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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Monocles and Lorgnettes

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


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

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

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

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

Dating the bifocals found in antique frames

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Determining if lenses in antique spectacles are glass or crystal

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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


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

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

Ways of interacting with antique eyeglasses

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

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

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