Last Updated on February 26, 2020
Prescription glasses are very common these days, but of course that has not always been the case. Hundreds of years ago, people with poor vision simply had to cope with not being able to see. Today, around 6 in 10 people in the US wear prescription glasses, 60 percent of them at least partly for farsightedness.
How have prescription glasses evolved over the years?
The Early Days of Eyeglasses
The first pair of prescription eyeglasses was said to have been made in Italy in 1286. However, Marco Polo believed that the Chinese had been quicker, making glasses by 1275. No matter who invented the eyeglasses first, this invention was instantly appreciated by people with poor vision.
Between 1285 to 1289, the first version of eyeglasses – made with quartz lenses set into bone, leather or metal – was introduced. However, it could only magnify objects, images and text.
American scientist Benjamin Franklin, the inventor of bifocals, suffered from presbyopia and myopia for years. His condition inspired him to create the concept of two lenses in one in 1784, making it possible to see objects both near and far using only a single pair of spectacles.
But one of the most significant evolutions in the history of prescription eyeglasses is in the construction and structure of their frames. The first eyepieces were either hand-held or rested on the bridge of the nose, held in place with the user’s hand.
The modern style of eyeglasses, with a frame that passed over the temples and a ribbon that could be secured behind the ears was invented in 1727. The public did not appreciate the new design. During the 1730s, London-based optician Edward Scarlett made rigid frames that rested atop the ears and in 1752, James Ayscough created the double-hinged spectacles. It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that the modern style of eyeglasses became popular.
Englishman Sir George Airy created the first lens to correct astigmatism in 1827, while John Hawkins introduced the trifocal lenses in 1826.
During the 1800s, prescription eyeglasses were seen as a sign of old age and infirmity, and so people only wore glasses when they really needed to. For those who could afford them, handheld designs like the lorgnette became an in-demand alternative to glasses that were worn on the face. This design became so popular that manufacturers have placed them in almost every object like fans, pencils, and an ear trumpet.
Before the 19th century came to a close, the number of people wearing eyeglasses every day increased significantly. The pince-nez was first developed in France in 1840 as an inexpensive, everyday style of glasses and started being sold in the US only after the 1850s.
Although the pince-nez was uncomfortable to wear and would often fall off the wearer’s nose and break, it became popular because of political personalities like US Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Teddy Roosevelt who wore these eyepieces regularly.
While the pince-nez remained popular into the 1920s, by then it had come to be perceived as old fashioned.
Meanwhile, sunglasses came into demand, starting about 1930. Although colored lenses had been around since near the beginning of the spectacle manufacturing industry, it was in 1913 that Sir William Crookes of England invented a lens that could absorb infrared and ultraviolet light.
Eyeglasses as Fashion Statements
The onset of World War 1 put a stop to imported products, including ophthalmic glass, from Europe into the US. This created a demand to boost domestic business paving the way for American companies like Bausch & Lomb.
In the 1970s, glasses have become a fashion statement rather than a “medical appliance.” During this time, movie and television personalities began wearing distance-vision eyeglasses not only for utility but also to define one’s personal image. One of the most popular styles is the small, round frames designed by Ben Franklin.
By the 1940s, innovations in the manufacture of plastics had paved the way for a wide range of glasses in every color of the rainbow. A very popular design for women in the 1940s and 1950s was frames with an upsweep style on the top rim.
During the latter half of the 20th century, prescription eyeglasses came to be part of a person’s wardrobe. Just like clothes, eyeglasses had to be regularly updated if their wearer didn’t want to be perceived as old-fashioned.
Celebrities became increasingly influential in eyeglasses fashion. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, for example, contributed to the popularity of oversized lenses. In the meantime, technical inventions in the 1980s brought higher quality, plastic lenses that were lighter and safer to use than the traditional glass.
Over the years, eyeglasses have evolved not only in design but also in use – from being purely utilitarian to becoming a fashion statement. That’s why optometrists and eyeglass manufacturers like Bloobloom now make glasses that help people not only see well, but also make them look good.