Early Advertising Gimmicks for Antique Eyeglasses

It was during the Roaring 20′s in America that the first use of fashion considerations to sell more eyeglasses appears to have reached a refined and concentrated level. Prior to that time, gold-filled frames were purchased by the chic, and steel or nickel rims by those who could not afford the more costly metal.  Antique eyeglasses came to be subdivided into types which were deemed suitable only for certain occasions.

Some frames might have additional decorations, such as small inset gems, fancy scrollwork on the handles or ribbon loops, and so on. However, even the most lordly thought nothing of wearing the same pair of spectacles at any time they were needed, whether it was while reading a newspaper waiting for a train or attending a world-class operatic performance.

A deliberate advertising campaign for antique eyeglasses resulted in some specs being deemed appropriate for certain occasions, and others for other moments in life. The aim was to cause people to buy multiple pairs of Antique eye glasses, even if they could have made due with a single pair. Advertisers from the major eyeglasses companies in America realized that they could dictate fashion to the population, rather than the other way around, and persuade millions to buy not what they wanted to buy, but what the companies wanted to sell to them.pince nez glasses

This fact may hold a hint of why eyeglasses came to be seen as magnificent, stylish fashion accessories in the 1930s and the succeeding decades. The hatred and contempt in which spectacles were held for so long is the actual, natural consensus of human psychology in the absence of mass advertising.

The huge advances made in advertising in the communication age, however, opened the door for eyeglass manufacturers to shape consumers’ tastes to their own purposes. Naturally wanting to sell more glasses, they persuaded people that glasses were not a hideous eyesore on the human face, but something that enhanced one’s appearance and could correct for minor disproportions in the features.

1920s glasses for working

            People of all walks of life who needed vision aids to function comfortably were expected to have four pairs of glasses, the first of which would be a pair of working glasses. These would be either rimless or steel or nickel rimmed, and of a highly practical design. To wear such Spartan antique eyeglasses in other circumstances than when working would, of course, be a solecism, according to the carefully constructed fashion viewpoint constructed by the companies’ advertising.

vintage eyeglasses for recreation

           Recreation in a relaxed, informal atmosphere called for a completely different pair of glasses to be worn. These circumstances, such as when engaged in a sport or simply enjoying a good conversation with friends and family, were said to require glasses with tortoiseshell rims. Nickel temples were considered to be a sign of exceptionally good taste when attached to such eyerims. Since plastic was making an appearance at this time, many “recreational” vintage eyeglasses were probably plastic-rimmed with mock tortoiseshell coloring, like many frames still made today.

eyeglasses for “semi-evening wear”

            pince nez glassesCustoms in the 1920s being what they were, with a hint of stuffy butlers and minute divisions of the day into degrees of formality, an actual distinction was made between “semi evening wear” and “evening wear”. Presumably, “semi-evening” situations were more formal than regular recreation, but involved only people you were fairly familiar with, and could thus be slightly more relaxed than the full formality of a ball, opera, or dinner with guests. Tortoiseshell eyerims were again called for, but in this case, the temples and bridge were to be made of gold, not nickel.

Glasses for evening wear

            The vintage eyeglasses worn for the most formal occasions were rimless pince nez with gold metal fittings. Here, at least, the idea that the height of fashion in glasses was to make it appear, as much as possible, that you were not wearing any glasses at all, still persisted for a brief time, though the rising tide of brilliant, phantasmagorical spectacles was just around the corner.

Old Fashioned Eyeglasses – Pince Nez and Style

Though pince nez eventually became the old fashioned eyeglasses that symbolized money and status in the latter 19th and early 20th century, there was another reason why people who could afford pince nez bought and wore them. These vintage eyeglasses were not simply conspicuous consumption. In fact, they were preferred by anyone who could buy them because of 19th century attitudes towards eyewear in general and its effect on human appearance.

During the Colonial and Revolutionary periods of American history, people preferred not to wear spectacles or vintage glasses at all if their vision allowed them to get by without. This was not a result of poverty or a lack of spectacles. Rather, there was a cultural belief that wearing  glasses showed the wearer to be weak and contemptible unless they were elderly enough to justify the “infirmity”.

Pince Nez Glasses        This attitude gradually faded as time went on (and perhaps as the bespectacled image of Benjamin Franklin became more familiar to patriotic Americans). However, a huge aversion to vintage eyeglasses remained. Now the source of the loathing was the supposedly disfiguring effect of old fashioned eyeglasses on the human face.

Viewing glasses as stylish was a long distance in the future. To our 19th century forebears, antique eyeglasses were as hideous an abomination as a massively deformed face. The larger the eyeglasses and the greater the area of the face they covered, the uglier they were considered to be.

Pince nez as an attempt to minimize eyeglasses’ visual impact

            Most of the impetus for wearing pince nez was the belief that old fashioned eyeglasses were unremittingly hideous. Pince nez acted to minimize the amount of the face covered by corrective eyewear, allowing good vision without the “unsightly” sprawl of spectacles. Eliminating the temples was considered to be one of the most important methods of making eyeglasses as invisible as possible.

Pince Nez Glasses + Case       Pince nez were designed, in short, to be “minimalist” eyeglasses which would not be as noticeable as spectacles, and, hopefully, would be completely unseen by anyone viewing the wearer from a distance. A pair of thin eyerims and plaquettes engineered to clamp onto the nose reduced the glasses to a functional minimum at the time.

It is interesting to realize that had it been possible to make contact lenses at that period in history, most pince nez users would have immediately abandoned their pince nez to wear a completely invisible vision correction system such as those available to their descendants today in America. Fortunately for the richness of America’s history of old fashioned eyeglasses, such devices could not be made at the time, although the concept had existed as a theory since the Renaissance.

The motive for wearing pince nez

            In most cases, people wore pince nez if they could afford them so that it would seem they were not wearing glasses at all. These old fashioned eyeglasses were a luxury item for the affluent, who wore them in order keep their faces as visible as possible, and thus look more attractive according to the tastes of the time. Rimless pince nez were the most coveted of all, since the lenses were almost totally unseen except when they glinted in the light, and thus “spoiled” as little as possible of the wearer’s appearance.

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.

Pince Nez – the Early Social History of Old Fashioned Glasses

After their rough start in America when John Jacob Bausch (one of the founding partners of Bausch & Lomb, a major eyeglass firm which survives to this day) first made a pair of hoop springs with vulcanized rubber, pince nez quickly rose to a quite eminent position among old fashioned glasses.

The American Civil War first boosted them into prominence, when imports of spectacles from Europe were disrupted by conflict and materials costs skyrocketed thanks to the war effort. With less competition from Europe and a need for eyewear that would require less metal to make, pince nez soon emerged as one of the dominant vision aids in North America during the time of Lincoln.

old fashioned pince nez glasses   Pince nez were not old fashioned glasses at the time, and in fact came to represent the cutting edge of fashion. Their status in public perceptions changed over time, as is the case with all fashions and styles. It is intriguing to see how the image of these vintage glasses altered over the course of just a few generations, maintaining their popularity but appealing in succession to several very diverse demographics.

Part of the fascination of pince nez today is this history of their cultural meaning, and part is the sheer eccentric variety of glasses manufactured in workshops or painstakingly handmade by skilled artisans. Though most fall into the broad categories already mentioned – defined by their bridge and the arrangement of their plaquettes, or nose pads – the actual application of these principles to making a pair of pince nez ranged from the starkly Spartan to the intriguingly baroque.

Pince nez as a patrician emblem

            In their own era, pince nez were fairly expensive. Even mass produced pince nez included many tiny, precision-made moving parts which had to be hand-assembled, and since many pairs of pince nez were designed to be completely folding for convenience, this only added to the complexity of building a pair. By contrast, spectacles – with their simple hinges to secure the temples, and few or now other mechanical fittings – were relatively cheap.

Adding to the cost of pince nez was the fact that the best were tailor-made to fit a specific individual. The hoop spring or bridge, the plaquettes and the springs that held them, and the other fixtures, were best if custom-made or at least custom-adjusted to the facial structure of the wearer. Since the ability of the pince nez to stay on, yet remain comfortable, depended on how closely they fit the user’s nose, these antique eyeglasses were at their most effective when individually tailored.

old fashioned pince nez glasses With the prices so high, it is unsurprising that plebeian users had to content themselves with mass-produced spectacles, while those with patrician resources and aspirations (or at least a very comfortable salary, such as doctors, lawyers, clergymen, army officers, and so on) were those most able to indulge a taste for pince nez.

Eventually, pince nez came to symbolize moneyed status or scholarly achievement – instead of merely being one of its “perks”, they had become a badge as well. This can be seen in many older films when a snooty British aristocrat or American industrialist is shown wearing pince-nez.

There was another reason why people preferred pince nez to spectacles during the 19th and early 20th century period of old fashioned glasses, however – the extremely vigorous aesthetic objection by people of that time to wearing eyeglasses at all.

Oxford Glasses – the Evolved hoop spring pince nez

            Hoop spring pince nez, one of the most practical types of antique eyeglasses without temple from a contemporary viewpoint, eventually gave rise to Oxford glasses. These pince nez appeared in the later 19th century and continued in use until the wearing of this style of glasses gradually fell out of favor after the First World War. They keep many features of the hoop spring but add some of their own – and again, it is the way they grip the nose that is their most distinguishing trait.

Oxfords can be rimmed or rimless, and have two lenses, one with the expected loop for a safety ribbon. An arched “hoop” style bridge sits atop many of them, connecting the two eyerims or lenses. This is made out of flexible, springy metal, usually steel, whose curvature causes it to flex inward, pushing the eyerims together towards each other. There are also plaquettes, though these are mounted on the eyerims themselves and not the bridge – a critical distinction.

oxford pince nez glasses     Here is how to separate hoop spring pince nez from Oxford glasses:

Hoop spring pince nez have an arched, C-shaped bridge. This is mounted between the eyerims or lenses, and has a very short mounting stem projecting horizontally on each side (in most cases) to support the lenses. The plaquettes are long, and are hinged directly to the bridge – that is, they are attached to the tips of the inverted metal “C” and slant down and outward from it, conforming to the natural slope of the nose’s sides.

Oxford glasses are vintage eyeglasses with a more gently-arching, longer bridge that connects the tops of the eyerims or lenses like a rainbow over two hills. The plaquettes are totally separate from the bridge and stick out from the inner sides of the eyerims on a short stem.

Managing expectations of style and comfort with Oxford glasses

            Oxford glasses are usually chosen as a stylistic decision. There can be no doubt that, like all pince nez versions, they are highly idiosyncratic and instantly recognizable as an unusual type of antique eyeglasses. Oxfords are heavy and richly decorated, in contrast with the Spartan elegance of hoop spring pince nez, so which you opt for depends partly on your fashion ideas and what looks best with your face structure, clothing choices, and so on.

oxford pince nez glasses     Oxford glasses are fine collector’s glasses because of their tendency to be decorative and very striking in appearance. They are probably the archetypal pince nez in terms of the vintage eyeglasses likely to be depicted in films on the noses of keen British big game hunters, sinister First World War general officers, early 20th century intellectuals or doctors, and the like. They are, in short, the first image many people think of when they first hear the word “pince nez”.

Oxford glasses are somewhat behind their hoop spring, astig, and hard bridge kindred in terms of comfort, however. They are heavier and the plaquettes are not as well situated to provide a comfortable grip on the nose. Generally, they are best when worn for short periods and kept mainly for their considerable historical interest and even more notable aesthetics.


The Many Varieties of Pince Nez Sunglasses

Sunglasses seem to our modern perspective to be a completely contemporary phenomenon – it is difficult for most of us to imagine their use before the Second World War. Nevertheless, various kinds of non-optical, tinted lenses have been in use to protect against the glaring rays of the sun since the era of Shakespeare. Originally favored by the nobility (who could afford them), use of early sunglasses gradually spread through the rest of society during the succeeding centuries.

By the 19th century, pince nez sunglasses came into use at the same time as other pince nez varieties. Some of John Jacob Bausch’s earliest pince nez are glazed dark to produce a sunglasses effect. Though there are no known surviving pictures of people wearing these pince nez sunglasses, this is because the portrait painters of the era would not show a type of eyewear that conceals the subject’s eyes. Many accurately dated, indisputable pairs of pince nez sunglasses from the 1850s onward survive to this day.

pince nez sunglasses        Pince nez sunglasses combined the light weight and lean dimension of the pince nez style with the eye-shielding qualities of dark tinted glass. There were other innovations on the theme, however, and it is instructive to take a closer look at these. A pair of oddly tinted pince nez sunglasses may not be simply an early novelty, but an item created with a definite purpose in mind – even if later ophthalmic research has disproven the idea.

Many hues of pince nez sunglasses

            The most familiar pince nez sunglasses among our collections of vintage eyeglasses are those sporting smoked lenses. This eyewear features lenses that are tinted dark grey or black, and whose main purpose was exactly that of modern sunglasses – to reduce eyestrain and the effects of sun-glare on a bright summer day. The lenses usually are not corrective – that is, they are not meant for nearsighted or otherwise ailing eyes, but provide a transparent sunshade only.

If you find an unusual pair of yellow glazed pince nez sunglasses, these antique eyeglasses are not an old joke item or part of a masquerade costume despite their festive tint. Instead, it was believed that a yellow lenses helped the wearer see more clearly in foggy, misty, or smoky conditions. Hunters were avid purchasers of these pince nez, believing that they helped them spot game in the shimmering dawn mists, the evening fogs, or other less than ideal visual situations.

pince nez sunglasses   Blue lenses were, again, made for a special purpose – for those with sensitive eyes or conjunctivitis. This is probably due more to human psychological perceptions that blue is a soothing color than any actual medical benefit from the tint, but it still helped sensitive-eyed people (by lessening sun-glare, even if grey or black tinted lenses would have done as much) and provides the collector with another quirky item to add to their display.

Modern sunglasses lenses in vintage pince nez frames

            Fitting small modern sunglasses lenses into vintage eyeglass frames is a good way to acquire a set of stylish pince nez sunglasses. These will not block as many rays as goggle-like “bug eye” sunglasses, or wraparounds, but they will still cut down on the glare you experience and will look very dashing and romantic at the same time.

Hoop Spring Pince Nez Reading Glasses

Among the antique eyeglasses which lack temples and keep their place with their grip on the nose, hoop spring pince nez reading glasses are another comfortable, practical variety which often make the most of pince nez minimalism for both appearance and ergonomics’ sake.

The defining feature of these pince nez reading glasses (or other types of glasses) is that their seating on the nose depends on the tension of the bridge itself. This is key to their convenience and the pleasantness of their use. Indeed, everything about hoop spring vintage eyeglasses is defined by the bridge configuration itself, as well as the nose pads or plaquettes that the glasses feature.

pince nez reading glassesIronically, hoop spring pince nez “evolved” into the Oxford, which is even better looking to some but is heavier and considerably less comfortable to wear. Much of the reputation for discomfort that attaches to pince nez comes from tarring the whole family of eyeglasses with the Oxford’s foibles, while the hoop spring is  light and unobtrusive eyewear.

The hoop spring bridge itself

            The bridge of hoop spring pince nez reading glasses is always made of metal, typically steel, which has the proper tension and springiness needed to make the arrangement work. The lenses and eyerims are the standard types found on all 19th and early 20th century pince nez, either round or oval, with a loop or other fastening to accommodate a safety cord or ribbon on the lower curve of one lens or eyerim.

The curved metal of the hoop spring bridge provides all the tension needed to keep the glasses on your nose. It is fashioned to return to a rest state at a point where the two lenses are nearly touching, or even overlap slightly. Thus, when a nose is inserted between them, the inward pressure of flexible steel bridge, attempting to return to true, presses the eyerims or lenses against the nose hard enough to keep the eyewear in place.

From widened eyerims to plaquettes

            The very first pince nez reading glasses to appear in America, the hard rubber variety invented by John Jacob Bausch, were a type of early hoop spring. Thickenings of the inner edges of the eyerims provided some cushioning effect.

Later, crude cork nose pads were added to the eyerims, and later still, plaquettes were mounted on the bridge. The plaquettes, which are small plates hinged to adjust to the angles of the sides of your nose, are both more secure and more comfortable than the previous arrangements (widened eyerims or cork pads).

pince nez reading glasses A hoop spring bridge can be fitted to either rimmed or rimless pince nez reading glasses. Of course, for rimless attachment, thin, non-tempered glass is needed, since only this can be successfully drilled. Modern day safety glass is problematic because it cannot be drilled, and is thick and heavy as well, so special lenses are need for rimless pince nez reading glasses if they do not retain their original glass. There is no problem with rimmed varieties, of course.

Hoop spring pince nez reading glasses (sometimes called “C bridge pince nez”, since the “hooped” bridge resembles the letter C), are fun vintage eyewear to collect. They are pleasant to wear, lightweight, spare of design, and look great either on the face or in your display cabinet.

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.