Sunglasses have had a surprisingly long history, dating back to the boundary of the Medieval era and the Renaissance, and the American vintage sunglasses in the 19th century are the continuation of a long tradition of tinted, sun-defeating lenses for the comfort of those outdoors in the summer glare. Venice was a center of production, with its skilled artisans being kept literally as highly-paid prisoners by the Venetian government lest they seek employment outside the canal-laced city.
Many vintage sunglasses from the early American period still exist, but these are almost all imported, since the Americans were incapable of producing plain lenses on an adequate scale, and certainly were unable to make lenses made out of tinted glass.
Most of these early sunglasses, imported from Europe, have curious D-shaped eyerims and lenses, with the flat side of the D facing the outer edges of the vintage glasses and the curved side flanking the nose. Since pince nez had not yet been invented, all American sunglasses prior to Bausch’s era were spectacles, with the characteristic D-shaped lenses and temples to tie around the head with cords or ribbons.
The D-shaped lenses were made for a very specific purpose. These early vintage eyeglasses almost all had two sets of eyerims and two sets of lenses. One set of eyerims housed plain, clear lenses, while the others featured tinted glass. The D-shape allowed the eyerims to be hinged together at the flat outer edge of the D, so that the outer, tinted eyerims could be opened and shut like shutters on a window. The user could thus choose whether to look through transparent or tinted lenses.
Bausch’s first vintage sunglasses pince nez
John Jacob Bausch was such a pivotal, perhaps dominant, figure in the 19th century American eyeglass world that it is impossible to discuss any topic related to the era without his name cropping up somewhere in relation to it. Some of Bausch’s first pince nez, with a powerfully arched hoop spring bridge and hard, vulcanized rubber eyerims, featured dark-tinted lenses to serve as pince nez.
The emergence of an American antique eyeglasses industry
The Civil War was again the moment when the American eyeglasses industry shook off the lethargy of two centuries of dependence on European imports, and emerged as a muscular colossus capable of both supplying all domestic needs and of taking the rest of the world’s markets by storm.
antique sunglasses were made for the first time at this time, though it is uncertain if the sharpshooter’s glasses used during the Civil War itself, with their tinted amber lenses and mix of transparent and frosted glass in a single lens, were early American successes in the field or European imports. By 1867, American vintage glasses were just as much in demand in Europe for their quality as corrective lenses.
Most of these superbly crafted vintage eyewear were some type of pince nez or Oxfords, not spectacles as the earlier types had been. They were made in many colors, ranging from yellow for hunters (it is quite possible that Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was wearing a pair on the famous hunt which led to the creation of the “Teddy bear”) to green for those suffering from Parkinson’s, since the verdant color was believed to soothe the mind and lessen the shaking caused by the ailment. Obtaining a pair with the original colored lenses is quite a feather in the cap of any collector of vintage sunglasses from America.