Algha, John Lennon Glasses, and Postwar Fashion

Emerging from the dark and bloodstained days of the Second World War, the antique eyeglasses fashion world exploded into huge popularity. Not only a host of new materials, but probably peoples’ defensive psychological reaction to the grimness that had just ended, caused the market to embrace bright, whimsical, or magnificently stylish designs.

Algha, Max Wiseman’s British eyeglass company, turned from making fighter and bomber pilots’ goggles back to the more pleasant business of supplying people with attractive peacetime eyewear – and eventually, John Lennon Glasses.

antique eyeglasses  It was Algha’s insistence on carrying on a technical aspect of eyeglass manufacture from the early 20th century that helped to bring certain types of John Lennon glasses into being a few decades after the last shot was fired in Europe. The company – and its successor, as shall be seen, Savile Row – made use of Rolled Gold for some of their higher end vintage eyeglasses construction.

This process makes use of hard, 14 karat gold rolled around a steel core, with a layer of 24 karat gold on top. This produces a thicker layer of gold than ordinary gold plating, making the gold layer almost certain to endure wear and tear for more than a single human lifetime of use. 24 karat gold plating would eventually wear away. However, there is another advantage – gold doesn’t cause allergies, while alloying metals sometimes do, so the Rolled Gold frames of Algha’s 1950s and 1960s vintage glasses are hypoallergenic and can be worn even by those with sensitive skin.

Some John Lennon glasses from Algha featured Rolled Gold frames. The musician wore many different pairs of glasses from Algha, and some from other sources, too. These are certainly the fanciest frames associated with the most famous and most tragically destined of the Beatles, and even today make a fashion statement suitable for men or women, in either formal or informal circumstances. The round Rolled Gold frames of the firm’s mid 20th century styles are clearly visible glinting in some pictures of John Lennon.


Mary Quant and Algha

The eyeglass world is as much the story of individuals as it is of corporations or technical advances, as the name “John Lennon glasses” reveals. Mary Quant was an early pioneer of British fashion sunglasses, who soon joined forces with the formidable Algha company to promote her line far and wide.

john lennon glasses     It was, in fact, a combination of Mary Quant’s reputation as a rebellious and rather Bohemian designer, plus John Lennon, that gave Algha a major foothold in the United States. Quant’s designs were mostly oval or even rectangular to start with, and a few can be classified as cat’s eye glasses, though not as obviously as some of the elongated, caracal-eyed designs that appeared at the time. However, later on, some of her designs adopted the characteristic round eyerims that Algha put on many of its works.

These Quant designs are made out of several different rich, warm, reddish brown tones of Zylonite, meant to imitate tortoiseshell. They look very distinct in this way from the thin metal rims favored by the Beatle who gave his name to a whole antique eyeglasses style.

Their workmanship is remarkable, however, with braided or plaited designs, smoothly integrated features, and technical superiority typical of Algha’s work. With their round designs drawing inspiration from the same font as the Rolled Gold types produced by the same company, these are perhaps the most unusual form of John Lennon glasses ever made – yet, in their way, John Lennon glasses nevertheless.

Overview: the Amazing World of Cat eye Glasses

Released from the fetters of stodginess by the changing times, it is perhaps hardly surprising that eyeglasses would explode into an efflorescence of colorful materials and ornate designs when they became fashionable for the first time in history. Cat eye glasses are one of the most memorable, persistent styles from that day and dominated the world of stylish eyewear for close to two decades.

The world of vintage eye glasses was not a staid or banal one – instead, it is a scene filled with highly eccentric alpha personalities whose quirks had a strong influence on the development of modern eyeglasses in general and high fashion glasses in particular.

cat eye glassesThere was no general rule about either the people or companies involved in the evolution of this distinctive visionwear. Some of the individuals were keenly scientific, while others were fiery, impulsive, creative prima donnas, while yet others were a blend of the two. Some companies had existed already for decades, and simply dipped into the new market for a share of the “pie”, while others were bold startups riding popular enthusiasm for cat eye glasses to overnight success.

In true competitive fashion, the jostling of the various cateye glasses manufacturers for space in this large and lucrative market produced many innovations as the companies tried to “one-up” each other with fresh salable features.

Not all developments occurred because of a Darwinian death-struggle between the major players, however. Many of the designers were passionate enough about the artistry of the glasses to pursue new avenues of creativity simply for the sake of seeing what they could do – an eyeglass equivalent, perhaps, of George Mallory’s reason for attempting Everest: “Because it’s there”.

German contributions to cat eye glasses

            Germany’s long history of precision optics and high quality lens grinding placed it in an excellent position to enter the cat eye glasses market, with both actual German firms and Austrian ones participating. Austria gave these glasses an immense boost in popularity because of the exciting cloak and dagger Cold War reputation of Vienna, which made the eyewear seem daring and chic, an artifact from a spy thriller rather than simple eyewear.

Rodenstock pioneered the use of celebrities such as race-car drivers and Sophia Loren to sell eyeglasses through advertising, and also made several important technical advances, such as eliminating reflections with magnesium fluoride coatings and making dual purpose indoor/outdoor cat’s eyes with photochromic lenses that darkened when exposed to ultraviolet light.

British contributions to cats eye glasses

         cat eye glasses   The British, especially as represented by Michael Birch, took the cat’s eye format of eyewear to its logical extreme in the direction of rimless glasses. Obviously, a pair of glasses could not be rendered completely rimless and still remain cat eye glasses – but Neville Chappell’s supra method, holding the lenses up with a slim wire tightened into a groove on the underside edge of the lens, made possible some of the lightest and least visible designs ever to appear during the Fifties and Sixties – many of them with an ultramodern look that would not look out of place in the 21st century.

American contributions to cat eye glasses

            Tura, American Optical, Bausch & Lomb, and Art-Craft all had significant contributions to make to the vintage eyeglasses evolution, with Tura perhaps making the largest impact. Tura’s all aluminum frames were a bold innovation at a time when most frames for these glasses were Zylonite embellished with a few touches of aluminum for the sake of style and rigidity.

Their pattern was imitated by such firms as Art-Craft and produced probably some of the most long-lasting vintage cat eye glasses in the world, as well as those featuring extraordinary anodized metallic colors that could not be duplicated in plastic at the time.

Striking Prescription Cat Eye Glasses with Matching Temples

The uptilted eyerim style became so popular among women during the 1950s and 1960s that many prescription cat eye glasses were also made, besides the glamorous (and protective) sunglasses of this style, and those which were worn with clear lenses purely for fashionable or aesthetic reasons. Prescription cat eye glasses were sometimes relatively plain, but at other times they were just as chic and gracious as their purely stylistic kindred.

Cat eye glasses of all kinds, in addition to prescription cat eyeglasses, were often manufactured with decoration on the “brows” which extended to the temples as well, creating a wraparound display of the designer’s artistry to further decorate a fair and winsome face. These sculptural creations still have a fresh, airy, almost ethereal look in some of the best examples, despite the passage of half a century and the use of such seemingly unromantic materials as Zylonite.

pink cat eye glasses   Extending the decoration onto the temples created an aesthetic effect on prescription cat eye glasses (and non-prescription ones as well) that was visible from practically any angle except directly behind the wearer. Therefore, these vintage cat eye glasses convey a message of glamor and chic to nearly all observers.

Brows and bands – complementary features of prescription cat eye glasses

            Brows have already been described in a previous article, but what was not mentioned is that matching strips of decoration, known as “bands” are often attached to otherwise plain, smooth temples to dress them up further. These usually match the color, material, and patterns of the associated brows that appear on the same pair of eyeglasses.

Metal bands riveted into place with miniscule rivets, and sometimes decorated with enameled colors on some of the details (such as a flowers or leaves that appear in raised relief), are fitted to some temples. In other cases, bands of colored Zyl are laminated onto the temples to complement the Zyl laminate brows that appear on the piece. The band area can also be used for metal appliques that echo similar “findings” anchored to the front surfaces of the frames.

Sculptural temples to match elaborate eyerim sculpting

            The more elaborate pairs of prescription cat eye glasses  featured sculpted temples, which could be manufactured thanks primarily to the highly sophisticated plastic molding techniques developed during the mid twentieth century.

A similar effect might have been partly achievable in former centuries if a highly skilled artisan had made openwork temples out of finely drawn wire, but of course, eyeglasses were viewed with contempt at the time and no skilled artist would have wasted their efforts on embellishing what was considered an emblem of loathsome personal weakness.

The temples of these prescription cat eye glasses are sometimes given elaborate, fantastic shapes, and even made as openwork – whorls of slender plastic strands flowing around each other to form airy filigrees of transparent material that almost resemble

clear cat eyeglassesUnusually mounted temples on prescription cat eyeglasses

            In a few rare and extremely eye-catching instances, the demands of fashion trumped practicality, and temples were mounted at highly unusual angles on prescription cat eye glasses and others. These glasses were usually quite sculptural already, and to match up with the rest of the ensemble, the temples were mounted at the bottom of the eyerims on the outer side, rather than at the top.

An arched section then sprang upwards to pass above the ear and hold the glasses in place. Though slightly impractical, these bold designs are still refreshing and imaginative, and make a superb piece for a collector or wearer of vintage cat eye glasses with an eye for the individualistic.

Antique and Modern Matrix Glasses

One of the most famous films made in the past several decades which featured a form of pince nez are the Matrix movies, featuring a bizarre, almost Gnostic view of the world in which our perceived reality is a duplicitous computer-generated illusion, and the real world is a storm-wracked wasteland inhabited by murderous robots. One of the characters in this film, named Morpheus, sports a pair of mirrored sunglasses with a pince nez mounting – a type of pince nez which has entered the popular imagination as “Matrix glasses”.

Turning antique pince nez into Matrix glasses

            Since many pince nez are missing their lenses, or consist only of a bridge piece and associated mountings to set up a pair of rimless glasses, it is a simple matter to buy these and insert the lenses necessary to transform them into a pair that would not look out of place among the daring, deadly adventurers and heroes found in the film.

matrix glasses  The method of making Matrix glasses as close as possible to the variety shown in the film is to buy a set of pince nez bridges and plaquettes for rimless lenses (those in the film were rimless). Go to an optometrist’s shop or any other local business that will make custom-sized sunglasses lenses for you, and hire them to make you a pair of small oval sunglasses lenses.

Pince nez bridges designed for rimless use attach to the lenses using a screw that threads through holes at each end of the bridge. You will need a hole in each lens at the appropriate point to mount one end of the pince nez bridges to these elements. Since ordinary safety glass will usually disintegrate when drilled, you may need special glass as well. Be sure to have the holes placed correctly  for the specific mounting needs of the bridge piece you have acquired.

Remember that Matrix glasses must be mirrored in order to be authentic! Simple smoked glass is not enough – two dark, oval mirrors must be fitted to the vintage eyeglasses fittings to get the proper “Morpheus” look.

Alternate pince nez Matrix glasses

            You can opt to match the Morpheus look as much as possible, or you can use other, rimmed antique pince nez frames to make your Matrix glasses. If you choose this option, you can get the authentic Matrix glasses look by inserting the darkest mirrored sunglasses lenses you can find into your chosen vintage eyeglasses frames. However, the different frames that you use will give you an individual look – you will still be wearing Matrix glasses, but not copycat Matrix glasses.

matrix glasses    Oxfords transformed into Matrix glasses will give you the look of a scientist or perhaps a pilot (though not, more than likely, of an Earthly craft). Hoop bridge Matrix glasses are suited to an intellectual or aristocratic look, while astig variants are more casual.

Modern matrix glasses

            Though some modern producers of novelties make and market Matrix glasses, these are generally far inferior to the production values put into the original pince nez. Modern Matrix glasses are cheap costume pieces that do not look as good and will likely break within a few months, or a year or two at best. Making a pair of vintage pince nez into Matrix glasses will give you a high quality, rugged, tasteful set of glasses that will serve you faithfully for many years – after all, they have survived nearly a century in good condition already.

Old Spectacles from the Early United States

The years following the overthrow of British rule in the American colonies and the establishment of the United States witnessed many major changes, yet the evolution of old spectacles continued at a modest pace during this time. There was little impetus for American craftsmen to change the frames they manufactured beyond the alterations that had already occurred, while they still lacked the confidence to challenge the supremacy of European lenses on any large scale.

There are, nevertheless, plenty of interesting old eyeglasses from this era for the collector or someone who wants to add modern lenses to antique eyeglasses frames (since eyeglasses are essentially timeless until they break).

Old SIlver spectacles     One of the pioneers of American lens grinding – a highly technical, demanding art – was David Rittenhouse, who was active in the 1780s as the American economy began to burgeon following independence. Though it is impossible to determine now which are Rittenhouse lenses, it is intriguing to think that any American spectacles from this era could house lenses that represent some of the first high quality optical glass or crystal ground professionally by our fellow countrymen.

Identifying post-Revolutionary old spectacles

            It is difficult to tell the old spectacles made between the American Revolution (1776) and the War of 1812 from Revolutionary period eyeglasses, since a spurt of technical evolution had occurred during this period and

The trends visible in the Revolutionary era continued in the following decades, developing slowly and refining the techniques that had displaced those of the earlier Colonial days. Metal frames came to supplant the earlier leather or horn frames, as the metallurgical industry improved. Metal is obviously a superior substance for long lasting spectacles, and the greater affluence of the new nation encouraged expansion into the better materials.

The antique spectacles from this time often have steel, brass, bronze, or silver frames. The temples are much more slender than the “folding straps” of the Salem Witch Trial days, giving the glasses a more refined appearance and even a slightly modern air. The loops at the ends are retained, allowing cords or ribbons to tie the eyewear onto the head, since hooked temples to fit behind the ears are still unknown. These loops, however, continue to shrink and grow narrower as wigs fall farther out of fashion.

Eyerims of Old Glasses from the War of 1812 Era

      Ful-vue Old SpectaclesEyerims could be round, oval, or octagonal during this time, with octagonal lenses gaining in popularity and round lenses suffering a slow decline. One of the most interesting innovations that sets this period apart from the earlier times, however, was the temporary introduction of double sets of lenses, with hinged lenses attached to the eyerims either for bifocal action or as sunglasses.

This is a feature completely unique to this period of American old glasses. It represents an attempt to improve on Benjamin Franklin’s original bifocal design and was adapted to sun-shielding, too. A second pair of eyerims containing different lenses was hinged to the main eyerims of these old spectacles, pivoting at the same point where the temples attach.

The stronger lenses were placed in the hinged eyerims, so that they could be folded into place when greater optical power was needed. Tinted glass without optical corrective properties might be fitted to hinged eyerims instead, allowing them to be used when in bright sunlight and folded out of the way in dimmer conditions – a short-lived but fascinating experiment in dual-function spectacles.

Old Glasses Frames from Washington’s America

One striking feature of old glasses frames from the Revolutionary period is that high quality metal spectacles frames were no longer exclusively imported. Lenses were still mostly from Europe or England, since the very low cost and extremely high quality of lenses from the Old World made it difficult for local artisans to compete – the barriers to entry to the market were very high.

However, you can find even fancy silver antique eyeglass frames from the Revolutionary period which bear the inscription of American silversmiths, rather than this being the exclusive preserve of British artisans. The inscriptions tend to be somewhat more matter of fact; the name of the silversmith is given, as well as the town and state, often in an abbreviated form.

This is a rather less decorative approach than the hallmarks and flowing monograms of the Englishmen of the period (whose old glasses frames are also still very common in the Colonies or the nascent United States), but it is very useful in discovering whether a pair of frames was made in America itself. Naturally, most of these old glasses frames were fashioned in the major cities.

Early ergonomics in Revolutionary old glasses frames

            The science of ergonomics was largely unknown (and completely unnamed) at the time of the American Revolution. However, some of the improvements introduced at this time show that better crafting techniques were making it possible to increase the comfort and convenience of old glasses frames even while the materials used to make them remained the same.

Early examples of oval and octagonal spectacles from the Revolutionary era workshops featured the same thick, bulky, heavy metal construction found on 17th century spectacles. These thick wires – whether in the form of eyerims, bridges, or temples – added to the weight of the glasses and made them clumsy and somewhat uncomfortable to wear for long periods.

During this time, however, old glasses frames became slimmer, lighter, and more graceful.  They fitted better to the human face and weighed less, making them easier to wear for an extended period. Thinner metal is also a highly visible clue allowing you to instantly see that a pair of early spectacles is probably from the time of Washington instead of Mather.

This did not occur in a day, of course, and since old glasses frames were still made by individual artisans, there was plenty of room for variation. This is part of what makes collecting or studying the eyewear of the past so intriguing, however – the fact that detective work and reasoning are needed to ferret out a piece’s provenance as much as a list of major clues.

Focal length markings on old glasses frames from America

            The old custom of marking the focal length of the lenses in inches on the old glasses frames in which they were mounted continued into the Revolutionary period. However, several additional focal length systems were in use at the time, so the number on the glasses requires verification with a lensometer if you want to determine exactly what the focal length is (and what type of measurement has been engraved into the metal).

Features of old glasses from the Revolutionary Era

Round spectacles like those from pre-Revolutionary times continued to be made into the Revolutionary era, and can, in fact, be seen on many depictions of Benjamin Franklin, the father of the bifocal concept, himself. However, a time of clear change was underway in the technical sphere as much as in the political, and this is clearly visible in many of the old glasses from this time.

We have already looked at how advances in grinding technology allowed the creation of many highly functional pairs of oval and elongate hexagonal lenses. This, in turn, offered a wider field of view to the wearer of these old glasses. To judge by the number of surviving examples, the new shapes were very popular, probably because of their basic convenience.

However, changes were evident in other areas of the design of old glasses in the Revolutionary period, too. Most notable of these are alterations to the temples, with a very different approach to these than that which was used only a generation earlier.

Revolutionary era temples on old glasses

            In one regard, the newer style of old glasses had not changed from the spectacles of those from the times of the Salem Witch Trials. Their eyerims and bridges were still constructed in such a way that they had little purchase on the nose, and nose pads were lacking from their design. Therefore, without tying them onto one’s head using the temples, they would either slip down the nose or fall off entirely.

Since the Revolutionary period witnessed the rapid decline of the huge, fluffy powdered wigs that many had affected a generation or two previously, the large loops at the end of the temples from that period – meant to be woven into the wig – also disappeared in American spectacles at least. Large wigs continued in use in France until the end of the Ancien Regime, but American wigs became smaller and eventually fell out of favor completely.

Therefore, nearly all old glasses from this time in the Colonies have small loops, again reminiscent of the eye of a needle, writ large. These were used in the same fashion to tie the spectacles around the user’s head using either a ribbon or a cord.

The design of temples found on vintage glasses changed radically at this time, however. Instead of folding, they became sliding, using a slot and rivet arrangement to allow the two parts of each temple to telescope together into a much shorter form for storage. A rivet on one piece fit through a slot on the other, allowing the temples to be instantly extended or retracted. This neater arrangement involved less tiny hinges and thus lessened the chance of breakage.

Some temples continued to fold at a slant, one above the other, behind the eyerims. Others now crossed over each other in the manner of modern eyeglass temples. These old glasses looked considerably more like our modern glasses, and this familiarity, plus the sliding rivets of the temples, helps you distinguish them quickly and certainly from pre-Revolutionary models.

Materials used for old glasses from the time of Franklin

            Though manufacturing and design had advanced, materials technology remained the same as in the previous period. Bronze, brass-bronze alloy, steel, silver, and gold were still the metals used for spectacles frames at this time. Lenses were still “glasses” – ground from glass – or “pebbles” – ground from quartz using an iron wheel, diamond dust, and oil of brique.



Although it might be thought that the main changes from pre-Revolutionary to Revolutionary times in the British Colonies in North America were cultural and political, and that this would have little impact on the designs of old eyeglasses from this period, there was in fact a notable alteration in the way spectacles were made as the two eras succeeded each other. Thus, it is possible to easily distinguish Colonial and Revolutionary eyewear despite their many similarities.

This period of time is bridged, as it were, by the life of one famous man – Benjamin Franklin – who made one of the most remarkable American contributions to the science of spectacles. He was the first to fit old eyeglasses with bifocal lenses.

The concept appears to have been his own original idea, so this period witnessed an advance in lens manufacture that is still very important and prevalent today. Therefore, any discussion of the period must take Franklin’s influence as an innovator of old eyeglasses into account, as well.

Changes in the shape of old eyeglasses’ lenses and eyerims

For the first few centuries of their existence, the lenses used in antique eyeglasses were almost universally round. The perfectly circular shape made it technically and mathematically easier to create a lens with the proper focal characteristics, given the techniques and materials of the day. Of course, it was still a painstaking process that required an impressive amount of skill, since each lens needed to be ground by hand, with constant testing of its power, to achieve the proper strength in “pouces”, “inches”, or the other local measurement of optical effectiveness.

Round lenses are mathematically simpler to grind correctly (though still very complex), so it is only natural that during the formative centuries of eyeglass manufacture, skilled artisans should stick very close to this tried and true method of producing high quality lenses. Why undergo the difficulties of making oval lenses when round ones were easier and provided adequate vision correction?

Yet the transition from pre-Revolutionary to Revolutionary period vintage eyeglasses shows the mute declaration of a sudden improvement in techniques, in the form of many lenses which were no longer perfectly round. The grinding methods and understanding of optics both improved in this period to the point where making oval and octagonal lenses was an attractive proposition to lens grinders and frame makers who needed to risk their own incomes and effort with this new approach.

Oval and octagonal lenses

            Both oval and octagonal lenses appear during this period, which is a major change from the old eyeglasses used in the 17th century. Round spectacles naturally continued to be made (they are, after all, still made today), but horizontally elongated shapes became so common that many collections consist mostly of these, with few or no round Revolutionary period old eyeglasses to be found among them.

Octagonal glasses are almost rectangular, though with slanting corners which turns them into stretched octagons instead. Both ovals and octagons offer a wider field of view to the wearer. With 1” wide round lenses, it is necessary to focus directly forward to gain the benefit of the spectacles, but with the horizontal extension of ovals or octagons, the wearer can take in a larger view with full optical assistance just by moving their eyes, rather than needing to turn their whole head.

The presence of oval or octagonal lenses marks a pair of old eyeglasses as belonging to the last years of the pre-Revolutionary period or as being from the days of the Revolution. There are other signs as well, which will be examined further in articles that follow.


The choicest vintage eye glasses available to an affluent inhabitant of the British Colonies in North America in the time leading up to the American Revolution (17th through early 18th centuries) were silver and gold framed imports from the “home country” (that is, England). At that point, American craftsmen lacked the confidence and the technical skill to make these precious metal glasses. Due to the less affluent society then existing in America, there also was not enough of a market to sustain a whole industry of silversmiths specializing in fancy vintage eye glasses.

Silver and gold vintage eye glasses have not fared as well as those made out of bronze, steel, or brass-bronze alloys, for the simple reason that most of them were melted down for their precious metal content after the owner died (or when still alive if the wearer needed quick cash). They are rare and valuable collector’s items today, and are mostly stowed away in museum cases and vaults.EARLY VINTAGE EYE GLASSES

Monograms and hallmarks on early silver vintage eye glasses

            Monograms and hallmarks are markings which appear on the flat surfaces of temples on high quality, expensive silver vintage eye glasses in the pre-Revolutionary period. Use of these markings continued among English silversmiths long after this period ended – well into the 19th century, in fact – but examining the markings can help to establish whether or not a pair of vintage eye glasses belongs to this period.

Plain metal vintage eye glasses, such as those made of steel, were only marked with their optical power in inches. Silver spectacles were luxury items and therefore engraved with the individual markings of the makers. Americans eventually started making silver frames as well, and used their own emblems, but this was quite a bit later than the pre-Revolutionary era. An American hallmark or monogram makes it highly probable that the spectacles thus marked are from a later time.

Monograms are initials of the silversmith or the silversmithing company in England which fashioned a particular pair of vintage eye glasses. These are often rendered in fancy lettering, with scrollwork, embellished script, and other elegant flourishes which makes the emblems quite attractive in their own right. The large number of silversmiths active at the time means that they cannot all be listed here, but researching a specific monogram may let you pin down exactly when an item was made.

EARLY AMERICAN VINTAGE EYE GLASSES           Hallmarks are markings engraved to show that taxes on the silver goods had been paid. Finally, if there is a man’s head on the temple, then this is King George I if facing left, meaning that the vintage eye glasses are from the late pre-Revolutionary period. King George II faces right, and though he is still technically pre-Revolutionary, he reigned very late in the period, so the spectacles that bear his image are nearly from Revolutionary times.

Tarnishing on silver vintage eye glasses

            Tarnishing – or oxidation of the silver – is not a defect on vintage eye glasses from the 17th or late 18th century Colonies. In fact, it is a benefit, because it shows that the pure silver content is high without needing to slice a piece off a valuable antique for analysis. Do not clean tarnishing off a pair of silver vintage eye glasses, since this is equivalent to vandalism from a collecting point of view.


Vintage frames found on pre-Revolutionary American (or, more accurately, Colonial) glasses have many distinguishing features that both provide striking insights into the manufacturing techniques and social customs of their day. Lenses and eyerims are round on these vintage eyeglass frames, for example, due to the ease of making this shape with hand grinding methods. The bridges are arched but hold the lenses far apart, making the glasses unstable on the nose.

The temples of vintage eyeglass frames from the pre-Revolutionary period, however, are even more distinctive than the rest of the glasses. Made extremely long and folding in the middle, they bear interesting marks, fittings designed to match up with the stylish wigs worn by men (and, a little later, women) of fashion at the time, and several unique construction techniques.

Temples in two sections on vintage frames of pre-Revolutionary days

           vintage eyeglasses The temples of pre-Revolutionary Colonial vintage frames are very frequently elongated and made in two folding sections. This is, of course, only true of metal frames, whether bronze, steel, silver, or gold. Leather and horn vintage frames were often made in an early “pince nez” pattern, with no temples, and the eyerims positioned so as to pinch onto the bridge of the nose.

The temples of pre-Revolutionary vintage eyeglasses were made long and folding for several reasons. Foremost of these was that the eyerims lacked nose pads and the bridges were quite open, so it was difficult to keep the spectacles on one’s head while wearing them. Another reason was that temples that hooked behind the ears, like modern eyeglasses, had not yet been invented, so a different method of affixing the temples to the head was needed (as described below).

You can identify the temples of vintage frames from this period by the fact that they fold in two, and that when folded shut, one lies above the other behind the eyerims. The effect is striking and rather artistic – a perfect blend of symmetry and asymettry which makes even the roughly made cheap steel vintage frames of 17th century clerks and journeymen nearly sculptural.

These features overlapped somewhat into Revolutionary times, since spectacle makers did not suddenly change their methods with the shifting of eras, but there is a gradual change to a different mode of making temples which allows you to pin down the provenance of early vintage frames quite readily with a little care and knowledge.

Wigs or ribbons to hold early American vintage frames in place

          vintage frames  Voluminous, curly white wigs were all the rage among fashionable people, and the ingenious makers of vintage frames made temples which could be used with these chic accessories.

Temples on vintage eyeglass frames from the pre-Revolutionary years have loops at their further ends. These loops were used to tie the spectacles to the user’s head, since the “ear hook” form of temple had not yet been invented. The exact method was determined by the size of the loop.

Narrow loops, resembling an overgrown version of a needle’s eye, were used to bind the vintage frames onto the wearer by passing a piece of ribbon or cord through both loops and tying it behind the user’s head. Large loops – often circular metal rings at the end of the temples – were meant to have curly strands of the oversized wigs of the period threaded into them to hold them in place! These two types of loops even give you a glimpse of the fashion preferences of the original owner, and hazard a guess at how often (if at all) they wore a powdered wig.

Note that many of these vintage frames have no markings on them except for a double digit number showing the power of the lenses fitted to them, in the then-current measurement of “inches”.


The metal vintage spectacles worn in pre-Revolutionary America were mostly English imports, fashioned out of steel or bronze. Bronze was superior as a metal for this purpose, since stainless steel had not yet been invented and steel vintage spectacles would oxidize (rust) in humid conditions if not properly cared for.

Silver and gold frames were also made, and imported from the silversmiths and goldsmiths of England, but these are rare (due to later melting) and have many interesting features of their own, so they are discussed in another article.

Regardless of whether they were fashioned out of steel or bronze, these metal vintage spectacles from the Colonial trade have several distinctive features which serve to mark them out from American spectacles of a later date.

Though these features are actually meant to compensate for certain aspects of poor design – which made them somewhat inconvenient to wear in practice – these vintage spectacles are still intriguing and are idiosyncratic enough to help both in identification and to foster a great understanding of the possibilities and limitations of materials technology at the time.

Eyerims and bridges of pre-Revolutionary vintage spectacles

            The eyerims of vintage eyeglasses from the 17th century days of Cotton Mather and Robert Calef are mostly totally round, to match the circular lenses ground for spectacles at the time. Oval lenses were not in common use until later in the history of eyeglasses, due to the fact that it is much easier to grind a good quality optical lens in a circular shape than an oval one using handcrafting techniques (which were the only ones available at the time).

Rimless glasses were completely unknown at the time, so vintage spectacles made without eyerims date from a later period. All the vintage eyewear from 17th and early 18th century America have eyerims which completely surround the lenses. The eyerims are split so that the lenses can be inserted, and the joint is closed with a screw to keep the glass or rock crystal in place after insertion.

The eyerims are usually connected by a simple arched bridge, with no individual fitting to ensure that the lenses are each placed exactly in front of the eye they are supposed to assist. With the wide space between the eyerims, the low arch of the bridge, and the lack of nose pads, these vintage spectacles were difficult to support on the nose, which explains the form of their temples.

Lenses of metal pre-Revolutionary vintage eyeglasses

            Pre-Revolutionary vintage spectacles are almost all made to correct presbyopia caused by aging, rather than vision problems present in younger people (who often viewed such problems as a sign of shameful weakness and attempted to hide them rather than correct them). This means that their lenses, whether made out of glass or rock crystal (“Brazilian pebble”) were ground either flat or with convex inner and outer surfaces, helping to correct the vision of the aging.

Despite the rather cavalier attitude of the time to finding good matches between lens power and the user’s vision – with a “good enough to go on with” attitude prevailing over attempts to correct vision as nearly as possible – many metal pre-Revolutionary vintage spectacles bear a double digit number stamped into the metal, such as 20 or 22. This is usually found on the temple and shows the power of the lenses in “inches”.

This archaic mode of showing lens power is both an interesting detail of past medical science, and a good way to further identify pre-Revolutionary vintage spectacles as belonging to this time.


Although leather and horn vintage glasses frames are very common on the earliest American-made spectacles and pince nez, many of the surviving pre-Revolutionary spectacles have metal frames.

This does not necessarily mean that such vintage glasses frames were more common than those made out of organic substances, since due to cost considerations, the reverse is almost certain to be true. Instead, these metal frames stand a better chance of surviving the test of time, though leather and horn can survive for many centuries if kept safe from wet, fire, and the nibbling of hungry rodents.

The pre-Revolutionary spectacles with metal vintage glasses frames that you are apt to encounter are almost all imports to the Colonies from England, or even from the Continent. This does not lessen their interest or historical significance, however, since they are still an organic part of the history of antique glasses in the future United States.

Lenses that were “just good enough”

            The 17th century attitude towards optically correcting glasses was somewhat different from our own day’s attitude. While today, we attempt to match the magnifying power of glasses exactly to the needs of the user’s vision, creating as clear and perfect a correction of ocular problems as possible, the 17th and early 18th century attitude was more focused on seeing well enough to work or read, rather than seeing perfectly.

This attitude probably sprang mostly from the fact that nothing better was available at the time – technology and individual economics did not allow most people to find spectacles that were a perfect match for their vision problems.

Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the bifocal lens – which took place either in the 1730s or 1780s, depending on whether his letters or the traditional date given by historians are lent more credence – is probably the first major break with this attitude, since it is an attempt to give the wearer more precise control over their clarity of vision at different distances.

Since this happened towards the end of the pre-Revolutionary period, however, most of the lenses you will find in metal vintage glasses frames from this era may be only passably ground and have visible defects, which in no way detracts from their value but helps as a clue in identification. Some expensive pairs for the mercantile elite, of course, are probably masterpieces of grinding and framing, since these individuals could afford to import the best vintage glasses frames and lenses from abroad.

Metal vintage glasses frames materials – steel and bronze

            Vintage glasses frames from the pre-Revolutionary days are mostly made out of bronze or steel, which provided sturdy eyerims, bridges, and temples which, in surviving examples, are usually unbroken to this day. Metal had the advantage over tortoiseshell or horn that in the event it was broken, it could be mended by any competent metalworker, besides being resistant to time and environmental conditions (and inedible to rats and mice).

These steel and bronze vintage glasses frames were mostly made for the lower to middle end of the trade, while more affluent users would either buy higher quality steel imported spectacles, or else the silver-framed “deluxe” types produced by famous silversmiths in England, bearing their hallmarks, monograms, and often a depiction of the current King’s head as well. All of these are described in future articles about vintage glasses frames.


The early days of the colonies which were to become the United States in the fulness of time were not quite as romantic as some might suppose after such a long remove of time. Besides the ferocious politics of the era, which led to some notable crimes, and the constant threat of torture and death at the hands of native raiders, there was constant toil and a battle against nature as the early colonists sought to recreate European civilization with very limited resources. The earliest American vintage glasses bear mute testimony to this state of privation, struggle, and hardship that many of our earliest ancestors endured, and which had largely passed even by the time of the Revolution.

Vintage glasses from the pre-Revolutionary period are extremely rare today, and most are either in museums (the fate of most surviving examples) or are in private collections from which they are unlikely to emerge at any time in the near future. Therefore, you are unlikely to actually find yourself in a position to buy one of these pairs of vintage glasses, even if you would like to – but there is always a chance.

Comparing American vintage glasses of the period to those from Europe reveals the stark difference in living standards between the “home countries” and the colonies. The European versions are beautifully made and are frequently rich with ornamental flourishes, turning them into miniature works of art to be worn on the face as well as optical correctives.

American vintage glasses of the early colonies are not only extremely plain, but often roughly made as well. At this time, almost all lenses were imported from Europe, since they were cheap and high quality, while the primitive technical facilities in the colonies made it difficult or impossible to grind lenses with such precision – or at least with such a combination of precision and low cost. It was eventually to be a period of war which prompted local American lenses production, but this belongs to a somewhat later era in the history of vintage glasses.

The earliest vintage glasses frames made in the colonies were fashioned from leather or horn for the most part. Unlike the beautiful, delicately sculpted eyerims and bridges found on European vintage glasses of the same time, or produced in America slightly later, the frames for vintage glasses in the colonies before the days of Benjamin Franklin were often heavy, squat, and roughly made.

Tool marks and ragged edges were left in place on them by workmen made careless by an overload of essential work. If you see a pair of early spectacles with serrations along the edge of the temples where the horner sawed roughly through a sheet of tempered horn, and never bothered to smooth the resulting edge, then you are likely looking at pre-Revolutionary American vintage glasses.

Of course, the affluent were able to buy high quality vintage glasses imported from England or the Continent, so there is also room for the collector to acquire some fine European spectacles, on the assumption that they are similar to those which might have been worn by famous Americans of the early colonial period.


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.


Antique eye glasses were often made in forms that are very familiar to us today, despite a few cosmetic differences. They have eyerims connected by a simple bridge, temples to secure them to the head either by tying a ribbon around the back of the head or by hooking them over the ears, and so on. Their overall form is the same as modern prescription eyeglasses, even if the lenses have a tendency to be perfectly circular rather than oval.

However, there were also a variety of other forms that no longer survive, or at most are found as rare curiosities. These included pince nez, lorgnettes, and monocles, as well as “eyeglasses” – which are actually an earlier form of pince nez, but whose name has come to be attached to all eyewear by one of those strange twists of linguistic evolution.


            Spectacles are, technically speaking, antique eye glasses with eyerims, bridge, and temples, much like our modern day glasses. There are some important differences as well, such as the round lenses often found within the eyerims of this eyewear, the form of the temples (which are often wide metal straps with loops at the end, rather than the hook-ended wires or cable temples found on more recent spectacles), and other stylistic and technical features. As such, our prescription eyewear are modern spectacles, and the flamboyant “tea glasses” sunglasses of the hippy movement were equally a variation on the ancient spectacles design.

Note that the word “spectacles” is also a general term which can mean any kind of antique eye glasses or modern glasses with two lenses.


            Pince nez can best be described as antique eye glasses consisting of paired lenses surrounded by eyerims, featuring a bridge, and fitting onto the face without the aid of temples. The lenses are often round, though many examples with oval lenses exist, too. Pince nez is a French name, and a highly descriptive one – the term literally means “pinch nose” or “nose pinchers”.

Pince nez usually kept their place on the nose with a pair of spring loaded nose pads, which gripped the bridge of the nose and supported the weight of the glasses at the same time. These antique eye glasses appeared in countless elegant, bizarre, and interesting forms. Some of the later forms included arrangements of tiny levers for rapid attachment to, and removal from, the nose.

Since pince nez had a habit of falling off despite the often painfully ferocious grip of their nose pads, many are equipped with a small loop at the outer edge of the right-hand eyerim, to which a ribbon was attached, and then linked to the lapel or some other point on the upper garments. Thus, even if the pince nez popped off the user’s nose unexpectedly, the ribbon would catch them and prevent them from falling to the pavement and breaking.

Monocles and Lorgnettes

            No description of antique eye glasses would be complete without mention of monocles and lorgnettes, which are almost entirely gone in the modern world and appear mostly in costume dramas in the movie theater or the television screen. These unusual antique eye glasses form a part of America’s vintage eyeglasses history as well, however, despite many of them being imported, and they are described in detail in the next article.


Though antique frames reveal much of the maker, and can give you a window onto the skilled hand manufacturing techniques of a bygone age as well, you should not neglect the lenses when you are scrutinizing an old pair of spectacles, whether they are from the age of the Robber Barons, the Civil War Era, or even the Colonial period.

Eyeglasses were not manufactured with the same scale of power as is used today. The change occurred in 1876, when the modern diopter was introduced as a measure of optical power. Prior to that date, the pouce, the inch, or another measure was used instead. Although it requires some technical expertise, you can check the lenses contained in antique frames with a modern lensometer.

Those made prior to 1876 will not show whole number readings in diopters – except at the points where the systems overlap, at the whole numbers themselves. In other words, a 3 diopter pair of lenses could have been made before or after 1876, but fractional diopters (½, 2 ¾, etc.) were made in 1875 or earlier. Though this is a method of identification that lacks much granularity – in effect, it is no more than a “yes/no” answer to the question “was this lens ground after 1876?” – it is still another tool available to you for narrowing down date of production somewhat.

It is also invaluable for determining if someone put modern lenses into antique frames, thus ruining their value.

Dating the bifocals found in antique frames

Though they are a fairly rare breed, antique bifocals do exist, and in fact are more likely to appear in early American antique frames than in spectacles from Europe. This is because, unlike many other useful inventions – including eyeglasses themselves, which were made in the late 13th century by an Italian artisan from Pisa who ironically remains unknown because he wished to keep the invention entirely for himself – we know exactly who first made them, even if the precise date has been lost.

Benjamin Franklin is the first known creator of bifocals, and thus, for decades after their invention, they remained largely confined to New World spectacles. The eccentric inventor and politician produced bifocals by grinding two pairs of lenses, one considerably smaller than the other, and fusing the smaller lenses to the larger ones to produce a bifocal effect.

The traditional date for this is in the 1780s, shortly before his death, but Franklin’s letters actually suggest he fashioned the first bifocals in the 1730s, when he was still a young man with a rather inordinate fondness for ladies.

These early bifocals were made in the same manner until the late 1840s or early 1850s, when German lens grinders fleeing the Revolutions of 1848 came to the United States. These expert technicians found the two-piece American bifocal lenses in the local antique frames and, seeing the potential of the idea, set about improving it. They possessed the knowledge and more advanced technology needed to grind two different focuses into a single piece of glass or rock crystal, producing the type of bifocal lens that is still made today.

Besides being interesting facts in the history of the American lenses fitted into antique frames, these pieces of information can help you determine the provenance of a pair of old bifocal spectacles you are examining. Regardless of whether you can tell where a pair of antique frames were fashioned, old bifocal lenses are very likely to be American, and are certainly no older than the 1730s.

Those with separate, smaller lenses fused onto the lower quadrant of larger spectacle lenses were made between 1730 and 1850, while those that include two focuses ground into the same piece of glass or crystal were made after 1848. This is just one of the many intriguing secrets that may be found within the lenses contained in antique frames by a careful observer.



Antique spectacles had different lenses than today’s. Glass and plastic lenses are so prevalent in our own day, and are manufactured to such a high degree of precision, that they have completely supplanted other materials that were once used to provide optic lenses to the nearsighted. Antique spectacles frequently made use of crystal in place of glass, ground down to form lenses in much the same way as glass.

Rock crystal and glass lenses coexisted for centuries side by side, with each one having its role to play in correcting vision. Rock crystal was referred to as “pebble” in Colonial America, with much of it imported from Brazil, where quartz with exceptional clarity and excellent optical qualities was mined. “Pebble” lenses or “pebble glasses” were used widely in the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary period as well as the first few decades of the United States’ existence.

Rock crystal continued to be used for the lenses of antique spectacles throughout the 19th century and into the first decade or two of the 20th century as well. Their use declined slowly over time as glass continued to become better refined and cheaper. The advent of mass manufacturing techniques made it possible to produce high quality glass lenses in gigantic quantities, while crystal lenses lagged further and further behind in manufacturing potential.

If you find a pair of antique spectacles with rock crystal lenses, then it almost certainly dates to a period before the 1920s. Although it is not always easy to detect rock crystal lenses at first glance, it is well worth making the effort, since this is one of several important factors used to identify a pair of glasses and their provenance.

Determining if lenses in antique spectacles are glass or crystal

            Crystal lenses made out of “pebble” were created by slicing the transparent rock thin using an iron saw coated in oil and diamond dust, since metal alone was insufficient to cut the quartz. Crystal is both harder than glass and was usually ground thinner to offset its greater weight.

Glass possesses superior optical qualities, but is not as tough as crystal, so “pebbles” were used for rough and tumble situations where vision correction was required, while glass lenses were preferred for more peaceful venues where the risk of damage was low. Rock crystal lenses are indeed tougher and harder than glass, and are much more likely to survive without cracking or breaking to the present day.

Interestingly, the later antique spectacles – those from the latter end of the 19th century – often have the frames inscribed with the word “pebble” to distinguish them from glass. Check the frames carefully for any mention of this word, as this will establish both probable lens material and period.

If you can remove the lenses from the eyerims without damaging either, the edge of crystal lenses is hard enough to be able to cut glass. Additionally, to the experienced eye, the marks of cutting with a rotating iron saw and diamond dust are often visible even after so many years have passed – a testament to the skill and patience of a long-ago lenses grinder who created the centerpiece of this eyewear.



Although it is not the first thing that the newcomer to the world of antique glasses frames  thinks of, the material that antique eyeglasses are made out of is one of the many keys to determining when they were made, and is an interesting subject in its own right. The clever, labor intensive techniques developed to turn such unlikely materials as leather and cow horn into slim, precise, lightweight eyerims, bridges, and temples is a testament to mankind’s capacity for problem solving and a fascinating glimpse at how high quality items were made prior to industrial production.

The most persistent material for spectacle frames is, naturally enough, metal. Many of the finest spectacles of the early American period, imported from Europe for the most part, were framed in silver or gold, but these precious metals fell victim to their value in most cases and were melted down once the original owner was no longer wearing them.

Other metals survived human cupidity more readily, and metal framed spectacles are to be found from the days of the ill-fated Jamestown colony up to the modern era of the Internet.

Leather was an extremely popular material for antique glasses frames, mostly because it was cheap for the purchaser. Some of the earliest surviving rivet spectacles from medieval Europe have still-intact leather frames, and the British colonies in North America often witnessed European lenses fitted into leather eyerims.

The leather was boiled to soften it, then cut into the fine shapes that were molded to the form of eyerims, bridges, and so on, and finally placed in cold water to harden it again, which made it nearly as hard and long-lasting as wood. Leather was finally displaced as one of the main construction items for spectacle frames when mass production of metal frames became possible in the 19th century.

Horn was used for a huge variety of small objects, including knife handles, antique glasses frames, utensils, decorative boxes, buttons, and many other uses. The horn used was either ordinary cow horn sliced off in layers and flattened, or baleen from the feeding plates of whales. The horn was pressed hard between two red hot metal plates before being quenched in cold water, tempering it into a dense, hard, tough, fine-grained form that could be carved into sturdy glasses frames.

Tortoiseshell is the shell of sea turtles harvested and cut into antique glasses frames. It provided a more colorful type of frame, and is in a way the ancestor of plastic frames. Tortoiseshell continued to be used until long after leather and horn fell out of common use, though it is no longer used today when sea turtles are seriously endangered.

Plastic is a true neophyte on the scene where antique glasses frames are concerned, but there are plenty of funky, psychedelic glasses and sunglasses from the 1960s that made excellent use of it for their extravagant purposes. The problem with plastic, of course, is that it cannot be repaired once it breaks, and it is often fairly brittle, too. It can be glued, but the join is visible as a permanent crack, which lowers or eliminates the eyeglasses’ collectible value.

Nevertheless, there are many fun plastic glasses still available for the collector, with many of the vintage types, such as John Lennon glasses, displaying vivid colors, huge, goggle-like sizes, and sometimes strange shapes, too.


            Some of the interest of antique glasses comes from the interest of seeing how people solved the problem of designing spectacles in an era before modern precision manufacturing and materials technology. Before the latter part of the 19th century, both lenses and antique glasses frames were individually hand made by skilled artisans, meaning that each piece has its own character and appearance. Even more recent vintage spectacles often have a whiff of handmade, sturdy production values about them.

Despite this intriguing “quirkiness”, visionwear also has a timeless quality, for the simple reason that it needs to provide a view to members of the same species – humans. The basic size of the human head, the positioning of the eyes, the manner in which those eyes develop astigmatism, and other fundamental features are the same today as they were in the days of Johannes Gutenberg or William Shakespeare.

Therefore, there is a familiarity to antique glasses’ design as well, since they were made to fit people physically similar to us, however different their culture and outlook might have been.

The main pieces that made up a pair of antique glasses from George Washington’s day are still mostly to be found on modern eyeglasses as well. Familiarizing yourself with the terminology for these parts will help you on your quest through the interesting annals of past eyewear. The way these parts were made for a specific pair of glasses will help you pinpoint the era in which they were manufactured.

Knowing the correct terms for these parts also helps you to communicate quickly and clearly when you are discussing eyeglass matters with other collectors, or describing what you are looking for to dealers. There is only a limited number of parts in most antique glasses, so it is not difficult to remember the phrases once you have gone over them once or twice.

Lenses: these are the transparent glass, crystal, or stone discs that are fitted into the frames, and which provide the actual vision correction for the wearer. They are mostly round in older spectacles, and round or oval in more recent antique glasses, though some odd shapes also exist.

Eyerims – also known as eyewires, these are the part of the glasses which actually surround the lenses and hold them in place, connecting them to the rest of the eyeglass frames. There is usually a groove on their inner edge which allows the lenses to be fitted snugly into place and not fall out unexpectedly.

Bridge – this is the piece of material (metal, plastic, tortoiseshell, etc.) which connects the two eyerims. There have been quite a few different forms of bridges, which often makes them useful for identification, too. Some are meant to rest on the nose, others to arch above it.

Nose pads – found on the inner, lower curve of the eyerims, these small pads (which may be anything from tiny, smooth metal plates to actual padding) rest on the nose in lieu of the bridge and keep the glasses perched comfortably there. Some may be lever operated in the case of finger-piece mountings for pince nez.

Temples – these are the long, slim arms extending back from the outer edges of the eyerims, often to hook behind the ears. They appear on some antique glasses and are absent from others, mostly because of aesthetic considerations.




Antique eyeglasses, whether of relatively recent manufacture, made within living memory, or produced back in the misty, half-seen times of our Republic’s early days, appeal in a number of different ways to the collector and to those who are simply looking for something distinctive and unusual to wear in place of modern eyeglasses. They are pieces of history, connecting us to moments and eras that are now long gone except in the pages of history books and a few fading pictures.

What is more, however, is the fact that antique eyeglasses are a particularly intimate link to the past – to our own ancestors, to the historical personages who dot our chronicles, and so on. Unlike an antique table, chair, or lamp, the visionwear of yore was used for an essential physical need, and was the constant companion of its owner, worn on their face and serving to help them see. They beheld everything from the faces of the people they loved to the work that they accomplished, from a long-vanished sunset to a stirring event which was then as intensely real as the events we witness today.


When we look through their time-dented frames, we are gazing on the world almost literally with the eyes of the past. These instruments allowed people to see – to use their visual organs to carry images of a vanished culture into their brains more clearly. This special individuality and the human connection that attaches to every pair of antique eyeglasses cannot be equaled by any chandelier, rug, or blown glass vase, however artistically superior it may be to pair of plain spectacles.

Finally, there is the diversity of both form and function that humankind adopted in trying to correct their vision while remaining stylish at the same time. Everything from severe, puritanical spectacles from Revolutionary days, to the slightly exaggerated stylishness of cat eye glasses from the recent past, from the miniature mechanisms of late pince nez to the psychedelic “tea glasses” of the hippy era await your discovery and enjoyment.

Ways of interacting with antique eyeglasses

Antique eyeglasses and spectacles are probably easier to find today than at any time in the past thanks to the Internet, auction sites such as eBay, and the specialized stores that now find it simpler to stock these fascinating collectibles, too. Once you have decided that you want to investigate the world of this vintage eyewear further, you have several choices open to you.

You can opt to take a mostly practical approach, and use the old glasses you buy as functional eyeglasses. You can either do this by finding pairs that already match your vision requirements (not a problem in the case of sunglasses, of course) or by having the old lenses removed and new ones put in. Note that having the old lenses removed destroys most of the item’s antique value, so you should only do it with relatively recent, cheap, abundant types.

The other choice is to become a collector of antique eyeglasses, either in large numbers or just as a few well-chosen curiosities that happen to pique your interest. In this case, you will need more knowledge to find interesting pairs, spot fakes, and get the maximum enjoyment out of your collection. The Vintage Optical Shop will guide you through this fascinating corner of history and all its many details – read on to begin your own voyage of discovery through the sphere of historic glasses!