The Evolution of Eyeglasses

When it comes to vision correction in today’s world, it doesn’t matter whether you’re nearsighted, farsighted, or something in between – there’s a pair of eyeglasses for everyone. However, did you know that, centuries ago, people with poor vision had to read everything through a glass filled with water?


One of the earliest recorded mentions of vision magnification dates back to the 1st century AD. A tutor to the Roman emperor kept a journal that labelled a clear globe and glass of water as “eyehelpers.”

But when exactly were eyeglasses invented? The answer is still up for debate. There’s no specific time, place, or person credited with their invention. However, historians believe it happened in Italy sometime between 1268 and 1289 AD.

Since eyeglasses weren’t widely available during these early years, the mere sight of them interested crowds and artists. Tommaso da Modena, a 14th century artist, painted the first image of a bespectacled person around the year 1351. As time progressed, cultural references like Modena’s painting drew even more attention to eyeglasses. And yet, despite all that attention, eyeglasses were inaccessible to most people until the following century.

The high demand for eyeglasses came in the year 1452. The invention of the printing press allowed for books and newspapers to be made readily available to common people, and many new readers needed help to see the printed words. Rising literacy increased the need for spectacles then, and corrective lenses have remained popular ever since. Let's examine how eyeglasses have evolved over the last few centuries.

The Handcrafted 1700s

The 1700s were a time of invention and creativity. Since eyeglasses weren’t on the mass market yet, many people made their own versions. Throughout the 1700s most eyeglasses were held up to the face, rested over the ear, or stuck on the nose. Some of the most popular eyeglass styles included:

Bifocals: Invented by Benjamin Franklin, bifocals continue to help those who suffer from myopia and presbyopia.

Scissor spectacles: Preferred by Napoleon Bonaparte, scissor spectacles required a wearer to hold a Y-shaped device that housed a lens on each peak.

Wig spectacles: Popular among wigged men, wig spectacles extended beyond the ears. This modification simplified wearing eyeglasses, as they wouldn’t get stuck in wearer’s fashionable wig.

No matter how different each style was, the glasses of the 1700s improved the lives of people who wore them. The popularity of eyeglasses skyrocketed from there.

The Manufactured 1800s

The 1800s were all about progress and efficiency. Large-scale manufacturers began selling ready-made glasses to retail stores. Although bifocals and wig spectacles were still popular, lorgnettes surfaced as the most coveted design.

Lorgnettes were handheld glasses with long, beautiful handles. Due to their popularity in the 1800s, lorgnettes became a symbol of wealth and class. Over time, manufacturers placed lorgnettes onto fans, ear trumpets, mechanical pencils, and nearly any other handheld object.

Like the lorgnette, the monocle became popular in the 1800s. A monocle is a circular lens set in a wire ring and attached to a string or chain. Wearers deemed it a fashionable, simple, and hassle-free mode for clearer vision.

The Accessible 1900s

In the 1900s, styles changed and prices dropped. Due to advanced manufacturing and distribution technology, most people had access to, and could afford, eyeglasses. Some of the more popular styles included:

Pince-nez:
These eyeglasses fit snuggly on the bridge of the nose.

Tortoise shell: Tortoise shell, horn, or hard plastic created this round, horn-rimmed design.

Cat-eye: Glasses with an upsweep at the top of the rim became popular in the 1950s.

Oversized: These popular glasses covered nearly half of the face.

Eyeglasses were pervasive in the 1900s – everyone from presidents to actors to everyday citizens wore them.

The Diverse 2000s

Today, we have nearly every eyeglass style at our fingertips. Bifocals are still in high demand, and we can specially order monocles, lorgnettes, and plastic pince-nez. With so many styles to choose from, it is sometimes difficult to determine which styles are best for our face. Take a look at these quick tips on what frames will emphasize your best features.

Round face: To lengthen your face, try narrow, angular glasses.

Oval face: To maintain balance, choose frames that are wider than the widest part your face.

Oblong face: To create balance, consider decorative, deep frames.

Square face: To soften the angles in your face, try narrow, smaller frames.

Heart-shaped face: To lengthen your face, try frames that are wider at the bottom.

For more detailed information, read our blog titled “Find the Perfect Pair of Frames for Your Face Shape.”

Make the most of your own eyeglass experience and take a few cues from history – talk to our knowledgeable optometrists at Crowfoot Vision Centre to see which style is best for you.

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