Windsor Eyeglasses Safety Goggles from the Early 20th Century

Safety goggles have had a longer history than most people realize, and some in the form of Windsor eyeglasses date back to the first years of the 20th century. In fact, a French medieval helmet has been found with clear mica in the visors, or “vision slits”, to keep splintered lances or the knives of opponents from finding their way through. Vintage Safety glasses only became widespread in the 19th century, though, and even at that time, it was limited to a few lucky workers, as well as early motor car drivers.

Several different substances were used to make safety glass lenses fro vintage eyeglasses in the immediate wake of the American Civil War, at a point when industrialization was taking hold rapidly and more people than ever were being exposed to potentially blinding factory processes. The materials used included mica – which was also called “isinglass”, and was used for covering peepholes in early Model T Ford cars – and “marine glass”. These safety glasses, which already had a Windsor eyeglasses-like configuration, were rare and expensive, however.

Vintage safety goggles The early 20th century witnessed the creation of the first effective, mass-produced safety antique eyeglasses. These were created by (or under the direction of) Walter King, the inheritor of the Julius King Optical Company of Cleveland from his father. King was motivated by seeing the massive orders for glass eyes in the industrial cities of the United States, indicating the high rate at which factory workers were being maimed by dangerous industrial processes.

Early safety Windsor eyeglasses

Since safety glasses are best made spectacles, with temples to keep them firmly on the head, rather than pince nez, which could be easily knocked off the face in a factory accident or even driven into the eyes, Walter King used the then-current Windsor eyeglasses design to create the first cheap, effective, mass-produced safety glasses in 1912.

These vintage glasses were readily available enough so that most workers could easily be outfitted with them, and this advance undoubtedly saved thousands of people from losing an eye and hundreds more from being permanently blinded in both eyes.

The largest improvement that Walter King made – indeed, the underpinning of the success of these protective Windsor eyeglasses – was the special tempered glass that the lenses were made out of. This tough glass was adapted from a method that had been used to produce rugged glass “chimneys” for kerosene lamps. Walter King’s company was absorbed into American Optical in 1923, but he remained as director of the firm’s safety glass department, which soon acquired a reputation for excellence that it was to retain for many years.

Characteristics of Antique Windsor eyeglasses-style safety glasses

Vintage safety goggles The Windsor eyeglasses-type safety glasses of the early 20th century are mostly very plain, though they have a stark beauty all their own, as well as being clearly designed to be as multifunctional as possible. The eyeglass frames, including bridge, eyerims, and temples, were made out of steel for sturdiness. The lenses are tempered glass, and are either transparent or grey-tinted, the latter meant to protect the eyes of those gazing into furnaces or other brilliantly illuminated work areas.

The cable temples were made to be both secure (with their riding bow shape to hook over the ears) and as comfortable as possible for long wear. Side shields very similar to those found on modern safety glasses are found on the outer sides of many eyerims, made out of fine steel mesh just as is the case today. These Vintage eyeglasses adapted for safety use are interesting relics of the Industrial Revolution in America, and the efforts of Walter King to protect the eyesight of his fellow men.

Patent Infringement in the 1920 vintage Glasses Market and the Spread of Oxfords

Though the culture that produced 1920 vintage glasses such as Oxfords might have been somewhat more genteel than our own in some regards, there was still plenty of room for cutthroat competition between firms. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the vindictive legal battles and outright, blatant patent infringement that occurred when Oxford Pince Nez were rising meteorically in popularity.

As noted in the previous article, the initial Oxfords of 1910 were made by E. P. Hutten and a man named McDougall, working for the Geoffrey & Co. firm of Park Place, New York City. Among the distinctive features of their Oxfords – indeed, the one that made their eyeglasses so popular in the 1920 antique eyeglasses market and later – were the offset nose guards which were both secure and comfortable. They also invented a method of folding the Oxfords.

pince nez glasses  Several years later, Hutten and McDougall patented their Oxfords to ensure that these round vintage glasses would remain their sole preserve. However, Frank Krementz Co., seeing how successful the design of their rival was proving, began manufacturing precisely the same kind of Oxfords, including Hutten and McDougall’s offset nose-guards and an identical folding mechanism, and marketing them successfully as well.

Hutten and McDougall sued, but Thomas G. Haight, judge of the Circuit Court of Appeals, eventually threw out the case and declared the patent invalid on April 4, 1916. Frank Krementz Co. made no effort to deny that they copied Hutten and McDougall’s design openly and completely.

Instead, they argued that production of these 1920 glasses for several years before the patent was filed rendered the patent invalid, since the design was unprotected, publicly available, and legally able to be copied for years before the spurious patent was filed. The judge upheld this view, and production of Oxfords exploded as other firms took up production of these extremely popular items of vintage eyewear.

The ironic fame of E. P. Hutten in the 1920 glasses world

     pince nez glasses       Considering E. P. Hutten’s failed effort to defend Oxfords as his exclusive, patented preserve, there is some irony in the fact that his name was used as an advertising gimmick by the very competitors he took to court over the matter. Hutten and McDougall’s design was noted for its quality, comfort, and good balance, and thus, Oxfords were known as Hutten Oxfords as well.

Some companies went further, and placed text in their advertisements that stated their own glasses were “As good as Hutten’s”! The relatively high price of these vintage eyeglasses, whether in their precious metal or tortoise shell incarnations, was no obstacle to their sales, and opticians reported selling out Oxfords, whether of Hutten’s manufacture or from any of the other firms that jostled their way eagerly into the market, within a short time of receiving them. 1920 glasses could be as much a fad item as anything made today and endorsed by celebrities – which is lucky for modern collectors, since this ensured a large supply of Oxford pince nez were made and that many survive to the present time to delight us with their superb craftsmanship and stylish lines.

Makers of Round Vintage Glasses – the Varied Market of Oxfords

Oxfords were immensely popular round vintage glasses in their day, made to be both practical eyewear and pieces of carefully sculpted fashion art. Many featured the handles or ribbon loops also found on pince nez, though typically in an elongated, highly decorated form that almost transformed them into “miniature lorgnettes”. Such handles were necessary not only as a mount for safety ribbons, chains, or cords, but also to allow the user to hold the glasses without covering the lenses in thumbprints.

A large number of different antique eyeglasses companies existed in our nation at the turn of the 20th century, each with their own contribution to make to the world of round vintage glasses. This robust group of businesses, each unable to completely dominate the market yet thriving on the affluence of America’s urban society at the time, ensured both a rich diversity of Oxfords (in design, decoration, and fittings) and a number of interesting experimental features that would never occur in today’s time of practical uniformity.round vintage glasses

Some of the more notable companies and their achievements include:

Geoffrey & Company was the actual inventor of these round vintage glasses. Two employees, one E.P. Hutten and another man identified only as “McDougall”, developed Oxfords through a trial and error process, and the design was initially marketed only with 14 karat solid yellow gold frames, which sold for $18 at the time, which is somewhere around $426 today in 2012.

American Optical Company and Tried & Proved Optical Company were two firms heavily involved in introducing Oxfords in the first place. These companies made both folding and non-folding Oxfords, following the folding method already devised for pince nez in the preceding years. They worked mostly in precious metals such as solid gold, white gold, or gold-filled frames and began the pattern of ornate Oxfords which was to continue through the whole history of these vintage eyeglasses.

Bausch & Lomb naturally came to play an important role in the expanding production of  vintage eyeglass frames of Oxford type, though they were uncharacteristically tardy, allowing the pioneering firms of American Optical, Tried & Proved, and Krementz to establish a good foothold in the business. Bausch & Lomb’s product was unusual, however, in keeping with the company’s individualistic approach at the time – their Oxfords were made completely out of tortoise shell, or zylonite in tortoise shell colors, including the bridge.

Optical Products Corporation followed up on Bausch & Lomb by offering a hybrid version of antique glasses. Their Oxfords featured tortoise shell eyerims, but a metal spring bridge and other fittings, giving tortoise shell style with a practical metal spring for better gripping.

round vintage glassesAmerican Optical Company had not shot its bolt with creativity, however. Towards the end of the Oxfords’ lifespan, in 1930, the Z-fold Oxford was introduced. This type of vintage eyeglasses had a complex but highly effective hinged spring bridge which allowed the Oxfords to be folded in the shape of a Z. This produced a tightly folded pair of Oxfords and is a marvel of miniaturization for the time, in terms of the tiny working parts that were produced and fitted together to make the mechanism function smoothly and reliably.

Almost all of these American Oxfords were made with an attention to quality and sturdiness that is seldom found in consumer goods today, and thus many have survived in perfect working order to our own age, nearly a century later.

Tortoise Shell Eyeglasses – Oxfords, Femininity, and Masculinity

Tortoise shell eyeglasses provide a warm, colorful contrast with the colder, though still attractive, sheen of all metal antique eyeglasses, and this material was actually part of an interesting trend with the Oxfords of the early 20th century: the emergence of masculine and feminine styles of vintage glasses rather than the unisex eyewear of the previous centuries.

This was to have important consequences for later generations’ antique spectacles, also. Though the cat eye glasses of the 1950s, 1960s, and to some extent the modern day bear no resemblance to Oxfords, the idea of masculine and feminine eyewear led to the development of styles meant to be elegant and ladylike (such as cat eyes) or rugged and macho, enriching the eyeglass scene for many decades to come by encouraging development of different styles for different customers.

tortoise shell eyeglasses

tortoise shell eyeglasses

Metal Oxfords and the introduction of tortoise shell eyeglasses

            Oxfords were initially made only with metal rims and bridges. These were usually made out of steel but many white gold, solid gold, and gold-filled examples were also crafted, thanks in part to the pre-Depression economy’s vigor, which put purchasing power in wider segments of the population than had been true at any other point in history.  Alloys were also used frequently.

Many of these metal Oxfords survive to this day, but there are also many tortoise shell eyeglasses in the Oxford configuration. These may be genuine tortoise shell eyeglasses, or zylonite. Zylonite became economically feasible to produce in large quantities and precise, fine shapes early in the 20th century, and was quickly adapted to Oxford frames.

Zylonite was often described as tortoise shell at the time, because it was often colored to duplicate the natural material harvested from the carapaces of luckless hawksbill sea turtles. This was not so much an attempt at deceitful advertising as the fact that both manufacturers and the public were rather casual about whether the tortoise shell was genuine or not, so “tortoise shell glasses” became a generic term to any vintage glasses whose frames vaguely resembled tortoise shell.

Tortoise shell glasses (whether natural or zylonite) of the Oxford type are usually fitted with a metal spring bridge and metal nose guards or plaquettes, since these parts required the tough springiness of metal and the small, precise moving parts made possible with metallic substances. However, they were often coated with zylonite as well to make them match the eyerims aesthetically.

Antique eyeglasses and masculinity

          tortoise shell eyeglasses  The production of Oxfords in the form of tortoise shell vintage eyeglasses ushered in the first major manufacturing of non-unisex eyewear on Earth. Before that time, spectacles and pince nez had been made to be worn by either sex. However, the burly, robust look of tortoise shell eyeglasses prompted men to purchase them as looking more masculine, while women, interested at the time in celebrating their femininity as something positive, preferred the more delicate, sleek look of metal-rimmed Oxfords.

The split was not total, of course. Many men still sported metal rimmed Oxfords without feeling their masculinity diminished, and some women wore tortoise shell eyeglasses just as readily. However, the emergence of male and female versions of Oxfords encouraged exploration of new fashions meant to cater to the tastes of one sex or the other.

Metal Oxfords studded with tiny diamonds appeared for female evening wear, while tortoise shell eyeglasses (either genuine or zylonite) sometimes appeared with very heavy frames which were likely designed to appeal to the more macho wearers of these vision aids.

Oxfords – the Round Vintage Glasses of the Early 20th Century

The coming of the 20th century brought new science, new materials, new manufacturing techniques, and new fashion trends to the round vintage glasses that had existed for centuries, throwing out new and intriguing forms that gave templeless eyeglasses a new lease on life.

Although the period between the end of the 19th century and the hideous days of the First World War is now largely forgotten, it existed just as vividly and vibrantly for the people who lived in it as our own early 21st century world does for us. Though those days are overshadowed by the hair-raising butchery that followed, during these years people loved, lusted, dreamed, hated, rejoiced, grieved, wrote poetry, sought money and fame – and invented Oxfords.

oxford vintage glasses

oxford vintage glasses

Oxfords were, in a way, the “last hurrah” of round vintage glasses without temples which had existed during many preceding generations. Given the striking beauty of these antique eyeglasses, it can be said that templeless glasses went out not with a whimper, but with a satisfying bang, and round vintage glasses of this type remain immensely popular to this day among collectors and those who like to sport vintage fashions.

1910 was the year when Oxfords first appeared, though they are obviously descendants of the pince nez that had existed in America since the 1840s. Often extravagantly decorative, Oxfords came with either round or octagonal lenses.

As shall be seen, all vintage eyeglasses up to this point had been unisex, but Oxfords ushered in an era when men, for the first time, preferred one style and women overwhelming opted for the other. Clearly, eyeglasses were becoming a fashion accessory and not simply a hideous, deforming necessity that should be worn as little as possible. The growing affluence of this period undoubtedly had a positive impact on creativity and decoration of the antique eyeglasses produced then, too.

The rise and fall of Oxfords

            These round vintage glasses obviously did not have an eternal reign over the eyeglass field, and in fact survived a bit less than a generation – from 1910 to around 1935 – before being almost totally supplanted by antique spectacles. The buoyant American economy of the time fostered their production, and it was the Great Depression which finally ushered them from the stage of history – or at least from mass production by major companies.

oxford vintage glasses

oxford vintage glasses

The Great Depression, of course, was caused by the gold standard, which limited the money supply drastically at a time when technology was producing an economy too extensive for such a tiny supply of precious metal to “lubricate”. The economy expanded to the point where the pathetically insufficient gold supply strangled its ability to grow, and a crash inevitably followed.

Those countries which rid themselves of the gold standard quickly – such as Great Britain – recovered almost immediately. Others clung to gold for a long time, such as France, and remained in economic ruins for decades afterward. Some, like the United States, were moderately quick to throw off the devastating shackles of gold, and suffered a period of economic woe followed by recovery. China, which had a silver standard, was unaffected and greatly strengthened its position at the expense of other nations, perhaps laying the foundation for its current economic power in the process.

It was during this period of economic turmoil that the Oxford finally succumbed to the cheap, practical, workmanlike spectacles which had also existed for centuries, but had largely been despised until then. Fortunately, though, Oxfords had their heyday and left a marvelous heritage of exquisitely beautiful round vintage eyeglasses for us to enjoy today.

Tortoiseshell Vintage Glasses and Cases in Late 19th Century America

Tortoiseshell is an exquisitely beautiful substance and was popular as a material for vintage glasses for several centuries – tortoiseshell glasses also appeared in later 19th century America. The shell actually comes from the hawksbill sea turtle, and not a tortoise – an unfortunate use for a rare and remarkable creature, though one which, at the time, was held in a strangely intense contempt.

Tortoiseshell glasses frames were made from the earliest times up until the first decade of the 20th century, and only lost their place among the creations of American vintage eyeglasses manufacturers when rubber coated steel frames and plastic coated steel frames were introduced in the First World War era. These substances, especially zylonite, were made to resemble tortoiseshell and were often advertised as such, sparing the innocuous hawksbills any further harvesting.

tortoiseshell vintage glasses         Genuine tortoiseshell antique eyeglasses are likely to be from the late 19th or the very earliest 20th centuries. If you can positively identify glasses as being made of this substance, then you will have placed the glasses in time fairly accurately. If burnt, tortoiseshell produces a biting, acrid reek not unlike burning hair. This is a drastic form of identification, however, especially for valuable antique eyeglasses, and it is better to pass a finger lightly over the surface to see if it is slickly smooth (plastic or rubber) or if there are slight but perceptible whorls (tortoiseshell).

Tortoiseshell vintage glasses frames can be readily repaired by heating the broken ends and pressing them together, which will cause them to fuse. However, these vintage glasses need to be kept safe from rodents, since mice and rats devour tortoiseshell glasses eagerly, and many old pairs show at least a few nibble marks from the hungry murines of long ago.

Tortoiseshell glasses cases and pince nez cases

            Tortoiseshell looks even more spectacular as the main component of a glasses or pince nez case, if possible, than it does as the frames of a set of antique spectacles or Oxfords. The larger surfaces gave the artisan the chance to show off the natural beauty and marbled, variegated hues of the remnants of a hawksbill turtle’s shell, rather than just as a bit of striping on the narrow surface of eyerims and temples. These cases are frequently edged with silver, and occasionally with gold.

tortoiseshell vintage glasses   Tortoiseshell glasses are often best complemented by a period case, though the buyer must beware since better quality plastics have a strong resemblance to tortoiseshell. Their tactile feel is different, however – there are low whorls left by the organic structure of the shell

At least one famous figure associated with American vintage eyeglasses benefited from using a less stylish steel, rather than tortoiseshell, glasses case, however. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was saved from an attempt to shoot him by a saloon owner named John Schrank in Milwaukee. The bullet was slowed enough by the steel case to lodge superficially in the muscle rather than puncturing his lung – a rare instance where choosing tortoiseshell might have been the less optimal decision.

American Vintage Sunglasses in the 19th Century

Sunglasses have had a surprisingly long history, dating back to the boundary of the Medieval era and the Renaissance, and the American vintage sunglasses in the 19th century are the continuation of a long tradition of tinted, sun-defeating lenses for the comfort of those outdoors in the summer glare. Venice was a center of production, with its skilled artisans being kept literally as highly-paid prisoners by the Venetian government lest they seek employment outside the canal-laced city.

Many vintage sunglasses from the early American period still exist, but these are almost all imported, since the Americans were incapable of producing plain lenses on an adequate scale, and certainly were unable to make lenses made out of tinted glass.

vintage sunglasses Most of these early sunglasses, imported from Europe, have curious D-shaped eyerims and lenses, with the flat side of the D facing the outer edges of the vintage glasses and the curved side flanking the nose. Since pince nez had not yet been invented, all American sunglasses prior to Bausch’s era were spectacles, with the characteristic D-shaped lenses and temples to tie around the head with cords or ribbons.

The D-shaped lenses were made for a very specific purpose. These early vintage eyeglasses almost all had two sets of eyerims and two sets of lenses. One set of eyerims housed plain, clear lenses, while the others featured tinted glass. The D-shape allowed the eyerims to be hinged together at the flat outer edge of the D, so that the outer, tinted eyerims could be opened and shut like shutters on a window. The user could thus choose whether to look through transparent or tinted lenses.

Bausch’s first vintage sunglasses pince nez

            John Jacob Bausch was such a pivotal, perhaps dominant, figure in the 19th century American eyeglass world that it is impossible to discuss any topic related to the era without his name cropping up somewhere in relation to it. Some of Bausch’s first pince nez, with a powerfully arched hoop spring bridge and hard, vulcanized rubber eyerims, featured dark-tinted lenses to serve as pince nez.

The emergence of an American antique eyeglasses industry

            The Civil War was again the moment when the American eyeglasses industry shook off the lethargy of two centuries of dependence on European imports, and emerged as a muscular colossus capable of both supplying all domestic needs and of taking the rest of the world’s markets by storm.

vintage sunglasses     antique sunglasses were made for the first time at this time, though it is uncertain if the sharpshooter’s glasses used during the Civil War itself, with their tinted amber lenses and mix of transparent and frosted glass in a single lens, were early American successes in the field or European imports. By 1867, American vintage glasses were just as much in demand in Europe for their quality as corrective lenses.

Most of these superbly crafted vintage eyewear were some type of pince nez or Oxfords, not spectacles as the earlier types had been. They were made in many colors, ranging from yellow for hunters (it is quite possible that Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was wearing a pair on the famous hunt which led to the creation of the “Teddy bear”) to green for those suffering from Parkinson’s, since the verdant color was believed to soothe the mind and lessen the shaking caused by the ailment. Obtaining a pair with the original colored lenses is quite a feather in the cap of any collector of vintage sunglasses from America.