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Old Spectacles from the Early United States

Posted on March 14, 2012 by The Vintage Optical Shop There have been 0 comments

The years following the overthrow of British rule in the American colonies and the establishment of the United States witnessed many major changes, yet the evolution of old spectacles continued at a modest pace during this time. There was little impetus for American craftsmen to change the frames they manufactured beyond the alterations that had already occurred, while they still lacked the confidence to challenge the supremacy of European lenses on any large scale.

There are, nevertheless, plenty of interesting old eyeglasses from this era for the collector or someone who wants to add modern lenses to antique eyeglasses frames (since eyeglasses are essentially timeless until they break).

Old SIlver spectacles     One of the pioneers of American lens grinding – a highly technical, demanding art – was David Rittenhouse, who was active in the 1780s as the American economy began to burgeon following independence. Though it is impossible to determine now which are Rittenhouse lenses, it is intriguing to think that any American spectacles from this era could house lenses that represent some of the first high quality optical glass or crystal ground professionally by our fellow countrymen.

Identifying post-Revolutionary old spectacles

            It is difficult to tell the old spectacles made between the American Revolution (1776) and the War of 1812 from Revolutionary period eyeglasses, since a spurt of technical evolution had occurred during this period and

The trends visible in the Revolutionary era continued in the following decades, developing slowly and refining the techniques that had displaced those of the earlier Colonial days. Metal frames came to supplant the earlier leather or horn frames, as the metallurgical industry improved. Metal is obviously a superior substance for long lasting spectacles, and the greater affluence of the new nation encouraged expansion into the better materials.

The antique spectacles from this time often have steel, brass, bronze, or silver frames. The temples are much more slender than the “folding straps” of the Salem Witch Trial days, giving the glasses a more refined appearance and even a slightly modern air. The loops at the ends are retained, allowing cords or ribbons to tie the eyewear onto the head, since hooked temples to fit behind the ears are still unknown. These loops, however, continue to shrink and grow narrower as wigs fall farther out of fashion.

Eyerims of Old Glasses from the War of 1812 Era

      Ful-vue Old SpectaclesEyerims could be round, oval, or octagonal during this time, with octagonal lenses gaining in popularity and round lenses suffering a slow decline. One of the most interesting innovations that sets this period apart from the earlier times, however, was the temporary introduction of double sets of lenses, with hinged lenses attached to the eyerims either for bifocal action or as sunglasses.

This is a feature completely unique to this period of American old glasses. It represents an attempt to improve on Benjamin Franklin's original bifocal design and was adapted to sun-shielding, too. A second pair of eyerims containing different lenses was hinged to the main eyerims of these old spectacles, pivoting at the same point where the temples attach.

The stronger lenses were placed in the hinged eyerims, so that they could be folded into place when greater optical power was needed. Tinted glass without optical corrective properties might be fitted to hinged eyerims instead, allowing them to be used when in bright sunlight and folded out of the way in dimmer conditions – a short-lived but fascinating experiment in dual-function spectacles.


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