The second and third decades of the twentieth century saw a slow but inexorable change in the status of vintage spectacles. The long period during which eyewear of all kinds was viewed with scorn and contempt, and its users dismissed as weaklings unless they were elderly enough to be excused, was finally coming to an end. Throughout the world, including America, spectacles had been held in disrepute since at least the time of the American Revolution.
Many of the interesting variants of ophthalmic devices – such as pince nez and Oxfords – had come about because of the hatred in which eyewear was held. These vintage spectacles were made to minimize the visibility of ocular aids while they were being worn.
This has given the collector and historical glasses enthusiast many intriguing examples of these Spartan eyeglasses to admire and collect, but their existence was rooted in shame over a quite common physical problem that seems almost completely inexplicable to the modern mind.
During the 1920s, and especially during the 1930s, the reputation of vintage eyeglasses changed immensely. Instead of being loathed objects worn mostly out of practical necessity, and kept to a visual minimum, they became the targets of fashionable design. Though slow and hesitant at first, this metamorphosis into fashion items quickly gained traction, and spectacles soon became lavish, exuberant expressions of individuality and a flamboyant fashion accessory for both men and women.
The demise of Oxfords among vintage spectacles
Though Oxfords and certain types of pince nez continued to be produced through the 1930s and up to the end of the Second World War, their dominion was waning in the face of the first “designer” antique spectacles.
Ophthalmologists cursed them root and branch for their perceived impracticality, but it could be argued that the decline of Oxfords occurred not because of practical considerations, but because they had become devoid of purpose – glasses designed to be as unobtrusive as possible in era that had embraced brilliant, extravagant spectacles as chic, eye-catching, and even sexy.
Ironically, some of the finest Oxfords were produced in these final days of the style, when the glasses were already being relegated to “fogeys” and “has-beens”. Oxfords from this period often show exquisite workmanship and astonishingly miniaturized fittings, such as hinges, pivots, and handles. Steel and gold frames remained most common, though nickel and other metals were also used, and rimless types persisted up to the end of the Oxford era.
Experimental vintage eyeglasses such as Boyle's
During this time, the advance of science and the quest for convenience led to occasional oddities of antique spectacles design that are still of historical interest. One such is a 1913 design by Boyle Optical, wherein a folding “prop” is attached to the bridge. When the vintage glasses were raised onto the forehead, this prop could be extended, resting on the bridge of the nose to keep the spectacles elevated until they are actually needed.
The arrangement proved too superfluous to garner ongoing demand, and the design quickly slipped back into the mists of history, but such experimental spectacles still exhibit the fascinating diversity of the past's eyewear.