Despite the early 20th century belief at that pince nez were “delicate” and “ladylike”, pince nez were simultaneously associated with one of the world’s most manly callings, that of the warrior or soldier, as in the example of Civil War glasses. As with other human stylistic choices, it was quite possible for people to reconcile two very dissimilar uses for the same piece of garb in accordance with the way they wanted to view it while wearing it – an interesting commentary, perhaps, on the flexibility of human perceptions.
Soldiers, officers, and generals of the American Civil War frequently wore pince nez, though at this time the choice was largely due to the lack of alternatives due to wartime metal shortages and trade disruptions. These vintage eyeglasses were often early hoop spring pince nez with a metal bridge and vulcanized rubber eyerims, of the type devised by John Bausch.
During the Plains Wars of the post-Civil War era, cavalry soldiers wore metal rimmed pince nez in preference to spectacles. The bridges of these cavalry pince nez bore the legend “U.S. Army”, making them easy to identify today, though few remain. Pince nez were well suited to a cavalry soldier’s needs, since they could be put on and taken off one-handed, while the other hand held the reins or a rifle.
Pince nez in the First World War
During the First World War, pince nez reached their height as military eyepieces – not simply being the most readily available, as was the case with Civil War glasses, but actually being advocated by governments as the most suitable for soldiers. The American army was particularly keen on this idea, making the wartime use of pince nez a signal part of United States
Pince nez were believed to be the best corrective eyewear for the infantry and their officers because they fit so neatly under a gas mask. The temples of spectacles reached back past the edges of a gas mask, creating two small gaps, one on each side of the head. Pince nez, however, sat entirely on the nose underneath the mask and did not interfere with it seal.
By this time, immediately before the Great Depression caused a shift towards wearing the cheaper spectacles, the early Civil War glasses had evolved to the point where they were highly effective mechanical masterpieces. Their spring structure was sturdy enough and gripped the nose effectively enough so that soldiers could run, crawl, fire their weapons, and perform other combat-related activities while their pince nez remained firmly on their noses.
Pince nez were also worn by those air aces who needed visual correction, allowing them to maneuver and aim precisely despite their vision problems. With their small size and bridge-of-the-nose positioning, this type of eyewear could fit beneath pilots’ goggles as easily as under a gas mask.
Descended from the antique eyeglasses of an earlier era, these military pince nez were almost always worn without a safety ribbon, which could all too easily get tangled with gear, ranging from the edge of a gas mask to the butt of a rifle set against the shoulder for aiming. Pince nez without a ribbon, chain, or safety cord came to be viewed as having a crisp martial look – a fact that those attempting to duplicate this look today might wish to note.