Vintage frames found on pre-Revolutionary American (or, more accurately, Colonial) glasses have many distinguishing features that both provide striking insights into the manufacturing techniques and social customs of their day. Lenses and eyerims are round on these vintage eyeglass frames, for example, due to the ease of making this shape with hand grinding methods. The bridges are arched but hold the lenses far apart, making the glasses unstable on the nose.
The temples of vintage eyeglass frames from the pre-Revolutionary period, however, are even more distinctive than the rest of the glasses. Made extremely long and folding in the middle, they bear interesting marks, fittings designed to match up with the stylish wigs worn by men (and, a little later, women) of fashion at the time, and several unique construction techniques.
Temples in two sections on vintage frames of pre-Revolutionary days
The temples of pre-Revolutionary Colonial vintage frames are very frequently elongated and made in two folding sections. This is, of course, only true of metal frames, whether bronze, steel, silver, or gold. Leather and horn vintage frames were often made in an early “pince nez” pattern, with no temples, and the eyerims positioned so as to pinch onto the bridge of the nose.
The temples of pre-Revolutionary vintage eyeglasses were made long and folding for several reasons. Foremost of these was that the eyerims lacked nose pads and the bridges were quite open, so it was difficult to keep the spectacles on one's head while wearing them. Another reason was that temples that hooked behind the ears, like modern eyeglasses, had not yet been invented, so a different method of affixing the temples to the head was needed (as described below).
You can identify the temples of vintage frames from this period by the fact that they fold in two, and that when folded shut, one lies above the other behind the eyerims. The effect is striking and rather artistic – a perfect blend of symmetry and asymettry which makes even the roughly made cheap steel vintage frames of 17th century clerks and journeymen nearly sculptural.
These features overlapped somewhat into Revolutionary times, since spectacle makers did not suddenly change their methods with the shifting of eras, but there is a gradual change to a different mode of making temples which allows you to pin down the provenance of early vintage frames quite readily with a little care and knowledge.
Wigs or ribbons to hold early American vintage frames in place
Temples on vintage eyeglass frames from the pre-Revolutionary years have loops at their further ends. These loops were used to tie the spectacles to the user's head, since the “ear hook” form of temple had not yet been invented. The exact method was determined by the size of the loop.
Narrow loops, resembling an overgrown version of a needle's eye, were used to bind the vintage frames onto the wearer by passing a piece of ribbon or cord through both loops and tying it behind the user's head. Large loops – often circular metal rings at the end of the temples – were meant to have curly strands of the oversized wigs of the period threaded into them to hold them in place! These two types of loops even give you a glimpse of the fashion preferences of the original owner, and hazard a guess at how often (if at all) they wore a powdered wig.
Note that many of these vintage frames have no markings on them except for a double digit number showing the power of the lenses fitted to them, in the then-current measurement of “inches”.