Today, when people wear vintage eyewear such as pince nez glasses from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, they almost always make use of the ribbon loop or handle that almost always appears on the lower side of one eyerim. This projection can range from a simple loop molded seamlessly into the metal fabric of the eyerim, or it can be a highly decorated “arm” that almost resembles the legs of lathe-turned furniture, and may feature fine etching and sometimes even inset semiprecious stones.
For the sake of elegance of design, most of these loops are made with a pointed or diamond-shaped outline rather than a rounded one – though as usual, there was no uniform pattern that applied to all pince nez. The highly idiosyncratic details of this vintage eyewear, made before modern standardization had taken full grip, makes it an intriguing part of the history of America’s glasses.
Though ribbons, fine chains, or cords are worn almost universally today to keep a prized, antique pair of pince nez from tumbling to the floor and breaking, the use of these fixtures was highly controversial in their own day, on grounds of both fashion and practicality.
Stylistic objections to safety ribbons
Pince nez were specifically designed to make the user’s aspect more attractive, since the aesthetic mores of the time were utterly appalled at the “ugliness” of spectacles with temples. Pince nez were a kind of vintage glasses developed to allow vision correction while making the glasses themselves as small and unobtrusive as might be, leaving the wearer’s face “unblemished”.
Wearing a safety ribbon, chain, or cord obviously thwarted this intention, since a long, flapping piece of black ribbon hanging down beside the cheek is a much more noticeable object than a slender metal temple that remains motionless unless it falls off entirely.
Newspapers of the time contained heated arguments between supporters of the black safety ribbon and those who execrated it as a disfigurement of the human face. Given the vigorous and clever use of language at the time, these debates are still amusing nearly a century later – “then his glasses will be jerked off, and he will lose his dignity and his temper at the same time, to the unholy joy of those who chance to see him”, as one partisan of ribbons stated in the Literary Digest during the First World War era, in reference to the gaffes that beginning ribbon-users can expect to make.
Practical objections to a black ribbon on vintage eyewear
There were also practical reasons for some people to object to the wearing of safety ribbons or chains on their pince nez. Indeed, the cogency of some of these reasons may help to explain the eventual triumph of spectacles over the temple-free antique eyeglasses of the earlier period, though the exact truth of this is lost in the vagueness of time.
Ophthalmologists during the Roaring Twenties began to point out how the weight of a ribbon or chain, as well as its “pull”, tend to tilt pince nez to one side, thus creating an uneven view through the lenses that causes more harm than good. Ophthalmic objections may have eventually caused pince nez to succumb to today’s utter master of the scene by spectacles, but thousands of pairs of fine vintage eyeglasses still exist, ready to be collected or worn, with nobody any longer raising an uproar if the wearer chooses to attach a ribbon to the eyeglasses’ ribbon loop.