The History of Eyewear

Nowadays we take buying and wearing glasses for granted, but this was not always so. Once upon a time, people who lived in poverty with no money to spare often had to suffer life with poor eyesight. Unless born into a wealthy family that could support or afford any new eyewear technology, many of the vision impaired suffered difficulties in obtaining work and in health and safety.

Glasses as we know them today have developed slowly over the last thousand years. Below, we will be looking at glasses throughout history, how they came into being, and how they have developed over the centuries until present-day.

Reading Stones

The lens was first used to magnify text on a reading stone.

A glass stone, flat on the bottom and round over the top was placed on top of text to magnify words so that users could read what was written.

These stones were used from the first invention of glass in the 8th century when it was discovered that sand could be turned into glass and then polished. They looked similar to modern glass paperweights and were the precursors for the modern magnifying glass.

Whilst these stones were certainly useful for magnifying words on paper, in the 8th and 9th centuries this meant they would only have been used by people who were either reading or writing.

Limiting the usage to those who lived and worked within the Church. For example, monks within monasteries would work on copying texts.

However for those who struggled to see objects in their environment, a glass stone was not much use.

There are some legends that suggest that Emperor Nero in 1st century Rome used an emerald to magnify the gladiatorial games. However, not everyone had access to large, precious stones.

It would take another two to three centuries for scholars to experiment properly with lenses in design, that we now know as glasses.

The Creation of Lenses

The use of a lens, shaped into a convex in order to magnify objects or text is first mentioned in the 11th century when a medieval Arab scholar wrote The Book of Optics: a written work about the function of the eye, the anatomy of the eye and the health and protection of the eye.

This text was then translated into Latin which created a wider audience who read about the use of the convex lens.

Paving the way for scholars to experiment with lenses and invent the first pair of glasses in the 13th century.

The very first glasses were developed in Italy towards the end of the 1200’s, but it is unclear who invented them.

Vincent Ilardi in his book ‘Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes’ claims that the first public reference of glasses is from a sermon from a Dominican friar Giordano da Pisa (c.1255-1311) where he said

It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses, which make for good vision

The first pairs of glasses were usually designed as two circular lenses in thick frames, held on to the face by a clip applied to the bridge of the nose, known as a pince-nez (see photo above), or by a vertical handle which held the glasses up to the face, similar to how you might hold a mask over your face if you were attending a masked ball.

Neither of these designs were comfortable for the user as they either suffered from pain to the nose or had to perform tasks with one arm as the other was occupied with holding the spectacles.

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