Many of the changes in the American eyeglass and spectacle scene seem to have been intimately tied to the rattle of muskets and the thunder of cannon. Large scale American manufacture of lenses (as opposed to vintage eyeglass frames) began at the time of the War of 1812, when supplies of lenses from Europe were disrupted by England’s hostility on the high seas. The Revolutions of 1848 in Europe drove many fine lens grinders out of Germany to refuge in the United States, where they created the first bifocal lenses using a single piece of glass or crystal, improving on Benjamin Franklin’s invention. Similarly, the introduction of pince nez was greatly aided by the American Civil War.
The first pince nez in the United States were known as hard rubber pince nez. Just as with bifocals, history has preserved the name of the individual who created the first eyewear of this type – John Jacob Bausch, a fellow whose company, Bausch & Lomb, generates $2.5 billion in revenue annually today.
Bausch’s invention was a pair of pince nez with large, round lenses fitted into vulcanized hard rubber frames. This invention was originally spurned, though it corrected the weaknesses of brittle American horn-rimmed spectacle frames. However, the American Civil War proved a boon to the German-American entrepreneur. Trade with Europe was disrupted again, and demand for the hard rubber pince nez exploded, since they were made entirely in the United States.
Eyerims and bridges of the hard rubber pince nez
Hard rubber pince nez offered sturdy, though rather uncomfortable, eyewear that stays on the face without the need for temples. At the time, temples were viewed as hideously disfiguring to the face, so the pince nez was an answer that minimized the area of the visage covered by eyewear. The eyerims of these early pince nez are also hard rubber, with a widened flange on the inner side to attempt to spread their pressure over more of the nose’s surface, thus making them more comfortable.
The bridges of these earliest pince nez are usually a high arch of stiff wire, which may be either blued steel, or steel coated in vulcanized rubber. This wire is hard, springy, and is bent in such a way to provide inward tension towards the space between the eyerims – in other words, the area where the wearer’s nose is located. Thus, these pince nez remain on the nose through the passive spring action of the bridge, rather than mechanical levers, pads, and springs.
Variant bridges include those made from a thin, flat strip of metal bent over in an arch, riveted to a projection molded onto the top of each eyerim. One eyerim usually has a loop molded into its lower edge to accommodate a safety ribbon or cord to keep the pince nez from falling to the ground if they slip off the nose.
Optical lenses and early sunglasses
You may be able to find surviving hard rubber pince nez with optical lenses for correcting the vision, and others which are fitted with lenses darkened with coquille glazing. These latter were early sunglasses, or, if you prefer, “shades”. This gives the collector several interesting options for acquiring pince nez from this far-off day, though surviving examples are mostly kept in large collections.