Did you know that reading glasses first appeared in Italy in the 1260's? Designed to "help the elderly to read," these were a godsend to those whose vision had become blurred due to age. Their popularity was instantaneous, and paintings from the time began to depict wearers in both religious and scholarly settings.
But the initial design had a huge problem: with only the bare basics of lenses and a nose bridge, there was no easy way to keep the darn things from slipping down the nose. You had to hold them in place, which limited their use. The Spaniards tried connecting them to ribbons looped around the ears, but that never really caught on. In fact, it wasn't until 1730-nearly 500 years after they were first introduced-that a London optician named Edward Scarlett finally devised the rigid sidepieces that rest atop the ears. The perfection spread rapidly, and is still in use today.
Benjamin Franklin is often credited with inventing eye glasses, but in fact he was the one who developed the bifocal lens in the 1780's, because he got tired of changing to reading glasses whenever he opened a book, which was often. He had his optician cut the lenses in two so he just had to look up and down instead of switching glasses. This is another revision that's still in use today.
So what's the difference between eye glasses and spectacles? Today the terms are used interchangeably, but at the turn of the last century, there was a clear demarcation: "eye glasses" was the term used to describe eyewear with no sidebar, while "spectacles" referred to frames with sidebars.
Popular among the elite for over a hundred years, "temporary" sight aids like eye glasses, the monocle (single round glass); and the lorgnette (a style held up to the eyes with a long handle which was widely used by elegant women), came and went because of one simple factor: vanity. One simply did not admit that one could not see unassisted in public. These vision aids were designed to be pulled out and put away quickly, yet still maintain some semblance of style for the few minutes they were in use.
While the English and French in particular were very rigid in their opinion that eye glasses only be worn in private, the Spaniards believed that glasses made them look more important and dignified and they quickly became a popular accessory among all the classes. In fact, Spanish paintings from the Middle Ages show Moses, Jesus, and other biblical figures wearing glasses, to give them an added air of dignity.
But the Spanish were in the minority. The stigma of wearing spectacles lasted well into the 20th century. While Dorothy Parker proclaimed, "Men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses," in 1926, Marilyn Monroe's character Pola Debevoise preferred walking into walls to being seen in glasses in the 1953 movie "How To Marry a Millionaire."
First conceived and sketched by Leonardo da Vinci in 1508 (big surprise), contact lens technology did not begin to come together until 1827, when English astronomer Sir John Herschel suggested grinding a contact lens to conform exactly to the eye's surface. A German glassblower named F. E. Muller produced the first eye covering designed to be seen through and tolerated in 1887, and within a year, both a Swiss physician and a French optician reported using contacts to correct optical defects. Still, until the method for taking molds from living eyes was perfected in 1929, contacts were uncomfortable and consequently, unpopular.
So when did sunglasses make a splash? In 1929, when Sam Foster convinced a Woolworth store on the Atlantic City Boardwalk to sell his Foster Grants. They became popular in the 1930's when movie stars started to wear them.
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