Medieval sunglasses?

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Comment Icon0 Although the first documented discussion of eyeglasses dates from the late 13th century in Italy, many cultures had discovered the magnifying property of convex glass lenses much earlier. English friar Roger Bacon (1214-1292) wrote about his observations of convex glass and noted that it would be useful for those with weak eyes. There is evidence that by 1591, tinted lenses were used as protection from bright sunlight! In the 17th and 18th centuries, tinted lenses were often used a second set of lenses and attached to spectacles by a hinge.

eyeglasses with tinted lenses, 1840-1880

The first eyeglasses consisted of one lens on a handle. Later, two lenses were strapped around the head using leather or silk bands. The modern, hinged temple was not introduced until the late 1700s. Before lightweight plastic and metal alloys were invented, frames were made of brass, iron, nickel, horn, bone, gold, silver, or leather.

hook templed spectacles, 1870-1900

In America during the 1700s, ready-made glasses were imported from Europe. They were expensive and unaffordable for most colonists. In the early 1800s, eye glasses were manufactured in the United States with glass lenses that were still imported from Europe. These ready-made glasses were sold by peddlers or jewelers and customers fit themselves. It was not until the 1870s that Americans learned to make optical-quality glass and to grind the lenses to specific standards that could be prescribed by optometrists. These new skills developed at a time when literacy rates were rising and more people required glasses. By the turn of the century, American-made lenses were being exported to Europe!

The first bifocal lenses were made by Benjamin Franklin around 1784. He made them by cutting two lenses in half and fitting them in one frame.

bifocals with curled temples, c1900

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6 Responses

  1. Maag Library Blog » Medieval Sunglasses Says:

    […] out this interesting new post in the Melnick Medical Museum Blog. Filed under: […]

    Posted on February 22nd, 2010 at 10:36 am

  2. Replica Oakley Sunglasses Says:

    This is interesting. It is amazing how these sun glasses are preserved and be seen on the current days. Thanks for sharing these information and photos.

    Posted on November 30th, 2011 at 6:18 pm

  3. Chris Stewart Says:

    Wow. Sunglasses really do go way back. And bifocals do, to a certain extent. Seeing someone in the 16th century sporting sunglasses must have been a hoot. Yet I bet even Franklin never foresaw bifocal sunglasses.

    Posted on January 23rd, 2012 at 5:11 pm

  4. Tony Reichstadt Says:

    I’m doing research on early sunglasses – what is the evidence of tinted lenses on 1591 referenced here?

    Thank you.

    Posted on September 17th, 2013 at 3:06 pm

  5. Melnick Medical Museum Says:

    Hi Tony. I apologize that I didn’t cite some of my sources for this post. I referred to an article called “The Invention of Eyeglasses” by Edward Rosen which was printed in the Journal of the History of Medicine in January 1956, pages 13-56.

    Posted on December 11th, 2013 at 2:00 pm

  6. Johny Says:

    “Before lightweight plastic and metal alloys were invented, frames were made of brass, iron, nickel, horn, bone, gold, silver, or leather.”
    Leather? How is that possible :-O

    By the way – Great post!

    Posted on January 30th, 2014 at 3:26 pm

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