (if you’ll pardon the pun), but before the thirteenth century, this was the reality for most people. Although there were some visual aids in the medieval period, like convex lenses for magnification and early versions of sunglasses using smoky quartz, it was not until the 1200s that glasses were made to correct vision.

The first recorded pair of glasses was made in 1284 in central Italy, probably in Pisa. These were made from glass-blown lenses set in leather or wooden frames. The wearer would hold them in front of their face or place them on their nose, which sounds uncomfortable for extended use!

In the following decades, the production of ‘eyeglasses’ only grew. Venice quickly became a centre for their manufacture, using high-quality glass made just across the water at Murano. By 1301, there were regulations controlling the sale of eyeglasses and a Guild of Venetian spectacle makers formed in 1320. By the end of the fourteenth century, glasses were being sent around Europe.

These 1300s glasses corrected far-sightedness with a convex lens, but it was not until the middle of the 1400s that concave lenses began to be used for short-sightedness. As the lenses improved, so did the wearability, as glasses were made with ribbons and strings to loop over the ears. Chinese innovators added weights to help with comfort during extended periods. These started to look more like the spectacles we wear today!

Eyeglasses were most accessible to the wealthy, which made them a status symbol of prosperity for wearers. There is also some speculation that their popularity among intellectuals gave glasses a reputation for intelligence, which continues today.

The design of spectacles remained relatively unchanged until the 1700s. At some point before 1727, a British optician made rigid temples to go over the ears - the foreground for the ‘arms’ we see on spectacles today. In 1752, the design improved again as James Ayscough created a double-hinged earpiece and added lens tints in green and blue to reduce glare.

You might not expect that a founding father had a hand in the history of glasses, but bifocal lenses were introduced by none other than Benjamin Franklin. His 1784 creation had two separate lens sections held in one frame, which corrected both short-sightedness and far-sightedness.

Throughout the 1800s, glasses became more commonly worn as fashion pieces. This was when the monocle became popular, particularly in England. Further developments came with glasses that could correct astigmatism in 1825. In the early 1900s, the first pair of fused bifocal lenses were created (a little more advanced than Franklin’s style).

When plastic became more accessible, frames could be made in new shapes and sizes that weren’t possible with the previous wooden, metal or horn materials. As these frames of different shapes and colours became available, there was a shift towards making glasses more fashionable. With all these new styles, stores selling glasses grew in frequency.

Today, it might seem like we’ve reached the end of innovation for spectacles. There are hundreds of frames in every optician you walk into, many made by mainstream designer brands - how hard could it be?

At Cambridge Spectacle Co, we are continuing to innovate. We design our frames carefully to ensure they are always comfortable and sophisticated. We dedicate some of our profits to St Paul’s Eye Research Foundation because we want to ensure that this long history of development in vision can continue.

If we’ve learned anything from the history of eyewear, it’s that there’s always more to learn and improve.