Hard Bridge Pince Nez Glasses from Olden Days

Few types of eyewear have multiplied into as many variants as pince nez glasses, which evolved a moment when humanity had reached a high level of technical competence in the manufacture of glass, steel, and rubber, permitting a diverse number of “solutions” to keeping these glasses on the nose, but when commercial and scientific uniformity had not yet occurred as it has in our own day.

Pince nez glasses made in America between the Civil War and World War I display a fascinating array of design patterns, bridges, pads, levers, eyerims, and rimless types all intended to strike a balance between style and function. The pince nez glasses form was mostly intended to minimize the visibility of eyewear on the human face, since glasses were viewed as a disfigurement at the time, but were also light, compact, and convenient to carry.

pince nezSome intriguing details survive about the correct wearing of pince nez from this period of United States history. For example, practically all included either a built-in loop or projection from the bottom of one eyerim where a ribbon or cord could be tied to secure the pince nez glasses to the wearer. Among men, this ribbon was usually affixed either to the lapel, or looped entirely around the neck. Ladies, by contrast, either tied the ribbon around an ear, or attached it one of their hairpins.

Hard bridge pince nez glasses, which are also known by the name of fingerpiece pince nez glasses, are a species of pince nez which could be applied or removed one-handed thanks to their spring-loaded, lever-operated nose pads – or more properly, plaquettes.

Identifying characteristics of hard bridge pince nez glasses

            Pince nez glasses with hard bridges (fingerpiece) have many of the same traits as other pince nez – the absence of temples, manufacture in both rimmed and rimless variants, and thin glass or crystal lenses to render them as lightweight as possible for the wearer’s comfort. They are distinguished from other vintage eyeglasses of this type by the construction of the bridge and the plaquettes.

Pince nez glasses of this kind have a solid, hard bridge, unlike the springy bridges found, for example, on hard rubber pince nez. This bridge was curved to accommodate the nose, but provided no gripping action in itself. Instead, a pair of small levers called fingerpieces were found at the front of the bridge. These, when pressed, opened the spring-loaded nose pads, or plaquettes, which were the means of keeping the eyewear in place. Releasing the fingerpieces caused the plaquettes to be forced inwards by the springs, pressing them firmly against the sides of the nose.

Comfort and convenience of fingerpiece pince nez

 pince nez           There is a longstanding opinion on the part of many modern eyeglass historians that hard bridge or fingerpiece pince nez are very discommodious to wear, pinching the nose painfully if worn for longer than a few minutes at time. Although there are probably some pairs made in this manner (especially those whose plaquettes have become knobby and irregular from long wear), many hard bridge pince nez glasses are quite comfortable to wear, especially with the original lightweight lenses.

Interestingly, hard bridge pince nez were very popular with the officers of all nations during the First World War, because they could be easily put on or removed one-handed while carrying weapons, and because they could be worn comfortably under a gas mask – a consideration that few people today are likely to need in a practical sense, but which adds another refreshing dose of historical color and interest to these distinctive antique eyeglasses.

Hard Rubber Pince Nez and the American Civil War

Many of the changes in the American eyeglass and spectacle scene seem to have been intimately tied to the rattle of muskets and the thunder of cannon. Large scale American manufacture of lenses (as opposed to vintage eyeglass frames) began at the time of the War of 1812, when supplies of lenses from Europe were disrupted by England’s hostility on the high seas. The Revolutions of 1848 in Europe drove many fine lens grinders out of Germany to refuge in the United States, where they created the first bifocal lenses using a single piece of glass or crystal, improving on Benjamin Franklin’s invention. Similarly, the introduction of pince nez was greatly aided by the American Civil War.

The first pince nez in the United States were known as hard rubber pince nez. Just as with bifocals, history has preserved the name of the individual who created the first eyewear of this type – John Jacob Bausch, a fellow whose company, Bausch & Lomb, generates $2.5 billion in revenue annually today.

pince nez    Bausch’s invention was a pair of pince nez with large, round lenses fitted into vulcanized hard rubber frames. This invention was originally spurned, though it corrected the weaknesses of brittle American horn-rimmed spectacle frames. However, the American Civil War proved a boon to the German-American entrepreneur. Trade with Europe was disrupted again, and demand for the hard rubber pince nez exploded, since they were made entirely in the United States.

Eyerims and bridges of the hard rubber pince nez

            Hard rubber pince nez offered sturdy, though rather uncomfortable, eyewear that stays on the face without the need for temples. At the time, temples were viewed as hideously disfiguring to the face, so the pince nez was an answer that minimized the area of the visage covered by eyewear. The eyerims of these early pince nez are also hard rubber, with a widened flange on the inner side to attempt to spread their pressure over more of the nose’s surface, thus making them more comfortable.

The bridges of these earliest pince nez are usually a high arch of stiff wire, which may be either blued steel, or steel coated in vulcanized rubber. This wire is hard, springy, and is bent in such a way to provide inward tension towards the space between the eyerims – in other words, the area where the wearer’s nose is located. Thus, these pince nez remain on the nose through the passive spring action of the bridge, rather than mechanical levers, pads, and springs.

pince nez


Variant bridges include those made from a thin, flat strip of metal bent over in an arch, riveted to a projection molded onto the top of each eyerim. One eyerim usually has a loop molded into its lower edge to accommodate a safety ribbon or cord to keep the pince nez from falling to the ground if they slip off the nose.

Optical lenses and early sunglasses

            You may be able to find surviving hard rubber pince nez with optical lenses for correcting the vision, and others which are fitted with lenses darkened with coquille glazing. These latter were early sunglasses, or, if you prefer, “shades”. This gives the collector several interesting options for acquiring pince nez from this far-off day, though surviving examples are mostly kept in large collections.

Sophisticated Antique Eyewear – Astig Pince Nez

The technology of the past is often fascinating for the ingenuity which was put into solving a problem with sharply limited materials and mechanical parts compared to modern equivalents, and some of the most sophisticated antique eyewear are astig pince nez. An alternate name for astig glasses is “spring bridge”, which is a highly accurate description of how astigs work, but which is not nearly as memorable a name for this type of antique eyewear.

(Astig is, of course, a shortened form of “astigmatism”.)

Pince nez antique eyewear          Once again, the bridge of astigs is the key portion of this antique eyewear which sets it apart from all other kinds of pince nez. Astigs have a very distinctive appearance, as easily distinguished as that of Oxford glasses, hoop bridge pince nez, or, for that matter, lorgnettes. They are not suited to all appearances, and are considered to lie at the casual end of pince nez style by many modern observers. Whether this matches your personal sense of fashion is, of course, a matter of your own taste.

Function of astig pince nez bridge pieces

            Due to the mechanical principles involved in their functioning, astigs are antique eyewear which almost never comes in a rimless variety. A few rare specimens of experimental rimless astigs exist, but the overwhelming majority are rimmed due to the demands of the bridge mounting.

Antique eyeglasses of the astig configuration features a horizontal bridge which is actually made of two sliding, interlocked sections. These two sections are bound together with a tubular spring, which both keeps them together and pulls them towards each other by contraction of the metal coil. Pulling on each eyepiece causes the two eyerims to slide apart, widening the gap between the plaquettes mounted to a pivot on the inner curve of each eyerim.

Once your hold on the eyerims is relaxed, the spring telescopes the two halves of the vintage eyewear together again, thus clamping the nose between the plaquettes. The movement opening and closing the astigs must be gentle, since the mechanism, despite its relatively rugged construction (since items were made to last around the turn of the 20th century), still includes many small parts which were constructed a century ago.

Uses of astig pince nez

            Astig pince nez were originally thought to cling more strongly to the nose than other types, and to therefore be suitable for sportsmen and other active individuals. It is still advisable to tie a ribbon or cord into the loop fitted for that purpose, however, and secure the safety ribbon to your lapel or tie its other end around your neck to keep your astig safe in case they drop off your nose.

People of a more casual character often prefer astigs among antique eyewear.

Bar spring astigs

            An alternate form of astig vintage eyeglasses were bar spring pince nez. These were pince nez antique eyeglassesa hybrid between regular astigs and hoop spring pince nez, often fitted to rimless lenses for those who disliked the look of a rim and wanted to make their antique eyeglasses as inconspicuous as possible. The tubular spring and the two sliding ends of the bar were placed above the lenses, with a pair of vertical arms extending downwards to make a flattened C-shape.

The plaquettes were attached to the arms of bar/hoop combination, not the eyerims, producing a very idiosyncratic hybrid form. Unfortunately from a practical viewpoint, the spring section was too small to provide the necessary power and the grip of this antique eyewear on the nose is weak. However, they make superb, unique additions to a collection of vintage eyeglasses, fit to stand beside the best Oxford glasses, or the astig pince nez they were developed from.

Fitting Lenses to Rimless Vintage Eyeware

Adding modern lenses to rimmed pince nez, Oxfords, and other types of vintage eyeware is quite straightforward, since there are eyerims to hold the glass in place. Thus, there is no problem with the safety glass that is the only type that a modern optician will supply to their customers. Refitting such types of vintage eyewear is no more difficult than finding an optician who will make lenses of the strength you need, in the appropriate diameter and shape, and then inserting them in the eyerims.

By contrast, rimless vintage eyeware is a major challenge to fit with modern lenses, thanks to the fact that opticians, obeying the laws of the United States, will only create lenses out of safety glass. This has quite different properties than the glass or rock crystal used in vintage eyeglasses, long before these prudent but limiting laws were enacted.

rimless vintage eyeware    Rimless pince nez and the like attach the bridge and other fittings (such as the ribbon loop) to the lenses with a screw, which must pass through a precisely drilled hole in the lens itself. Attempting to drill safety glass, however, will lead to an unusable lens – it will disintegrate either right at the point of drilling, or entirely, under the stresses of drilling.

Several options exist for adding modern lenses to rimless vintage eyeware so that it can be worn both for the sake of style and vision correction – or, in the form of mirrored sunglasses, as “Matrix glasses”. The most commonly used of these include:


Use plastic lenses. This is the simplest solution, and though it lacks authenticity, it is still effective. These lenses can usually be safely drilled, as long as care and precision are exercised. This is a particularly frequent technique for sunglasses, since the optical properties of the lenses are not as urgent in this case.

Find another piece of rimless vintage eyeware that has lenses of the appropriate strength and move them to the bridge that you prefer. Since most of the rimless pince nez placed the holes at exactly the same spots, regardless of how diverse their forms are otherwise, it is usually possible to move a set of lenses from one pair of antique eyeglasses to another.

Since these lenses are made out of non-safety glass, and come with the holes pre-drilled in them, they are very convenient for fitting to other rimless pince nez.

Many different strengths of lenses are still available in this way. There should be an example of the appropriate optical qualities and desired shape unless your needs are particularly unusual.

It is generally considered better to use modern screws than the originals, and then break off any projecting “excess” with a pair of wire cutters. The vintage screws should be retained as part of the original “ensemble”, however.

Locate separate lenses which have been appropriately drilled, through an online or brick-and-mortar seller of vintage eyeware or by searching auction sites such as eBay. This is a lengthy and painstaking process, so getting polycarbonate or plastic lenses installed as a stopgap that allows the wearing of the vintage eyeware is often a prudent step.

Making Use of a Ribbon to Secure Vintage Eyewear

Regardless of how hard a given pair of pince nez or Oxfords grip the bridge of your nose with their plaquettes, there is still a higher chance of their slipping off and tumbling to the ground than is the case with a pair of modern or antique eyeglasses with temples that hook behind the ears. The solution at the time was to include a ribbon loop on most sets of eyerims for this vintage eyewear. The ribbon loop, made out of metal, provided a place for the user to tie a ribbon or cord.

Black was the favored color for ribbons or cords thus secured to the vintage eyewear, though many people at the time expressed amazingly hostile opinions about the custom, viewing the effect as being rather classless. Today, quite the opposite effect is produced on the mind – a pair of good pince nez with a ribbon looks elegant, intellectual, perhaps even aristocratic.

pince nez vintage eyewear    The modern user is, of course, free to substitute any color of ribbon or cord, or even a fine chain to keep their pince nez in place. However, regardless of the exact aesthetic decision made, it is even more imperative now to use a ribbon to prevent the pince nez from falling to the ground and breaking. This vintage eyewear is no longer manufactured, so any given pair may be literally irreplaceable.

The ribbon loop found on vintage eyewear of the pince nez or Oxford variety may be mounted on either the right or left eyerim, though the right seems to be more typical. Some interesting facts that the collector or wearer of these glasses might want to keep in mind include:

Both rimmed and rimless pince nez included ribbon loops. In the case of rimmed vintage eyewear, the ribbon loop could either be molded into the eyerim – creating a one-piece version of pince nez, with a small, modest-looking loop resulting – or be a separate piece attached by a screw. Attached ribbon loops jutted out like a small handle from the lens, and were attached by a screw. They often had baroque, decorative forms or even surface engraving for greater attractiveness.

Rimless ribbon loops were all of the attached type, and had a metal cusp into which the lens was slipped. A hole had to be drilled in the lens, so that a screw could be passed through the cusp and lens to secure the ribbon loop to the glass. This is technically challenging today when safety glass must legally be used for all eyeglasses.

The ribbon could be attached to a lapel pin, a hair pin, a buttonhole, or simply tied around the neck, which was a solution favored by many male wearers of this vintage eyewear.

Several companies manufactured reels to accommodate the ribbon. These small, thick metal discs included a spring-loaded drum inside which would roll up the ribbon to the appropriate length, much like a telescoping dog leash or measuring tape in our own time. These gems of late 19th century craftsmanship are a truly unusual, memorable approach to the problem of storing the “security ribbon” for pince nez or Oxfords, and make a superb accessory for this kind of vintage eyewear as well as a highly distinctive way to handle the safety ribbon or cord that keeps one’s antique eyeglasses safe.

Folding Pince Nez Versions of Old Eyeglass Frames

Though most people today who are aware of pince nez and Oxfords think of them as being solid and fixed in their form, folding pince nez were immensely popular back in the days when these old eyeglass frames represented the cutting edge of both technology and fashion. Several different types of folding mechanisms were devised – and, curiously, the more complex and interesting was considered at the time to be the cheaper and more common of the two.

Pince nez are already highly compact by the standards of both new and old eyeglass frames, reducing the structure to eyerims connected by one of several different varieties of bridge (which will be discussed in detail in future articles). However, the desire to make them even more convenient led to the development of folding varieties (and, in some instances, the appropriate case to carry them).

    Regardless of the exact mechanism used to fold the pince nez or Oxfords, the folding process ended with the lenses resting one atop the other, with their flat surfaces touching or nearly so. Thus, the largest dimension of the folding eyewear was reduced to the diameter of one of the eyerims. Probably few more compact vision aids have ever been devised.

Z-fold old eyeglass frames

            The most common arrangement invented for pince nez and Oxfords was the z-fold. This is a very intriguing way of folding and unfolding old eyeglass frames, and most surviving examples have such excellent craftsmanship that the action is still crisp, quick, and easy despite the passage of over a hundred years since many of them were first wrought.

Oxfords are best suited to the z-fold, though any spring bridge pince nez (with an arching bridge above the plane of the lenses, connecting them from attachments on the upper curves of eyerims) would also be suitable. It would not be possible to make this exact configuration with vintage eyeglasses that place the bridge between the eyerims rather than above them, such as hoop spring pince nez.

The z-fold bridge is not immovably attached to the eyerims. Instead, each end is attached to one of the eyerims with a single rivet that serves as a pivot. By pulling the inner edge of the righthand lens inwards and towards the right,  and pushing the outer edge of the lefthand lens in the same direction, the user snaps the eyerims free of the groove on the underside of the bridge and pivots both lenses so that their convex outer surfaces face towards the left.

This leads to the righthand lens being cupped within the concave interior of the lefthand lens, with the bridge folded diagonally across the top of both.

When opening, the eyerims are pivoted open in opposite directions. Besides a hollowed underside to the ends of the bridge, which snaps into place over the curved top wires of the eyerims, the eyerims themselves contain a tiny, spring-loaded bar which pops out when the glasses are fully opened, extending upwards into a groove in the bridge, thus helping to keep the glasses firmly open. The amount of mechanical miniaturization in these old eyeglass frames makes them a worthwhile purchase even without the intention to wear them – simply as an example of the artistry, skill, and painstaking craftsmanship that went into the making of antique eyeglasses.

Seeking for the Unusual in Vintage Eyeglass Frames with Specalettes

Many different types of vintage eyeglass frames were manufactured during the nineteenth century in America, with most of them claiming some degree of success but none able to emerge wholly triumphant over the others. Business was still fragmented enough and the exuberance of discovery and new science too fresh and exhilarating for a bland “consensus” of design to emerge.

Some of the strange experimental forms of vintage eyeglass frames that sprang from the fertile imaginations of Abraham Lincoln’s or Theodore Roosevelt’s contemporaries make splendid rarities today for the interested collector to track down and acquire. Whether you want a truly idiosyncratic pair of glasses to wear, or simply a weird and wonderful artifact from the past to preserve and admire, there are many possibilities open to the enterprising seeker after the treasures of the ophthalmic past.

Entire varieties of vintage eyeglass frames existed which have been long forgotten by most people, but which still await discovery in the dusty corners of curiosity shops. Specalettes are one example of this.

Specalettes: hybrid vintage eyeglass frames

            Spectacles – vintage eyeglass frames which stayed on the head chiefly through the action of temples – and pince nez – antique glasses without temples, remaining on the nose through the “pinching” action of spring loaded plaquettes on the sides of the nose – coexisted without problem throughout most of the 19th century and into the first few decades of the 20th. It is probably inevitable that someone would try to combine the two into a single pair of vintage eyeglass frames.

Specalettes are, essentially, pince nez with temples. At this time, the superior cable temple had supplanted the inferior strap-type, though single wire temples were also used at the time, which were not as effective as cable temples but still offered better functionality than the straps.

A typical pair of specalettes might have oval eyerims (and consequently, oval lenses); a high hoop bridge with the plaquettes linked directly to the bridge ends, producing a comfortable grip on the nose; and a pair of temples, looped half back to fit around the ears and help hold the vintage eyeglass frames in place. The design was meant for people with narrow or tender noses where a strong grip from the plaquettes was undesirable.

In effect, specalettes were a fashionable way to wear spectacles. They had the chic caché of pince nez, since they resembled them very closely, but the grip of the plaquettes was weak and most of the support was provided by the temples, in the manner of spectacles. Those who found the pinching of pince nez unendurable but liked the way they looked could wear specalettes instead.

            Both rimmed and rimless versions of specalettes were produced. As usual, the rimmed varieties were technically simpler to make, since both the bridge and the temples could be affixed directly to metal eyerims with ordinary screws and hinges. Rimless specalettes required twice the amount of drilling as normal rimless pince nez – the lenses needed to be pierced on their inner sides to allow mounting of the bridge, and on their outer sides at least once and perhaps twice to allow the temple hinges to be screwed into place.

Specalettes, though rare today, are a colorful example of experimental vintage eyeglasses – and may even perform their original function for those who find ordinary pince nez uncomfortable.

Antique Eyeglass Frames for Pince Nez – Rimmed versus Rimless

Anyone who is at all familiar with pince nez and oxfords will know that the antique eyeglass frames which were made for these items of eyewear came in two major configurations – rimmed and rimless. Each of these styles were manufactured in countless millions during the heyday of the pince nez, between the Civil War and the First World War. Each has its own distinctive advantages and disadvantages, as well as a particular stylistic feel.

Which type you prefer depends partly on the reason for your interest in antique eyeglass frames, of course. If you are planning to actually wear the pince nez you purchase, then the choice should be made based on how the glasses look on you, and how you like the appearance they give. If you are a collector, then obtaining both types of antique eyeglass frames is necessary for a well-rounded collection.

Rimmed antique eyeglass frames for pince nez

            Many pince nez were made with rimmed antique eyeglasses in which eyerims, bridge, and plaquettes were all part of one material whole that contained the lenses and held them in place with a metal surround. (The same is true of those with rubber, Zyl, horn, and other materials used to make the rims or even the entire antique eyeglass frames.)

These pince nez have a more definite presence on the face, since there is a physical metal or rubber eyerim surrounding each lens. These vintage eyeglasses do not have as minimalistic a look as rimless pince nez, yet, if the eyerims were fashioned to be slender and well-proportioned, they can impart a lot of dignity and style as well.

Rimmed antique eyeglass frames for your pince nez have a mix of benefits and flaws in the technical sphere. The problem with such pince nez is that the size and shape of the lenses is already pre-defined – you cannot fit oval lenses into them if the eyerims are round, for example, and you can cannot select larger or smaller lenses to suit your taste or your ophthalmic needs.

However, they are also much easier to get new lenses fitted to, since there is a frame and it is only necessary to fit the lenses in, and the task is done. There is no drilling of holes through potentially friable safety glass, no precise placement of each lens relative to the other, and so on, as is the case with rimless pince nez being fitted with new lenses. The lenses can be cut to the appropriate size and shape, the retaining screws of the antique eyeglass frames loosened, the lenses inserted, and the task is done.

Rimless antique eyeglasses for pince nez

            Rimless antique eyeglass frames for pince nez consist of no more than some kind of metal bridge piece with screw mountings to be inserted through a hole drilled in each lens. Depending on the mounting, practically any type of pince nez bridge can be fitted to a pair of rimless lenses in this way. The result is a very low profile, Spartan-looking pair of pince nez which appeals to those who still want to make their eyewear as invisible as possible – or who want a genuine-looking pair of pince nez mirrored sunglasses in the form of “Matrix glasses”.

Though any size or shape of lenses can be fitted to these rimless vintage eyeglasses, the technical challenge of drilling these lenses for mounting is a precision task best left to professional hands – the main drawback to the rimless type of pince nez from a modern perspective.

Elegant Historic Cases for Old Eye Glasses

Throughout the history of old eye glasses, people have made and used cases to keep their eyewear safe when it was not being worn. This habit continues to this day, with plastic, vinyl, and leather eyeglass cases or sheathes being used to shelter glasses against the scrapes, scratches, and outright breakage that the world can inflict. This was even more important with antique eye glasses, where replacement was difficult and having a pair broken might mean weeks of near-blindness until they could be replaced.

Many historic cases for old eye glasses are splendid works of art quite different from the plain, workmanlike types favored today. If you have an interest in vintage spectacles, then collecting cases from the past is another option to bulk out your collection with beautiful and significant objects. Cases were made from a variety of materials, and being able to identify these with some accuracy will let you pick out those made for old eye glasses, rather than more recent vinyl equivalents.

                                        Shagreen cases for old eye glasses

One of the most attractive, pleasing substances used to craft cases for old eye glasses was shagreen, which is made from the skin of sharks. This was a favored leather for decorative purposes for centuries, and it is only the advent of synthetics in the current era that finally saw shagreen take its place beside other substances used in the past, but no longer employed for crafting.

Sharkskin is covered with hard, bumpy scales which project above the surface like thousands of nodules embedded in the fish’s leathery hide. When used for shagreen, the skin was prepared using a painstaking process, and the surface filed and sanded smooth. This left an overall sheet of leather with thousands of ground-down scales embedded in it.

Dyeing the resulting leather colored the skin itself but left the scales or nodules their natural whitish color, creating a piece of colored leather with a fine, beautiful, stippled pattern of innumerable pale dots on the colored background. The leather was molded to the appropriate shape, and often coated in shellac to produce an attractive gloss on the surface.

Shagreen cases for vintage eyeglasses are often highly attractive items, and are still suitable for their original purpose if they are not cracked or damaged.  They are as much a part of old eye glasses as hand-ground rock crystal lenses or a black ribbon to secure a monocle, and make the perfect finishing touch to a set of vintage pince nez.

Tortoiseshell cases for old eye glasses

   It is perhaps interesting that the products of various sea creatures were so favored by those designing cases for old eye glasses, but tortoiseshell from the hawksbill sea turtle was also used for extremely striking containers for vintage eyewear. These cases are not made legally any longer (and perhaps not at all) due to the endangered status of the hawksbill turtle, but older specimens make a very attractive display case or carrying case for your Oxfords or astigs.

With its gleaming surface and marbled blend of attractive colors, tortoiseshell is still at first glance indistinguishable from the better grades of plastic. However, if you run your finger over the surface, you will feel slight whorls, the result of the tortoiseshell’s organic origins. Broken cases can be mended by heating them and pressing them firmly together, which will fuse the parts strongly again without the need to introduce any kind of glue – a property unique to this material.

Distinctive Old Specs – Pince Nez with Zyl Rims

Pince nez first came into fashion in the United States of America during the Civil War period. Just as the War of 1812 temporarily halted imports of high quality lenses to the New World and prompted a brief “lens grinding renaissance” in which American producers sought to supply the lack from their own workshops, so the world of old specs was changed by the Civil War.

The German-American inventor, John Jacob Bausch, first experimented with pince nez with hard rubber frames prior to the Civil War, but experienced only limited success – spectacles with temples were still all the rage and few wanted his pince nez initially. However, the Civil War was a watershed in the history of old specs. Supplies from Europe were once again disrupted, and the materials for making frames for old specs were in short supply in any case, since the war effort consumed large amounts of all available types of metal.

  Pince nez succeeded in this period for two main reasons – being made domestically, they were still available, unlike European-made spectacles; and their sparing use of metals (ensured by the omission of temples) ensured that they were economical even during the metal shortages caused by the war. Pince nez achieved preeminence in this period and were not to be dethroned until after the First World War.

Pince nez materials technology – old specs with Zyl Eyerims

            Pince nez were made in countless different configurations and styles, as well as in a whole range of materials, from rolled gold to vulcanized rubber. Some of the most intriguing-looking pince nez are those which were made with Zyl, or plastic, eyerims rather than metal. The bridge and other fittings were made out of metal, but the eyerims themselves are Zyl and have a very distinctive appearance – one that is especially stylish and yet dignified and professorial.

Zyl pince nez are intriguing old specs because they represent the marriage of an older style of antique eyeglasses with more modern-seeming materials technology. They bespeak the rapid evolution of technique and material during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Not only will these glasses look good on you, but they also give you a glimpse of the changing world of fashion and technology as mirrored in vintage eyeglass frames.

Screw rims and screwless Zyl rims on old specs (pince nez)

            Many of the Zyl-rimmed pince nez are antique eyeglasses made with a fingerpiece bridge as well – one where the plaquettes that attach the vintage eyeglasses to the nose are operated by a pair of small levers mounted to the bridge. You may encounter Zyl rims with practically any configuration, however. The large number of producers at some times helped to ensure diversity of form and function that is lacking in our own time, dominated as it is by huge conglomerates which produce a uniform product.

   Screw rimmed Zyl pince nez are vintage eyewear to which it is easy to fit new lenses. (Of course, if you are just collecting, leaving the old lenses in place is probably a prudent step). The eyerims of these pince nez are split to allow insertion of new lenses, and are closed by a screw when a lens is in place. Thus, to add modern lenses, you only need to carefully loosen the screw, add the lenses, and tighten the screw again.

Screwless old specs with Zyl lenses are a bit more problematic. The original lenses were inserted while the Zyl was still hot, so that it would shrink, harden, and hold them permanently in place. You can still insert new lenses in a vintage pair of Zyl pince nez, however, by heating them carefully, removing the old lenses when the eyerims expand, inserting new lenses, and letting the eyerims cool and shrink onto these. This works best with eyerims that are smooth and intact – if there are chips or cracks, the eyerims of your old specs may split at that point when heated.

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.