Not all forms of vintage eyeglasses survived to modern times. Pince nez still have a small following and even appear in the famous Matrix films as a pair of sunglasses on one of the characters; spectacles control most of the eyeglass market today; but monocles and lorgnettes have vanished from all places except the movie theater, probably because of the shifting view of fashion.
These types of vintage eyewear were often used by the chic and the powerful in their day, and as a result, both monocles and lorgnettes appear late on the American vintage eyeglasses scene. They are mostly from the latter part of the 19th century or the early portion of the 20th century, before the First World War destroyed many of the West’s more gracious cultural aspects, and the gold standard-caused Great Depression of the 1930s completed the wreck of the older culture.
Although they were confined to the upper strata of society, and were often imported, these strange vintage eyeglasses still form a part of the American vintage eyeglasses heritage. The fact that they often have baroque, unique forms and rich decoration makes them even more appealing from a collector’s point of view.
The monocle is a single optical lens, which may or may not have an eyerim. Though they are associated, through Hollywood, with the British aristocracy of the 19th century and the early 20th century, affluent people of all nations, including Americans, affected them during that period (though the Prussian junkers were probably more avid in their wearing than most).
The monocle is kept in place simply by the pressure of the flesh in the eye socket against its edges. Although this sounds hideously uncomfortable, the truth is that both rimmed and rimless monocles featured knurled edges that are surprisingly comfortable even to the sensibilities of a modern user – certainly, more so than the painful grip of a pair of pince nez on the bridge of the nose.
A straightforward, slightly humorous (but highly accurate) description of a quizzer would be “a monocle on a stick”. A single ground glass or rock crystal lens is placed in an eyerim, which is in turn mounted on a handle that allows the user to hold the lens up to one eye. The handle and eyerim of these vintage eyeglasses are often richly decorated, though there are also plain, workmanlike versions. The quizzer slowly evolved into the modern scientific magnifying glass.
Lorgnettes are the binocular kindred of the quizzer; if the quizzer is a monocle on a stick, the lorgnette is “spectacles on a stick”. There are many elaborate variations on the theme. Some lorgnettes feature a “spectacle” portion that folds into an enlarged area of the handle for protection. Others employ a “scissors” type of handle, where two stems rise from a single handle and hold one lens up on either side of the nose. Baroque decoration characterizes these vintage eyeglasses, and some are little more than pieces of elaborate jewelry that happen to have a couple of lenses included to suggest some function. The 19th century was the golden age of the lorgnette in the United States.