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.
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
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.