Though pince nez eventually became the old fashioned eyeglasses that symbolized money and status in the latter 19th and early 20th century, there was another reason why people who could afford pince nez bought and wore them. These vintage eyeglasses were not simply conspicuous consumption. In fact, they were preferred by anyone who could buy them because of 19th century attitudes towards eyewear in general and its effect on human appearance.
During the Colonial and Revolutionary periods of American history, people preferred not to wear spectacles or vintage glasses at all if their vision allowed them to get by without. This was not a result of poverty or a lack of spectacles. Rather, there was a cultural belief that wearing glasses showed the wearer to be weak and contemptible unless they were elderly enough to justify the “infirmity”.
This attitude gradually faded as time went on (and perhaps as the bespectacled image of Benjamin Franklin became more familiar to patriotic Americans). However, a huge aversion to vintage eyeglasses remained. Now the source of the loathing was the supposedly disfiguring effect of old fashioned eyeglasses on the human face.
Viewing glasses as stylish was a long distance in the future. To our 19th century forebears, antique eyeglasses were as hideous an abomination as a massively deformed face. The larger the eyeglasses and the greater the area of the face they covered, the uglier they were considered to be.
Pince nez as an attempt to minimize eyeglasses’ visual impact
Most of the impetus for wearing pince nez was the belief that old fashioned eyeglasses were unremittingly hideous. Pince nez acted to minimize the amount of the face covered by corrective eyewear, allowing good vision without the “unsightly” sprawl of spectacles. Eliminating the temples was considered to be one of the most important methods of making eyeglasses as invisible as possible.
Pince nez were designed, in short, to be “minimalist” eyeglasses which would not be as noticeable as spectacles, and, hopefully, would be completely unseen by anyone viewing the wearer from a distance. A pair of thin eyerims and plaquettes engineered to clamp onto the nose reduced the glasses to a functional minimum at the time.
It is interesting to realize that had it been possible to make contact lenses at that period in history, most pince nez users would have immediately abandoned their pince nez to wear a completely invisible vision correction system such as those available to their descendants today in America. Fortunately for the richness of America’s history of old fashioned eyeglasses, such devices could not be made at the time, although the concept had existed as a theory since the Renaissance.
The motive for wearing pince nez
In most cases, people wore pince nez if they could afford them so that it would seem they were not wearing glasses at all. These old fashioned eyeglasses were a luxury item for the affluent, who wore them in order keep their faces as visible as possible, and thus look more attractive according to the tastes of the time. Rimless pince nez were the most coveted of all, since the lenses were almost totally unseen except when they glinted in the light, and thus “spoiled” as little as possible of the wearer’s appearance.