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.