Few types of eyewear have multiplied into as many variants as pince nez glasses, which evolved a moment when humanity had reached a high level of technical competence in the manufacture of glass, steel, and rubber, permitting a diverse number of “solutions” to keeping these glasses on the nose, but when commercial and scientific uniformity had not yet occurred as it has in our own day.
Pince nez glasses made in America between the Civil War and World War I display a fascinating array of design patterns, bridges, pads, levers, eyerims, and rimless types all intended to strike a balance between style and function. The pince nez glasses form was mostly intended to minimize the visibility of eyewear on the human face, since glasses were viewed as a disfigurement at the time, but were also light, compact, and convenient to carry.
Some intriguing details survive about the correct wearing of pince nez from this period of United States history. For example, practically all included either a built-in loop or projection from the bottom of one eyerim where a ribbon or cord could be tied to secure the pince nez glasses to the wearer. Among men, this ribbon was usually affixed either to the lapel, or looped entirely around the neck. Ladies, by contrast, either tied the ribbon around an ear, or attached it one of their hairpins.
Hard bridge pince nez glasses, which are also known by the name of fingerpiece pince nez glasses, are a species of pince nez which could be applied or removed one-handed thanks to their spring-loaded, lever-operated nose pads – or more properly, plaquettes.
Identifying characteristics of hard bridge pince nez glasses
Pince nez glasses with hard bridges (fingerpiece) have many of the same traits as other pince nez – the absence of temples, manufacture in both rimmed and rimless variants, and thin glass or crystal lenses to render them as lightweight as possible for the wearer’s comfort. They are distinguished from other vintage eyeglasses of this type by the construction of the bridge and the plaquettes.
Pince nez glasses of this kind have a solid, hard bridge, unlike the springy bridges found, for example, on hard rubber pince nez. This bridge was curved to accommodate the nose, but provided no gripping action in itself. Instead, a pair of small levers called fingerpieces were found at the front of the bridge. These, when pressed, opened the spring-loaded nose pads, or plaquettes, which were the means of keeping the eyewear in place. Releasing the fingerpieces caused the plaquettes to be forced inwards by the springs, pressing them firmly against the sides of the nose.
Comfort and convenience of fingerpiece pince nez
There is a longstanding opinion on the part of many modern eyeglass historians that hard bridge or fingerpiece pince nez are very discommodious to wear, pinching the nose painfully if worn for longer than a few minutes at time. Although there are probably some pairs made in this manner (especially those whose plaquettes have become knobby and irregular from long wear), many hard bridge pince nez glasses are quite comfortable to wear, especially with the original lightweight lenses.
Interestingly, hard bridge pince nez were very popular with the officers of all nations during the First World War, because they could be easily put on or removed one-handed while carrying weapons, and because they could be worn comfortably under a gas mask – a consideration that few people today are likely to need in a practical sense, but which adds another refreshing dose of historical color and interest to these distinctive antique eyeglasses.