When considering Civil War spectacles, it is perhaps ironic that the man who did more than any other American entrepreneur to create the immense popularity of pince nez glasses and their successors, Oxfords – John Jacob Bausch, an immigrant from Germany who arrived in the United States with the superior manufacturing techniques of the Old World in his brain – and his company – Bausch & Lomb – should also be largely responsible for the most significant advances in spectacle design of the mid-19th century.
A massive disconnect with the styles and engineering of spectacles of the immediately preceding period is clear to even a casual glance. The spectacles of Benjamin Franklin’s and George Washington’s times featured round lenses to the exclusion of nearly any other shape, and the double-hinged flat strap temples that tied around the head or secured to the powdered wigs of 18th century “fashion plates”. Antique eyeglasses from the Civil war era have a very different arrangement.
The lenses of Civil War spectacles were almost all either oval or an elongated octagon (a horizontally stretched rectangle with the corners cut off). Round lenses from the time of Gettysburg and Bull Run are very rare indeed. The temples also have a very different look. Most of these changes can be traced by inference to Bausch & Lomb, who owned a large market share in spectacle sales as well as being the undisputed kings of pince nez, soaring in popularity thanks to wartime conditions.
Unusual battlefield designs for vintage eye glasses
Among the rarest and most intriguing of Civil War spectacles are the strange vintage glasses known as “sharpshooter’s glasses”. These were not made for vision correction but for clear-sighted snipers. Their lenses are tinted yellow or amber, which was believed at the time to make the vision sharper in cloudy or foggy conditions.
Furthermore, each lens is frosted to the point of near opacity except right at the center, where a clear area of glass has been left like a pupil in the midst of a frosted iris. The “pupil” is also tinted amber. The idea was that the sniper using sharpshooter’s glasses would be able to focus on the small area visible through the central clear areas. There would be no peripheral distractions, and the narrow field of view might have also amplified contrast, especially when viewed through yellow tinting.
At the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Union Major General John Sedgwick was outraged at his men ducking in a “cowardly” manner from sniper bullets and stood out in the open, declaring “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this range”, a split second before being killed instantly by a shot that penetrated his left eye socket. It is interesting to speculate on whether the Confederate sniper who killed the bombastic general was assisted in making such a precise shot by wearing sharpshooter’s glasses.
Civil War spectacles and the vagaries of the chic
The temporary victory of oval and octagonal frames is an intriguing feature of Civil War spectacles such as those made by Bausch & Lomb. Pince nez at the time usually had round lenses, and round lenses made a reappearance as the most popular design for spectacles several decades later. Today, ovals predominate, but it is interesting to wonder if the pendulum of fashion will swing back in the next generation or two and round spectacles will once again come to dominate the market.