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A History of Eyeglasses: Styles and Functions

We would have a very different world today without the invention of eyeglasses. Literacy, hand-eye coordination, occupations and general styles would likely have developed in entirely new ways, not to mention a lack of lenses developed for contacts and cameras. Take a look at this brief history of eyeglasses.

Using Glass to See

The first attempt to shift optics in order to correct vision is hard to pinpoint. Some believe the Romans studied optics around the start of the new millennium while others say the development of an actual lens or device only came hundreds of years later.

We do know that small reading stones, made from heating sand into clear glass, were used in the 9th century. These stones would be placed over text on paper to show a larger image of what was underneath.

The First Eyeglasses

The first functioning lenses set into a type of frame (even called “eyeglasses” at the time) were invented in Italy at the end of the 1200s. These eyeglasses were made of two lenses set in attached frames and held up to the face while reading.

Sun-blocking lenses, on the other hand, were developed independently from eyeglasses. The first sunglasses, likely invented in China in the 1100s, were made of panes of translucent quartz and did not correct vision.

Modern Eyeglasses

Modern eyeglasses – two lenses set in frames with wire bands over the ears – weren’t used until at least the 1600s. Ben Franklin, suffering from both nearsightedness and farsightedness, invented the first bifocals in the 1700s.

Up until this point, individual styles of eyewear weren’t really an option. But the 1800s brought two important developments: The Industrial Revolution allowed eyeglasses to be made more frequently and cost-effectively, and photography and film allowed us to see other people from across the world in their eyewear.

The 1900s

As eyewear became more seen, iconic styles were idolized. President Teddy Roosevelt was known for his pince-nez glasses that sat on the bridge of the nose. Ray-Ban “aviator” sunglasses, originally developed for pilots, became popular among the public in the 30s.

Later, the 40s gave us “browline” glasses (thick on top, thin on bottom) usually attributed to men, and “cat eye” glasses worn by women. Thick-rimmed wayfarer glasses and sunglasses were made popular in the 50s, recognizable with James Dean.

As general apparel styles branched out in the 1960s, so did glasses. Hippie-styled eyewear became sought-after, like John Lennon’s circular, rimless glasses. Styles of the 70s and 80’s helped introduce even larger, more colorful and uniquely shaped eyeglasses.

Recent Years

The past 20 years have been full of different styles of frames, lenses, and uses. With the internet and the use of social media, new styles have become impressionable and readily available like never before, to the point where no one style dominates the rest.

Even more recently, new technology has allowed innovation within eyewear, like Google Glass internet-enabled glasses and Snapchat’s video recording sunglasses (though, as they have failed to become popular, both may have been ahead of their time). Who knows what will come next!