The coming of the 20th century brought new science, new materials, new manufacturing techniques, and new fashion trends to the round vintage glasses that had existed for centuries, throwing out new and intriguing forms that gave templeless eyeglasses a new lease on life.
Although the period between the end of the 19th century and the hideous days of the First World War is now largely forgotten, it existed just as vividly and vibrantly for the people who lived in it as our own early 21st century world does for us. Though those days are overshadowed by the hair-raising butchery that followed, during these years people loved, lusted, dreamed, hated, rejoiced, grieved, wrote poetry, sought money and fame – and invented Oxfords.
Oxfords were, in a way, the “last hurrah” of round vintage glasses without temples which had existed during many preceding generations. Given the striking beauty of these antique eyeglasses, it can be said that templeless glasses went out not with a whimper, but with a satisfying bang, and round vintage glasses of this type remain immensely popular to this day among collectors and those who like to sport vintage fashions.
1910 was the year when Oxfords first appeared, though they are obviously descendants of the pince nez that had existed in America since the 1840s. Often extravagantly decorative, Oxfords came with either round or octagonal lenses.
As shall be seen, all vintage eyeglasses up to this point had been unisex, but Oxfords ushered in an era when men, for the first time, preferred one style and women overwhelming opted for the other. Clearly, eyeglasses were becoming a fashion accessory and not simply a hideous, deforming necessity that should be worn as little as possible. The growing affluence of this period undoubtedly had a positive impact on creativity and decoration of the antique eyeglasses produced then, too.
The rise and fall of Oxfords
These round vintage glasses obviously did not have an eternal reign over the eyeglass field, and in fact survived a bit less than a generation – from 1910 to around 1935 – before being almost totally supplanted by antique spectacles. The buoyant American economy of the time fostered their production, and it was the Great Depression which finally ushered them from the stage of history – or at least from mass production by major companies.
The Great Depression, of course, was caused by the gold standard, which limited the money supply drastically at a time when technology was producing an economy too extensive for such a tiny supply of precious metal to “lubricate”. The economy expanded to the point where the pathetically insufficient gold supply strangled its ability to grow, and a crash inevitably followed.
Those countries which rid themselves of the gold standard quickly – such as Great Britain – recovered almost immediately. Others clung to gold for a long time, such as France, and remained in economic ruins for decades afterward. Some, like the United States, were moderately quick to throw off the devastating shackles of gold, and suffered a period of economic woe followed by recovery. China, which had a silver standard, was unaffected and greatly strengthened its position at the expense of other nations, perhaps laying the foundation for its current economic power in the process.
It was during this period of economic turmoil that the Oxford finally succumbed to the cheap, practical, workmanlike spectacles which had also existed for centuries, but had largely been despised until then. Fortunately, though, Oxfords had their heyday and left a marvelous heritage of exquisitely beautiful round vintage eyeglasses for us to enjoy today.