Famous cat eye glasses from Oliver Goldsmith

Extravagance is the name of the game where Oliver Goldsmith cat eye glasses and other eyewear are concerned. Each new year brought fresh developments that showed both the limits and the possibilities of combining human imagination and vintage eyewear. Eyewear is intriguing partly because it has to be functional – it must fit on a human face.

However, despite this unifying theme, there is clearly room for an immense variety of different designs within a few square inches of celluloid and steel. Some of Oliver Goldsmith’s more memorable designs include:

Tvintage eyeglasseshe Cards cat eye glasses were festive glasses from the late 1950s, the period when flashy vintage eyeglasses was first becoming truly acceptable. These white-framed glasses featured inset card symbols – spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs – jutting up from the top of the eyerims, in red or black as appropriate to their suit. No doubt they were meant to convey the glamorous world of casinos, secret agents, and other exciting details of spy thrillers.

The Butterfly glasses show how far the form of vintage glasses can be altered to produce aesthetic effects. These frames were made in the shape of a butterfly with its wings spread. The main lenses are contained in the insect’s forewings, while two small lenses fill in the hind wings to complete the visual effect. A pair of swallowtail “tails” are molded onto the lower eyerims. The sweeping, elegant wing outlines create a striking cat eye glasses effect.

The TV Screens are square eyerims fitted with tinted lenses to look like tiny television screens, and feature wire aerials mounted at the outer corners of the eyerims! These creations obviously need to be worn with care to avoid damaging them. They are also a good example of how the stylish can be combined with the whimsical.

The Hollywood model was a 1950s model that might be described as “cat eye glasses lite”. There is just enough of a tilt to the eyerims to give a look of feline elegance, while the dark material and applique metal “brows” complete the look of sophistication; a clear sign that vintage eyeglasses had entered a new age.

The Tennis Racket frames were first made in 1954, and were one of Oliver Goldsmith’s foray into Op Art designs. Molded to look like crossed tennis rackets, one black and one white, these extremely large and striking glasses also feature a fine crisscross of lines over the lenses to make the resemblance to the strings of a real racket even closer. These are extremely popular vintage eyeglass frames, especially among collectors, and are probably among the most instantly recognizable of the tens of thousands of designs that have been made.

Several kinds of frames have featured animals, including an Op Art pieces with a black duck and a white duck molded as the eyerims. Another noted variant of back-to-back animals are a pair of rather comical looking hounds with floppy ears, produced in a reddish brown Zylonite that mimics the color of dachshunds.

Nearly equaling the Tennis Rackets design in fame is the pyramid design produced for Vidal Sassoon in 1966. These white glasses form a huge triangle with rounded corners that rises up in front of the forehead. The lenses are enormous and also triangular, though in this case the shape is a round-cornered obtuse triangle, not an equilateral one. The temples are mounted at the lower corners of the eyerims. These glasses are a far departure from the cat eye glasses of the 1960s, but show how much a design could be changed to match a single hairstyle!

Algha, John Lennon Glasses, and Postwar Fashion

Emerging from the dark and bloodstained days of the Second World War, the antique eyeglass 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 vintage eyewear – and eventually, John Lennon Glasses.

lennon glasses    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 antique 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 vintage eyeglass frames of Algha’s 1950s and 1960s 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 vintage 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

lennon eyeglasses        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.

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 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 style of vintage eyeglasses .

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 eyeglasses ever made – yet, in their way, John Lennon glasses nevertheless.

Algha and the Cult of John Lennon Glasses

The story of eyeglasses is a rich and varied one, woven not only of threads of technical advance and materials technology, but also human attitudes and cultures, and fascinating glimpses of the lives and thoughts of uniquely quirky individuals –as is the case with the history of John Lennon glasses. One of the main firms that supplied the vintage eyewear favored by this renowned Beatle is Algha, which began long before their products became associated with the famous man.

Max Wiseman was the founder of Algha, the name of which means “alpha and omega”, the ancient phrase signifying the first and the last, first used in print in the Bible’s Book of Revelations. The Englishman started his career long before the era of John Lennon glasses, as far back as 1898. He manufactured many of the antique eyeglasses and spectacles cases in his own factory, but his most popular items were high quality gold-filled frames from Germany, which served him so well that he was soon a wealthy man.

John Lennon Glasses      The catalyst that prompted him to start the Algha company – and ultimately lead to the creation of the iconic John Lennon glasses it produced – was the worsening situation in Germany during the early 1930s. The Weimar Republic was hamstrung by early Nazi obstructionism in the Reichstag, preventing the government from taking almost any action, and this led to an economy where hideous inflation took hold.

Wiseman and his sons took the initiative in 1932 and bought a whole factory, complete with all its equipment, from the German eyeglass-manufacturing city of Rathenau. Nearly a dozen German artisans highly skilled and knowledgeable about making filled gold frames moved to England to head the new factory in London – probably glad to escape the hyperinflation, unrest, and growing menace of Hitler and his faction to democratic society.

Thus, John Lennon glasses were born from the combined efforts of Wiseman and his sons, and a select group of German expatriate artisans. Algha broke almost immediately out of the stuffy Teutonic mold of purely functional vintage eyeglasses, and started experimenting with a whole catalog full of intriguing, fashionable designs. This was the era when eyewear was starting to shake off its age-old stigma of “weakness” and become a fully acceptable part of fashion.

 

The Second World War and Vintage Glasses

Max Wiseman was not just a savvy entrepreneur and seller of the extremely popular “Rolled Gold” glasses. He was also one of the founding fathers of the Association of Wholesale and Manufacturing Opticians, which led to one of the bodies that not only promotes the welfare of its members, but also monitors excellence and ensures quality in their products.

John Lennon Glasses   The fact that the practical is never far beneath the surface of the stylish in the world of antique eyeglasses is underlined by the fate of Algha during the war years. In these stark, grim  times, the company turned to making gas mask eyepieces and aviators’ goggles for the fighting men of Britain. Fortunately, the gas masks were never needed, since the soldiers were spared this hideous weapon by an unexpected qualm on the part of their enemy.

However, many of the pilots during the famous Battle of Britain wore goggles made by Algha – a far cry from the stylish, peaceful world of Windsor glasses that appeared in the postwar world. As is so often the case in human history, style and danger or adventure are not too far apart – which is perhaps what lends piquancy to fashion, especially vintage fashion from an earlier era.

Oliver Goldsmith’s Handmade Cat Eye Glasses

As with many of the top end cat eye glasses and other sophisticated retro eyewear of the mid 20th century (and the present day), Oliver Goldsmith glasses were and are handmade. It is an interesting commentary on the unchanging nature of human skill that the finest eyewear, even in our era of computer guided manufacturing, high tech materials, and so forth, is still made by highly practiced artisans and not by machines.

Though production in this manner limits Oliver Goldsmith eyeglasses to a few hundred extremely expensive examples every year, it also allowed the company to showcase many different materials during its history. The earliest material was tortoiseshell, extracted from unfortunate sea turtles as was the custom of the time. Fortunately, this period soon ended.

vintage cat eye glasses The first Oliver Goldsmith broke away from tortoiseshell early, though the plastic he used for the Dawn, Erinoid, was designed specifically to mimic the natural shell as closely as possible (other than in color, naturally). Erinoid continued to be used alongside other types of celluloid until the second Oliver Goldsmith took over the firm in 1947.

The handmade procedure allowed the use of materials that could never be used for mass machine production. For example, some vintage glasses frames during the 1950s were crafted out of bamboo – keeping the form and texture of the natural material clearly visible, though expertly shaped into frames and slotted to allow insertion of lenses into the eyerims.

Plastics of all kinds appear in Oliver Goldsmith creations, including 1950s and 1960s cat eye glasses. Jewels and crystals were inserted into some frames, while others featured metal appliques such as brows, decorative hinges, and the like, using steel, aluminum, and other lustrous metals. Large aluminum brows appeared on some models, such as a unique handmade example created for Monaco’s Princess Grace to wear while skiing.

Sizes also varied greatly, from standard sized vintage eyeglasses to enormous lenses that had to be custom ground from optical glass. Many of these started out as unique pieces for individual buyers and then became standbys of Oliver Goldsmith’s line, perhaps illustrating that customer feedback and inspiration are an important part of the creative process in the vintage eyewear field.

1950s cat eye glasses never out of production

One intriguing detail about Oliver Goldsmith’s glasses, including vintage cat eye glasses, is a result of this handmade manufacturing process. Since any pair of glasses can still be manufactured, no Oliver Goldsmith product ever goes out of production. The eventual end of the company – perhaps when climate change crushes the ability of the plastics industry to keep operating – will put all the retro glasses out of production, but until that day, even the “Dawn” is probably available.

retro glasses    Therefore, all the 1950s and 1960s designs are still available to those willing to pay for them. The famous Butterfly glasses, various colorful cat eye glasses such as the “Cards” model, and even the bizarre but attractive Vidal Sassoon pyramid, will be handmade to order by the firm.

Where other eyeglass companies let their vintage eyewear designs sink into the warm haze of history, Oliver Goldsmith keeps the past vigorously alive – a luxury that only a top end handmade cat eye glasses company can afford. The 1950s and 1960s are not quite past yet, with companies such as this to keep their brilliant styles alive.

The Extravagant Vintage Cat Eye Glasses of Oliver Goldsmith

There are many intriguing twists and turns of fate in our world, and one of these is to be found in the early history of Oliver Goldsmith, one of the foremost firms of the world today. Oliver Goldsmith himself – originally named Philip Goldsmith, but later using his middle name for greater advertising cachet – viewed his first breakthrough model, the “Dawn”, as being extremely hard to see when being worn because of its flesh toned frame.

This is an odd beginning to a company that was soon to develop some of the most garish, imaginative, and outlandish vintage eyeglasses to be found on the planet, and become famous because of that. Even in the era of cat eye glasses, Oliver Goldsmith creations stand out thanks to their bright colors, intricate designs, and unexpected use of shapes, colors, and themes.

vintage glassesThe “Dawn” could be viewed as the last hurrah of the old, rather primitive idea that vintage eyeglasses are unattractive or mark the user as weak and contemptible. Just as the minimalist types of pince nez were meant to conceal the fact their user was wearing them as much as possible, so the flesh tone of the Dawn was supposed to camouflage it on the user’s face, assuming that they had a pink Caucasian complexion.
It was actually Oliver Goldsmith’s son Charles who finally broke the stifling mold of “eyeglasses shame” and helped to lead the charge into brilliant creations that grace a beautiful countenance or evoke the optimistic, lighthearted flamboyance of a bygone age. When he assumed direction of the company after the Second World War, Charles changed his name to Oliver and embarked on the transformation of vintage glasses from burden to fashion statement.

Though Oliver Goldsmith’s cat eye glasses were not the only splendidly aesthetic, colorful, or sculptural designs appearing on the market then, the personal and company leadership of both the man and the brand had a powerful effect on the evolving view of vintage glasses.

Peoples’ desire for stylish eyeglasses was likely percolating right under the surface. Oliver Goldsmith’s bold stand unleashed an era that produced some of history’s most amazing and fun cat eye glasses designs.

The continuing Goldsmith method

The Oliver Goldsmith line has a highly personal approach, which is part of the secret to its success. Each new Goldsmith to take control of the company adopts the name Oliver. Currently, the third Oliver Goldsmith is running the company; the grandson of Philip Oliver Goldsmith, who founded it long ago between the two World Wars.

vintage glasses
The Oliver Goldsmith company pioneered not only fashionable “art glasses”, but was one of the first firms to advertise vintage eyewear as fashion accessories in womens’ magazines. This signaled how far it had come in transforming spectacles from burdens to personal jewelry.

As might be expected from such a prominent firm, many of the clients it has had across the years are high profile actors and actresses, as well as royalty both English and European. Audrey Hepburn, Michael Caine, and John Lennon all sported these glasses at some time.

However, even if Oliver Goldsmith cat eye glasses are outside the reach of the average collector in many cases, they are still a very interesting part of the history of antique eyeglasses. They helped immensely to make colorful frames acceptable and desirable, and thus played a role in ushering in the huge variety of fascinating vintage eyeglasses that people can collect and wear.

Science and Style – Persol Cat Eye Glasses in the 1960s

From its beginning as Giovanni Ratti’s line of vintage eyewear for such “adventurous” types as early drivers and aviators, Persol soon blossomed into a chic line of glasses that appeared in many different forms, including cat eye glasses in the 1960s. Most Persol glasses were and are sunglasses rather than corrective eyewear, true to the company’s origins.

 

Construction of Persol cat eye glasses

Though very elegant and stylish, they remain functional eye protection against glare and small objects flying into the eye while driving, thus keeping a whiff of the original functionality of driver’s goggles, too. They are interesting in the history of cat eye glasses and vintage eyeglasses of all kinds because they show both the numerous technical advances that the fashion houses made, and the shifting cultural tides of Europe and the world.

vintage cat eye glasses    Aviator glasses and driver’s goggles had to be sturdy, and Ratti carried this tradition on into his Persol company’s products, too. For example, the lenses were made from a pure silica crystal that gave extra toughness and more shielding to the wearer’s eyes.

The lenses were tested by dropping a half ounce steel ball onto each from a height to prove they wouldn’t break. This is reminiscent of the medieval European custom of firing a crossbow quarrel at a breastplate to prove it had been forged strong enough to keep out arrows. This, of course, would not be possible with mass produced eyewear, but Persols were always handmade in Turin and remain so to this day.

The 1960s witnessed the introduction of the Persol Model 649, extra-large sunglasses to protect the eyes of Italian tram drivers. Though the large lenses had a practical function, this was the start of the fad for large fashion sunglasses that caught on across the world and continues even now. However, genuine Persol vintage eyeglasses, including cat eye glasses, can be identified in many cases by the “arrow” – a gleaming metal piece that wraps around the hinge of the temples, and which represents a sword – and by the distinctive “keyhole” bridge that is designed for extra comfort.

 

Persol vintage glasses and culture

vintage cat eye glasses  Persol cat eye glasses and other sunglasses are also a fascinating barometer of cultural changes. As noted in the first article about them, glamor, fashion, and adventure (that is, something with an element of challenge, danger, and excitement) are often knotted together in our culture. However, as cars and aircraft improved, and being a driver or a pilot became little more adventurous than driving a wagon had been a century earlier, so Persol’s image sought a new avenue to give style a thrill of danger and excitement.

There was little room for adventure in the mid 20th century world of most law-abiding people. The daredevil mountain climbers of the present day, for example, were barely starting to be noticed by the larger public. So, people turned to movie gangsters and other perilous characters to bring the edge and mystique they wanted to their glasses instead.

Elegant criminals in movies of the 1960s, played by popular actors, were often shown wearing Persol glasses. Thus the ancient European cultural mix of high fashion and high adventure was preserved, even if it now had a thuggish slant.

Even now, in the 21st century, the glasses appear in James Bond films – showing that the link between adventure, danger, and aesthetics still continues since its birth before the Age of Charlemagne. The history of cat eye glasses of the 1950s and 1960s is much more than just a catalog of designs; it also gives glimpses of the underpinnings of the human soul.

The Glamor and Quality of Persol Cat Eye Glasses

Italy is now famous as a center of exciting fashion houses and the latest modes in everything from sports cars to jewelery, from shoes to top quality cosmetics. Thus, it is hardly surprising to learn that Italian designers played an important role in the vintage cat eye glasses world of the 1950s and 1960s, too. One notable business that took root at the time of the First World War in Turin, an Alpine city, was Persol, founded by a man named Giovanni Ratti.

Like many vintage eyeglass companies that started in the early 20th century, Persol gained a foothold by selling protective goggles to pilots and early drivers. This association helped to launch the brand with a daredevil image that blended smoothly into the world of high fashion in the following decades.

Red cat eye glasses  There has been a long connection between adventure and haute couture in Europe, as witnessed by the elegant yet adventurous and warlike knights and noblemen of the medieval and Renaissance eras. Glasses like Persol’s prove this link continued at least until the early 20th century – showing just how deeply ingrained cultural currents can be. Persol and its eventual cat eye glasses won their initial glamor from dashing aviators and flamboyant sports car enthusiasts!

Of course, Persol was helped immensely by the fact that style was strongly allied with substance from the beginning. Like many vintage glasses designers, Giovanni Ratti was also an innovator, who experimented with technologies designed to improve the performance of the vintage eyewear while at the same time not neglecting fashion.

Interestingly, some of Ratti’s earliest surviving (and identifiable) designs, predating the official foundation of Persol, show a unique combination of old and new features. These vintage glasses – made after World War I but before World War II – sometimes already show a characteristic cat eye glasses shape, even before the full flourishing of the style in the 1950s and 1960s.

Blue cat eye glasses   Fitted with vented side visors mounted on small pivots to the top and bottom of the eyerims, these glasses are clearly intended for sporty, outdoor use. In fact, they are often fitted with yellow tinted lenses – which, it will be remembered, first showed up for use by hunters and soldiers, including American Civil War snipers, as a tone believed to provide better vision on cloudy or foggy days.

The yellow tint of these early Persol cat eye glasses was probably a throwback to this period – and was meant to give motorists and pilots clearly vision in less than ideal lighting conditions. The fact that the eyewear was meant to be mostly protective is underlined by the solid side visors, which could be folded out to lessen glare from the “edges”. Tiny vents were pierced through these visors – too small to admit grit kicked up from the road or the odd flying insect, but big enough to keep the space behind the glasses cooler during a hot summer drive.

These vintage eyeglasses are also extremely stylish, and wouldn’t look out of place on a glamorous woman with their sleek, cat eye glasses shape. They are also the harbinger of things to come in the future of Persol glasses – which were destined to retain their glamor and their quality up to the present day. Movie stars playing the role of gangsters replaced the daredevil pilots of the earlier 20th century as the iconic figures who favored these vintage eyeglass frames, but the vigor of Persol carried on.

Windsor Eyeglasses Safety Goggles from the Early 20th Century

Safety goggles have had a longer history than most people realize, and some in the form of Windsor eyeglasses date back to the first years of the 20th century. In fact, a French medieval helmet has been found with clear mica in the visors, or “vision slits”, to keep splintered lances or the knives of opponents from finding their way through. Vintage Safety glasses only became widespread in the 19th century, though, and even at that time, it was limited to a few lucky workers, as well as early motor car drivers.

Several different substances were used to make safety glass lenses fro vintage eyeglasses in the immediate wake of the American Civil War, at a point when industrialization was taking hold rapidly and more people than ever were being exposed to potentially blinding factory processes. The materials used included mica – which was also called “isinglass”, and was used for covering peepholes in early Model T Ford cars – and “marine glass”. These safety glasses, which already had a Windsor eyeglasses-like configuration, were rare and expensive, however.

Vintage safety goggles The early 20th century witnessed the creation of the first effective, mass-produced safety antique eyeglasses. These were created by (or under the direction of) Walter King, the inheritor of the Julius King Optical Company of Cleveland from his father. King was motivated by seeing the massive orders for glass eyes in the industrial cities of the United States, indicating the high rate at which factory workers were being maimed by dangerous industrial processes.

Early safety Windsor eyeglasses

Since safety glasses are best made spectacles, with temples to keep them firmly on the head, rather than pince nez, which could be easily knocked off the face in a factory accident or even driven into the eyes, Walter King used the then-current Windsor eyeglasses design to create the first cheap, effective, mass-produced safety glasses in 1912.

These vintage glasses were readily available enough so that most workers could easily be outfitted with them, and this advance undoubtedly saved thousands of people from losing an eye and hundreds more from being permanently blinded in both eyes.

The largest improvement that Walter King made – indeed, the underpinning of the success of these protective Windsor eyeglasses – was the special tempered glass that the lenses were made out of. This tough glass was adapted from a method that had been used to produce rugged glass “chimneys” for kerosene lamps. Walter King’s company was absorbed into American Optical in 1923, but he remained as director of the firm’s safety glass department, which soon acquired a reputation for excellence that it was to retain for many years.

Characteristics of Antique Windsor eyeglasses-style safety glasses

Vintage safety goggles The Windsor eyeglasses-type safety glasses of the early 20th century are mostly very plain, though they have a stark beauty all their own, as well as being clearly designed to be as multifunctional as possible. The eyeglass frames, including bridge, eyerims, and temples, were made out of steel for sturdiness. The lenses are tempered glass, and are either transparent or grey-tinted, the latter meant to protect the eyes of those gazing into furnaces or other brilliantly illuminated work areas.

The cable temples were made to be both secure (with their riding bow shape to hook over the ears) and as comfortable as possible for long wear. Side shields very similar to those found on modern safety glasses are found on the outer sides of many eyerims, made out of fine steel mesh just as is the case today. These Vintage eyeglasses adapted for safety use are interesting relics of the Industrial Revolution in America, and the efforts of Walter King to protect the eyesight of his fellow men.

Patent Infringement in the 1920 vintage Glasses Market and the Spread of Oxfords

Though the culture that produced 1920 vintage glasses such as Oxfords might have been somewhat more genteel than our own in some regards, there was still plenty of room for cutthroat competition between firms. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the vindictive legal battles and outright, blatant patent infringement that occurred when Oxford Pince Nez were rising meteorically in popularity.

As noted in the previous article, the initial Oxfords of 1910 were made by E. P. Hutten and a man named McDougall, working for the Geoffrey & Co. firm of Park Place, New York City. Among the distinctive features of their Oxfords – indeed, the one that made their eyeglasses so popular in the 1920 antique eyeglasses market and later – were the offset nose guards which were both secure and comfortable. They also invented a method of folding the Oxfords.

pince nez glasses  Several years later, Hutten and McDougall patented their Oxfords to ensure that these round vintage glasses would remain their sole preserve. However, Frank Krementz Co., seeing how successful the design of their rival was proving, began manufacturing precisely the same kind of Oxfords, including Hutten and McDougall’s offset nose-guards and an identical folding mechanism, and marketing them successfully as well.

Hutten and McDougall sued, but Thomas G. Haight, judge of the Circuit Court of Appeals, eventually threw out the case and declared the patent invalid on April 4, 1916. Frank Krementz Co. made no effort to deny that they copied Hutten and McDougall’s design openly and completely.

Instead, they argued that production of these 1920 glasses for several years before the patent was filed rendered the patent invalid, since the design was unprotected, publicly available, and legally able to be copied for years before the spurious patent was filed. The judge upheld this view, and production of Oxfords exploded as other firms took up production of these extremely popular items of vintage eyewear.

The ironic fame of E. P. Hutten in the 1920 glasses world

     pince nez glasses       Considering E. P. Hutten’s failed effort to defend Oxfords as his exclusive, patented preserve, there is some irony in the fact that his name was used as an advertising gimmick by the very competitors he took to court over the matter. Hutten and McDougall’s design was noted for its quality, comfort, and good balance, and thus, Oxfords were known as Hutten Oxfords as well.

Some companies went further, and placed text in their advertisements that stated their own glasses were “As good as Hutten’s”! The relatively high price of these vintage eyeglasses, whether in their precious metal or tortoise shell incarnations, was no obstacle to their sales, and opticians reported selling out Oxfords, whether of Hutten’s manufacture or from any of the other firms that jostled their way eagerly into the market, within a short time of receiving them. 1920 glasses could be as much a fad item as anything made today and endorsed by celebrities – which is lucky for modern collectors, since this ensured a large supply of Oxford pince nez were made and that many survive to the present time to delight us with their superb craftsmanship and stylish lines.

Makers of Round Vintage Glasses – the Varied Market of Oxfords

Oxfords were immensely popular round vintage glasses in their day, made to be both practical eyewear and pieces of carefully sculpted fashion art. Many featured the handles or ribbon loops also found on pince nez, though typically in an elongated, highly decorated form that almost transformed them into “miniature lorgnettes”. Such handles were necessary not only as a mount for safety ribbons, chains, or cords, but also to allow the user to hold the glasses without covering the lenses in thumbprints.

A large number of different antique eyeglasses companies existed in our nation at the turn of the 20th century, each with their own contribution to make to the world of round vintage glasses. This robust group of businesses, each unable to completely dominate the market yet thriving on the affluence of America’s urban society at the time, ensured both a rich diversity of Oxfords (in design, decoration, and fittings) and a number of interesting experimental features that would never occur in today’s time of practical uniformity.round vintage glasses

Some of the more notable companies and their achievements include:

Geoffrey & Company was the actual inventor of these round vintage glasses. Two employees, one E.P. Hutten and another man identified only as “McDougall”, developed Oxfords through a trial and error process, and the design was initially marketed only with 14 karat solid yellow gold frames, which sold for $18 at the time, which is somewhere around $426 today in 2012.

American Optical Company and Tried & Proved Optical Company were two firms heavily involved in introducing Oxfords in the first place. These companies made both folding and non-folding Oxfords, following the folding method already devised for pince nez in the preceding years. They worked mostly in precious metals such as solid gold, white gold, or gold-filled frames and began the pattern of ornate Oxfords which was to continue through the whole history of these vintage eyeglasses.

Bausch & Lomb naturally came to play an important role in the expanding production of  vintage eyeglass frames of Oxford type, though they were uncharacteristically tardy, allowing the pioneering firms of American Optical, Tried & Proved, and Krementz to establish a good foothold in the business. Bausch & Lomb’s product was unusual, however, in keeping with the company’s individualistic approach at the time – their Oxfords were made completely out of tortoise shell, or zylonite in tortoise shell colors, including the bridge.

Optical Products Corporation followed up on Bausch & Lomb by offering a hybrid version of antique glasses. Their Oxfords featured tortoise shell eyerims, but a metal spring bridge and other fittings, giving tortoise shell style with a practical metal spring for better gripping.

round vintage glassesAmerican Optical Company had not shot its bolt with creativity, however. Towards the end of the Oxfords’ lifespan, in 1930, the Z-fold Oxford was introduced. This type of vintage eyeglasses had a complex but highly effective hinged spring bridge which allowed the Oxfords to be folded in the shape of a Z. This produced a tightly folded pair of Oxfords and is a marvel of miniaturization for the time, in terms of the tiny working parts that were produced and fitted together to make the mechanism function smoothly and reliably.

Almost all of these American Oxfords were made with an attention to quality and sturdiness that is seldom found in consumer goods today, and thus many have survived in perfect working order to our own age, nearly a century later.

Tortoise Shell Eyeglasses – Oxfords, Femininity, and Masculinity

Tortoise shell eyeglasses provide a warm, colorful contrast with the colder, though still attractive, sheen of all metal antique eyeglasses, and this material was actually part of an interesting trend with the Oxfords of the early 20th century: the emergence of masculine and feminine styles of vintage glasses rather than the unisex eyewear of the previous centuries.

This was to have important consequences for later generations’ antique spectacles, also. Though the cat eye glasses of the 1950s, 1960s, and to some extent the modern day bear no resemblance to Oxfords, the idea of masculine and feminine eyewear led to the development of styles meant to be elegant and ladylike (such as cat eyes) or rugged and macho, enriching the eyeglass scene for many decades to come by encouraging development of different styles for different customers.

tortoise shell eyeglasses

tortoise shell eyeglasses

Metal Oxfords and the introduction of tortoise shell eyeglasses

            Oxfords were initially made only with metal rims and bridges. These were usually made out of steel but many white gold, solid gold, and gold-filled examples were also crafted, thanks in part to the pre-Depression economy’s vigor, which put purchasing power in wider segments of the population than had been true at any other point in history.  Alloys were also used frequently.

Many of these metal Oxfords survive to this day, but there are also many tortoise shell eyeglasses in the Oxford configuration. These may be genuine tortoise shell eyeglasses, or zylonite. Zylonite became economically feasible to produce in large quantities and precise, fine shapes early in the 20th century, and was quickly adapted to Oxford frames.

Zylonite was often described as tortoise shell at the time, because it was often colored to duplicate the natural material harvested from the carapaces of luckless hawksbill sea turtles. This was not so much an attempt at deceitful advertising as the fact that both manufacturers and the public were rather casual about whether the tortoise shell was genuine or not, so “tortoise shell glasses” became a generic term to any vintage glasses whose frames vaguely resembled tortoise shell.

Tortoise shell glasses (whether natural or zylonite) of the Oxford type are usually fitted with a metal spring bridge and metal nose guards or plaquettes, since these parts required the tough springiness of metal and the small, precise moving parts made possible with metallic substances. However, they were often coated with zylonite as well to make them match the eyerims aesthetically.

Antique eyeglasses and masculinity

          tortoise shell eyeglasses  The production of Oxfords in the form of tortoise shell vintage eyeglasses ushered in the first major manufacturing of non-unisex eyewear on Earth. Before that time, spectacles and pince nez had been made to be worn by either sex. However, the burly, robust look of tortoise shell eyeglasses prompted men to purchase them as looking more masculine, while women, interested at the time in celebrating their femininity as something positive, preferred the more delicate, sleek look of metal-rimmed Oxfords.

The split was not total, of course. Many men still sported metal rimmed Oxfords without feeling their masculinity diminished, and some women wore tortoise shell eyeglasses just as readily. However, the emergence of male and female versions of Oxfords encouraged exploration of new fashions meant to cater to the tastes of one sex or the other.

Metal Oxfords studded with tiny diamonds appeared for female evening wear, while tortoise shell eyeglasses (either genuine or zylonite) sometimes appeared with very heavy frames which were likely designed to appeal to the more macho wearers of these vision aids.

Oxfords – the Round Vintage Glasses of the Early 20th Century

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.

oxford vintage glasses

oxford vintage glasses

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.

oxford vintage glasses

oxford vintage glasses

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.

Style, Comfort, and Coated Windsor Vintage Eyeglass Frames

Though style and comfort sometimes collide head-on – and given the peculiarities of the human psyche, it is unclear which of the two will emerge victorious in a specific “struggle” – Windsor Vintage eyeglass frames often show a blending of both stylistic and comfort considerations from their earliest days. Constructed out of narrow wires, almost always made from metal, these early Windsor eyeglass frames required coating to reach both their aesthetic and ergonomic peak.

Aesthetically, plain Windsor Vintage eyeglass frames are very plain indeed. A thin edging of bare steel, and small diameter wire riding bow temples, are spare to the point of starkness. Although some people enjoy this level of Zen-like simplicity in their vintage eyewear (and there is certainly nothing wrong with that), many others prefer a warmer, more organic, slightly more colorful look that can be provided with a coating.

windsor vintage eyeglass frames   Ergonomically speaking, coatings are important for wearer comfort also. The thin, bare wires of vintage eyeglasses tend to dig uncomfortably into the flesh, especially on the sides of the nose and behind the ears. Coatings render the frames somewhat bulkier, so the pressure is distributed over a larger area, and also make the edges touching the skin a bit softer and springier. Coated wires also get warm from body heat, while metal frames tend to stay cool or cold.

Materials used to coat Windsor vintage glasses frames

            When Windsor eyeglass frames first appeared on the American market in the 1840s, plastic and celluloid still lay in the future. However, vulcanized rubber existed, and thanks to J. J. Bausch’s introduction of it to the vintage spectacles world in that decade, it was available for optical uses. The first coated antique eyeglasses were covered in a layer of hard rubber, a substance whose springiness helped to make the frames more comfortable to wear as well as protecting the metal from damage, scrapes, and corrosion.

Celluloid entered the Windsor eyeglass frames scene much later, and if a coating is not obviously rubber, then it is likely that the Windsors in question are from sometime in the early 20th century rather than the mid or late 19th century, when these coatings existed only in an experimental form that was not yet used on antique eyeglasses (or for any practical application).

windsor vintage eyeglass frames  Zylonite was first created in 1865, the last year of the American Civil War, which proved to be a remarkable catalyst for development of the American vintage eyeglasses industry in other ways, too. Once again, its use was pioneered by a German-American, one Paul Schützenberger, though he was technically of French extraction because of his birth in Alsace, a part of France despite its Germanic language and customs. However, it was not made cheap to make and convenient to apply until the first few years of the 20th century.

Zylonite was often called “tortoiseshell” for advertising purposes, even though it was actually a celluloid compound (and is still in use today). The colors most frequently encountered are tortoiseshell (a marbled hue designed to match the natural substance), blond, brown, and black. Other marbled hues, such as “demi-blond”, were also made to satisfy wearer’s interest in dignified but colorful vintage eyeglasses.

The Emergence of Windsor Glasses

The 19th century was a fertile time for the creation of new antique eyeglasses styles in America, as well as innumerable variants on existing configurations; pince nez were first made in this era, and Windsor glasses, which survive in use to this day, also put in their first appearance in the 1800s.

This period was probably so rich in ophthalmic history because manufacturing technology had made immense leaps forward, but the “best” solution to the making eyeglasses had not yet been found, leading to diverse, interesting experiments in the field of applied optics that lead to the vintage eyeglasses treasures collectors enjoy today.

windsor antique eyeglasses     Windsor glasses are defined by a number of distinctive features. Though these features are found in other antique glasses of the period (as well as earlier and later eras), there are no others which possess all of these features, which permit you to identify Windsor antique eyeglasses quickly and definitely:

Round lenses and eyerims.

A “nose saddle” bridge which is a very simple bridge type, consisting of a gently arched piece of metal between the eyerims. The presence of separate nose pads, plaquettes, or other retaining devices means that the spectacles in question are not Windsor glasses.

Frequent use of celluloid as a coating for the frames or even the lenses (to achieve a sunglasses effect), though this is not an inevitable feature and thus is not primarily diagnostic of whether or not specific spectacles are Windsors. However, the presence of celluloid, as well as other coatings such as plastic later in the history of these glasses, does not disqualify them from being considered Windsors, either.

Riding bow temples – these are thin wire temples with a strongly curved further extremity, so that they can be hooked over the ears. They were an early 19th century British invention which quickly spread abroad, and were originally meant to keep spectacles in place while galloping about on horseback, a rapid, jolting motion that might dislodge other eyewear. In the case of Windsor glasses, riding bow temples were adopted simply to keep the glasses in place, since they exert absolutely no gripping action on the nose and would slip off immediatley if not for the wires hooked firmly behind the ears.

Generally, though not always, slender metal construction of eyerims, bridges, and temples, though these may look thicker thanks to heavy rubber or zylonite coatings.

windsor antique eyeglasses      Antique Windsor glasses were produced with frames made from practically every metal then used in the eyeglass industry – including Roman steel (a soft variety), hard steel (popular in the Civil War period), gold-filled, silver, solid gold in various karats of purity (up to a maximum of 14 karat gold), aluminum, brass, nickel, and a host of alloys as well.

Though it was not until around 1880 that Windsor vintage glasses rocketed to success in the United States and became fully as popular as other types of vintage eyewear – with such eminent personalities as Theodore Roosevelt wearing them alongside pince nez – there are existing examples, apparently of American manufacture, dating back as far as the early 1840s.

Tortoiseshell Vintage Glasses and Cases in Late 19th Century America

Tortoiseshell is an exquisitely beautiful substance and was popular as a material for vintage glasses for several centuries – tortoiseshell glasses also appeared in later 19th century America. The shell actually comes from the hawksbill sea turtle, and not a tortoise – an unfortunate use for a rare and remarkable creature, though one which, at the time, was held in a strangely intense contempt.

Tortoiseshell glasses frames were made from the earliest times up until the first decade of the 20th century, and only lost their place among the creations of American vintage eyeglasses manufacturers when rubber coated steel frames and plastic coated steel frames were introduced in the First World War era. These substances, especially zylonite, were made to resemble tortoiseshell and were often advertised as such, sparing the innocuous hawksbills any further harvesting.

tortoiseshell vintage glasses         Genuine tortoiseshell antique eyeglasses are likely to be from the late 19th or the very earliest 20th centuries. If you can positively identify glasses as being made of this substance, then you will have placed the glasses in time fairly accurately. If burnt, tortoiseshell produces a biting, acrid reek not unlike burning hair. This is a drastic form of identification, however, especially for valuable antique eyeglasses, and it is better to pass a finger lightly over the surface to see if it is slickly smooth (plastic or rubber) or if there are slight but perceptible whorls (tortoiseshell).

Tortoiseshell vintage glasses frames can be readily repaired by heating the broken ends and pressing them together, which will cause them to fuse. However, these vintage glasses need to be kept safe from rodents, since mice and rats devour tortoiseshell glasses eagerly, and many old pairs show at least a few nibble marks from the hungry murines of long ago.

Tortoiseshell glasses cases and pince nez cases

            Tortoiseshell looks even more spectacular as the main component of a glasses or pince nez case, if possible, than it does as the frames of a set of antique spectacles or Oxfords. The larger surfaces gave the artisan the chance to show off the natural beauty and marbled, variegated hues of the remnants of a hawksbill turtle’s shell, rather than just as a bit of striping on the narrow surface of eyerims and temples. These cases are frequently edged with silver, and occasionally with gold.

tortoiseshell vintage glasses   Tortoiseshell glasses are often best complemented by a period case, though the buyer must beware since better quality plastics have a strong resemblance to tortoiseshell. Their tactile feel is different, however – there are low whorls left by the organic structure of the shell

At least one famous figure associated with American vintage eyeglasses benefited from using a less stylish steel, rather than tortoiseshell, glasses case, however. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was saved from an attempt to shoot him by a saloon owner named John Schrank in Milwaukee. The bullet was slowed enough by the steel case to lodge superficially in the muscle rather than puncturing his lung – a rare instance where choosing tortoiseshell might have been the less optimal decision.

American Vintage Sunglasses in the 19th Century

Sunglasses have had a surprisingly long history, dating back to the boundary of the Medieval era and the Renaissance, and the American vintage sunglasses in the 19th century are the continuation of a long tradition of tinted, sun-defeating lenses for the comfort of those outdoors in the summer glare. Venice was a center of production, with its skilled artisans being kept literally as highly-paid prisoners by the Venetian government lest they seek employment outside the canal-laced city.

Many vintage sunglasses from the early American period still exist, but these are almost all imported, since the Americans were incapable of producing plain lenses on an adequate scale, and certainly were unable to make lenses made out of tinted glass.

vintage sunglasses Most of these early sunglasses, imported from Europe, have curious D-shaped eyerims and lenses, with the flat side of the D facing the outer edges of the vintage glasses and the curved side flanking the nose. Since pince nez had not yet been invented, all American sunglasses prior to Bausch’s era were spectacles, with the characteristic D-shaped lenses and temples to tie around the head with cords or ribbons.

The D-shaped lenses were made for a very specific purpose. These early vintage eyeglasses almost all had two sets of eyerims and two sets of lenses. One set of eyerims housed plain, clear lenses, while the others featured tinted glass. The D-shape allowed the eyerims to be hinged together at the flat outer edge of the D, so that the outer, tinted eyerims could be opened and shut like shutters on a window. The user could thus choose whether to look through transparent or tinted lenses.

Bausch’s first vintage sunglasses pince nez

            John Jacob Bausch was such a pivotal, perhaps dominant, figure in the 19th century American eyeglass world that it is impossible to discuss any topic related to the era without his name cropping up somewhere in relation to it. Some of Bausch’s first pince nez, with a powerfully arched hoop spring bridge and hard, vulcanized rubber eyerims, featured dark-tinted lenses to serve as pince nez.

The emergence of an American antique eyeglasses industry

            The Civil War was again the moment when the American eyeglasses industry shook off the lethargy of two centuries of dependence on European imports, and emerged as a muscular colossus capable of both supplying all domestic needs and of taking the rest of the world’s markets by storm.

vintage sunglasses     antique sunglasses were made for the first time at this time, though it is uncertain if the sharpshooter’s glasses used during the Civil War itself, with their tinted amber lenses and mix of transparent and frosted glass in a single lens, were early American successes in the field or European imports. By 1867, American vintage glasses were just as much in demand in Europe for their quality as corrective lenses.

Most of these superbly crafted vintage eyewear were some type of pince nez or Oxfords, not spectacles as the earlier types had been. They were made in many colors, ranging from yellow for hunters (it is quite possible that Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was wearing a pair on the famous hunt which led to the creation of the “Teddy bear”) to green for those suffering from Parkinson’s, since the verdant color was believed to soothe the mind and lessen the shaking caused by the ailment. Obtaining a pair with the original colored lenses is quite a feather in the cap of any collector of vintage sunglasses from America.

The Emergence of American 19th Century Eyeglasses on the World Stage

For centuries, the American continent was decidedly junior to Europe in the manufacture of both eyeglass lenses and the antique eyeglasses themselves, but this changed with the high quality 19th century eyeglasses which were fashioned in the New World. The earliest days of the Colonies were obviously too hardscrabble and technically primitive to sustain a sophisticated lens grinding and frame fashioning industry, though horn and leather frames of a rough type were produced by Colonial craftsmen.

Thereafter, native industry existed at a low level, but remained the poor cousin of the long-established European centers for many years. The European lenses and vintage glasses displayed a mix of high quality and low cost that was too steep a barrier to entry for the artisans of the early United States to overcome. A few feeble attempts were made by the American government to foster local production, but these remained limited in scope or fizzled out after a few years.

19th century eyeglasses   The watershed occurred at the time of the Civil War. One of the positive results emerging from the horror of internecine warfare was that shipments of eyeglasses from Europe were greatly reduced by the chaos of war on the waves. At times, the European supply was cut off entirely. The 19th century eyeglasses made by Americans owe part of their existence to the rattle of muskets on the Civil War battlefields.

The role of German immigrants in American vintage eyeglasses

            Many of the American-made 19th century eyeglasses placed in collections or worn by the historically minded today were the result of another factor as well. Numerous knowledgeable German lens grinders and eyeglass artisans fled or moved to the United States during the Revolutions of 1848. In effect, it was two successive conflicts which gave America its first strong foothold in the manufacture of eyeglasses – a position of eminence it was to maintain until the destruction of American manufacturing during the Carter presidency in the 20th century.

John Jacob Bausch is a German-American figure who has already been mentioned as the creator of the pince nez portion of the 19th century eyeglasses industry in the U.S., and who was one of the founding partners of Bausch & Lomb. Bausch opened an optical shop in Rochester, New York, and, after finding a piece of vulcanized rubber in a New York City street when he was visiting the metropolis. Curious about this substance, he took it to his shop and made the first pair of rubber frames for antique eyeglasses, which was to prove his fortune during the Civil War.

19th century eyeglasses  Bausch was not the only German to contribute to the budding American eyeglass industry, however. Another fellow named Isaac Schnaitman, who actually arrived prior to the Revolutions of 1848 (probably in response to the deteriorating economic conditions in Germany that eventually prompted the mayhem) made a name for himself at the Franklin Institute Fair in Philadelphia, and went on to patent the first true bifocals – which featured two focuses ground into a single lens, rather than Franklin’s two lenses fused together – in 1836. The German-American took the American’s superior idea and made it even better, making America an early leader in bifocal production.

America outdoes Europe

            The combination of American and German-American know-how and the huge boost that the American Civil War gave to local production affected a remarkable change by the end of the conflict. By 1867, American  vintage glasses lenses had outstripped European equivalents in excellence – in fact, their quality was higher by a considerable margin – and as a result, Europe became an importer of 19th century eyeglasses and lenses from the former Colonies.

Civil War Spectacles – the Hand of Bausch & Lomb

When considering Civil War spectacles, it is perhaps ironic that the man who did more than any other American entrepreneur to create the immense popularity of pince nez glasses and their successors, Oxfords – John Jacob Bausch, an immigrant from Germany who arrived in the United States with the superior manufacturing techniques of the Old World in his brain – and his company – Bausch & Lomb – should also be largely responsible for the most significant advances in spectacle design of the mid-19th century.

A massive disconnect with the styles and engineering of spectacles of the immediately preceding period is clear to even a casual glance. The spectacles of Benjamin Franklin’s and George Washington’s times featured round lenses to the exclusion of nearly any other shape, and the double-hinged flat strap temples that tied around the head or secured to the powdered wigs of 18th century “fashion plates”. Antique eyeglasses from the Civil war era have a very different arrangement.

civil war spectacles     The lenses of Civil War spectacles were almost all either oval or an elongated octagon (a horizontally stretched rectangle with the corners cut off). Round lenses from the time of Gettysburg and Bull Run are very rare indeed. The temples also have a very different look. Most of these changes can be traced by inference to Bausch & Lomb, who owned a large market share in spectacle sales as well as being the undisputed kings of pince nez, soaring in popularity thanks to wartime conditions.

Unusual battlefield designs for vintage eye glasses

            Among the rarest and most intriguing of Civil War spectacles are the strange vintage glasses known as “sharpshooter’s glasses”. These were not made for vision correction but for clear-sighted snipers. Their lenses are tinted yellow or amber, which was believed at the time to make the vision sharper in cloudy or foggy conditions.

Furthermore, each lens is frosted to the point of near opacity except right at the center, where a clear area of glass has been left like a pupil in the midst of a frosted iris. The “pupil” is also tinted amber. The idea was that the sniper using sharpshooter’s glasses would be able to focus on the small area visible through the central clear areas. There would be no peripheral distractions, and the narrow field of view might have also amplified contrast, especially when viewed through yellow tinting.

civil war spectacles    At the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Union Major General John Sedgwick was outraged at his men ducking in a “cowardly” manner from sniper bullets and stood out in the open, declaring “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this range”, a split second before being killed instantly by a shot that penetrated his left eye socket. It is interesting to speculate on whether the Confederate sniper who killed the bombastic general was assisted in making such a precise shot by wearing sharpshooter’s glasses.

Civil War spectacles and the vagaries of the chic

            The temporary victory of oval and octagonal frames is an intriguing feature of Civil War spectacles such as those made by Bausch & Lomb. Pince nez at the time usually had round lenses, and round lenses made a reappearance as the most popular design for spectacles several decades later. Today, ovals predominate, but it is interesting to wonder if the pendulum of fashion will swing back in the next generation or two and round spectacles will once again come to dominate the market.

The Furor Over Black Ribbon on Vintage Eyewear

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.

vintage eyewear     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 blavintage eyewearck 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.

Civil War Glasses and the Warrior’s Pince Nez

Despite the early 20th century belief at that pince nez were “delicate” and “ladylike”, pince nez were simultaneously associated with one of the world’s most manly callings, that of the warrior or soldier, as in the example of Civil War glasses. As with other human stylistic choices, it was quite possible for people to reconcile two very dissimilar uses for the same piece of garb in accordance with the way they wanted to view it while wearing it – an interesting commentary, perhaps, on the flexibility of human perceptions.

Soldiers, officers, and generals of the American Civil War frequently wore pince nez, though at this time the choice was largely due to the lack of alternatives due to wartime metal shortages and trade disruptions. These vintage eyeglasses were often early hoop spring pince nez with a metal bridge and vulcanized rubber eyerims, of the type devised by John Bausch.

vintage eyeglasses     During the Plains Wars of the post-Civil War era, cavalry soldiers wore metal rimmed pince nez in preference to spectacles. The bridges of these cavalry pince nez bore the legend “U.S. Army”, making them easy to identify today, though few remain. Pince nez were well suited to a cavalry soldier’s needs, since they could be put on and taken off one-handed, while the other hand held the reins or a rifle.

Pince nez in the First World War

            During the First World War, pince nez reached their height as military eyepieces – not simply being the most readily available, as was the case with Civil War glasses, but actually being advocated by governments as the most suitable for soldiers. The American army was particularly keen on this idea, making the wartime use of pince nez a signal part of United States

Pince nez were believed to be the best corrective eyewear for the infantry and their officers because they fit so neatly under a gas mask. The temples of spectacles reached back past the edges of a gas mask, creating two small gaps, one on each side of the head. Pince nez, however, sat entirely on the nose underneath the mask and did not interfere with it seal.

By this time, immediately before the Great Depression caused a shift towards wearing the cheaper spectacles, the early Civil War glasses had evolved to the point where they were highly effective mechanical masterpieces. Their spring structure was sturdy enough and gripped the nose effectively enough so that soldiers could run, crawl, fire their weapons, and perform other combat-related activities while their pince nez remained firmly on their noses.

vintage eyeglasses   Pince nez were also worn by those air aces who needed visual correction, allowing them to maneuver and aim precisely despite their vision problems. With their small size and bridge-of-the-nose positioning, this type of eyewear could fit beneath pilots’ goggles as easily as under a gas mask.

Descended from the antique eyeglasses of an earlier era, these military pince nez were almost always worn without a safety ribbon, which could all too easily get tangled with gear, ranging from the edge of a gas mask to the butt of a rifle set against the shoulder for aiming. Pince nez without a ribbon, chain, or safety cord came to be viewed as having a crisp martial look – a fact that those attempting to duplicate this look today might wish to note.