The Slow Emergence of Fashionable Vintage Spectacles

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.

lennon glasses      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.

lennon glasses         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.

Algha, John Lennon Glasses, and Postwar Fashion

Emerging from the dark and bloodstained days of the Second World War, the antique eyeglass fashion world exploded into huge popularity. Not only a host of new materials, but probably peoples’ defensive psychological reaction to the grimness that had just ended, caused the market to embrace bright, whimsical, or magnificently stylish designs.

Algha, Max Wiseman’s British eyeglass company, turned from making fighter and bomber pilots’ goggles back to the more pleasant business of supplying people with attractive peacetime vintage eyewear – and eventually, John Lennon Glasses.

lennon glasses    It was Algha’s insistence on carrying on a technical aspect of eyeglass manufacture from the early 20th century that helped to bring certain types of John Lennon glasses into being a few decades after the last shot was fired in Europe. The company – and its successor, as shall be seen, Savile Row – made use of Rolled Gold for some of their higher end antique eyeglasses construction.

This process makes use of hard, 14 karat gold rolled around a steel core, with a layer of 24 karat gold on top. This produces a thicker layer of gold than ordinary gold plating, making the gold layer almost certain to endure wear and tear for more than a single human lifetime of use. 24 karat gold plating would eventually wear away. However, there is another advantage – gold doesn’t cause allergies, while alloying metals sometimes do, so the Rolled Gold vintage eyeglass frames of Algha’s 1950s and 1960s glasses are hypoallergenic and can be worn even by those with sensitive skin.

Some John Lennon glasses from Algha featured Rolled Gold frames. The musician wore many different pairs of vintage glasses from Algha, and some from other sources, too. These are certainly the fanciest frames associated with the most famous and most tragically destined of the Beatles, and even today make a fashion statement suitable for men or women, in either formal or informal circumstances. The round Rolled Gold frames of the firm’s mid 20th century styles are clearly visible glinting in some pictures of John Lennon.


Mary Quant and Algha

lennon eyeglasses        The eyeglass world is as much the story of individuals as it is of corporations or technical advances, as the name “John Lennon glasses” reveals. Mary Quant was an early pioneer of British fashion sunglasses, who soon joined forces with the formidable Algha company to promote her line far and wide.

It was, in fact, a combination of Mary Quant’s reputation as a rebellious and rather Bohemian designer, plus John Lennon, that gave Algha a major foothold in the United States. Quant’s designs were mostly oval or even rectangular to start with, and a few can be classified as cat eye glasses, though not as obviously as some of the elongated, caracal-eyed designs that appeared at the time. However, later on, some of her designs adopted the characteristic round eyerims that Algha put on many of its works.

These Quant designs are made out of several different rich, warm, reddish brown tones of Zylonite, meant to imitate tortoiseshell. They look very distinct in this way from the thin metal rims favored by the Beatle who gave his name to a whole style of vintage eyeglasses .

Their workmanship is remarkable, however, with braided or plaited designs, smoothly integrated features, and technical superiority typical of Algha’s work. With their round designs drawing inspiration from the same font as the Rolled Gold types produced by the same company, these are perhaps the most unusual form of John Lennon eyeglasses ever made – yet, in their way, John Lennon glasses nevertheless.

Algha and the Cult of John Lennon Glasses

The story of eyeglasses is a rich and varied one, woven not only of threads of technical advance and materials technology, but also human attitudes and cultures, and fascinating glimpses of the lives and thoughts of uniquely quirky individuals –as is the case with the history of John Lennon glasses. One of the main firms that supplied the vintage eyewear favored by this renowned Beatle is Algha, which began long before their products became associated with the famous man.

Max Wiseman was the founder of Algha, the name of which means “alpha and omega”, the ancient phrase signifying the first and the last, first used in print in the Bible’s Book of Revelations. The Englishman started his career long before the era of John Lennon glasses, as far back as 1898. He manufactured many of the antique eyeglasses and spectacles cases in his own factory, but his most popular items were high quality gold-filled frames from Germany, which served him so well that he was soon a wealthy man.

John Lennon Glasses      The catalyst that prompted him to start the Algha company – and ultimately lead to the creation of the iconic John Lennon glasses it produced – was the worsening situation in Germany during the early 1930s. The Weimar Republic was hamstrung by early Nazi obstructionism in the Reichstag, preventing the government from taking almost any action, and this led to an economy where hideous inflation took hold.

Wiseman and his sons took the initiative in 1932 and bought a whole factory, complete with all its equipment, from the German eyeglass-manufacturing city of Rathenau. Nearly a dozen German artisans highly skilled and knowledgeable about making filled gold frames moved to England to head the new factory in London – probably glad to escape the hyperinflation, unrest, and growing menace of Hitler and his faction to democratic society.

Thus, John Lennon glasses were born from the combined efforts of Wiseman and his sons, and a select group of German expatriate artisans. Algha broke almost immediately out of the stuffy Teutonic mold of purely functional vintage eyeglasses, and started experimenting with a whole catalog full of intriguing, fashionable designs. This was the era when eyewear was starting to shake off its age-old stigma of “weakness” and become a fully acceptable part of fashion.


The Second World War and Vintage Glasses

Max Wiseman was not just a savvy entrepreneur and seller of the extremely popular “Rolled Gold” glasses. He was also one of the founding fathers of the Association of Wholesale and Manufacturing Opticians, which led to one of the bodies that not only promotes the welfare of its members, but also monitors excellence and ensures quality in their products.

John Lennon Glasses   The fact that the practical is never far beneath the surface of the stylish in the world of antique eyeglasses is underlined by the fate of Algha during the war years. In these stark, grim  times, the company turned to making gas mask eyepieces and aviators’ goggles for the fighting men of Britain. Fortunately, the gas masks were never needed, since the soldiers were spared this hideous weapon by an unexpected qualm on the part of their enemy.

However, many of the pilots during the famous Battle of Britain wore goggles made by Algha – a far cry from the stylish, peaceful world of Windsor glasses that appeared in the postwar world. As is so often the case in human history, style and danger or adventure are not too far apart – which is perhaps what lends piquancy to fashion, especially vintage fashion from an earlier era.

Style, Comfort, and Coated Windsor Vintage Eyeglass Frames

Though style and comfort sometimes collide head-on – and given the peculiarities of the human psyche, it is unclear which of the two will emerge victorious in a specific “struggle” – Windsor Vintage eyeglass frames often show a blending of both stylistic and comfort considerations from their earliest days. Constructed out of narrow wires, almost always made from metal, these early Windsor eyeglass frames required coating to reach both their aesthetic and ergonomic peak.

Aesthetically, plain Windsor Vintage eyeglass frames are very plain indeed. A thin edging of bare steel, and small diameter wire riding bow temples, are spare to the point of starkness. Although some people enjoy this level of Zen-like simplicity in their vintage eyewear (and there is certainly nothing wrong with that), many others prefer a warmer, more organic, slightly more colorful look that can be provided with a coating.

windsor vintage eyeglass frames   Ergonomically speaking, coatings are important for wearer comfort also. The thin, bare wires of vintage eyeglasses tend to dig uncomfortably into the flesh, especially on the sides of the nose and behind the ears. Coatings render the frames somewhat bulkier, so the pressure is distributed over a larger area, and also make the edges touching the skin a bit softer and springier. Coated wires also get warm from body heat, while metal frames tend to stay cool or cold.

Materials used to coat Windsor vintage glasses frames

            When Windsor eyeglass frames first appeared on the American market in the 1840s, plastic and celluloid still lay in the future. However, vulcanized rubber existed, and thanks to J. J. Bausch’s introduction of it to the vintage spectacles world in that decade, it was available for optical uses. The first coated antique eyeglasses were covered in a layer of hard rubber, a substance whose springiness helped to make the frames more comfortable to wear as well as protecting the metal from damage, scrapes, and corrosion.

Celluloid entered the Windsor eyeglass frames scene much later, and if a coating is not obviously rubber, then it is likely that the Windsors in question are from sometime in the early 20th century rather than the mid or late 19th century, when these coatings existed only in an experimental form that was not yet used on antique eyeglasses (or for any practical application).

windsor vintage eyeglass frames  Zylonite was first created in 1865, the last year of the American Civil War, which proved to be a remarkable catalyst for development of the American vintage eyeglasses industry in other ways, too. Once again, its use was pioneered by a German-American, one Paul Schützenberger, though he was technically of French extraction because of his birth in Alsace, a part of France despite its Germanic language and customs. However, it was not made cheap to make and convenient to apply until the first few years of the 20th century.

Zylonite was often called “tortoiseshell” for advertising purposes, even though it was actually a celluloid compound (and is still in use today). The colors most frequently encountered are tortoiseshell (a marbled hue designed to match the natural substance), blond, brown, and black. Other marbled hues, such as “demi-blond”, were also made to satisfy wearer’s interest in dignified but colorful vintage eyeglasses.

The Emergence of Windsor Glasses

The 19th century was a fertile time for the creation of new antique eyeglasses styles in America, as well as innumerable variants on existing configurations; pince nez were first made in this era, and Windsor glasses, which survive in use to this day, also put in their first appearance in the 1800s.

This period was probably so rich in ophthalmic history because manufacturing technology had made immense leaps forward, but the “best” solution to the making eyeglasses had not yet been found, leading to diverse, interesting experiments in the field of applied optics that lead to the vintage eyeglasses treasures collectors enjoy today.

windsor antique eyeglasses     Windsor glasses are defined by a number of distinctive features. Though these features are found in other antique glasses of the period (as well as earlier and later eras), there are no others which possess all of these features, which permit you to identify Windsor antique eyeglasses quickly and definitely:

Round lenses and eyerims.

A “nose saddle” bridge which is a very simple bridge type, consisting of a gently arched piece of metal between the eyerims. The presence of separate nose pads, plaquettes, or other retaining devices means that the spectacles in question are not Windsor glasses.

Frequent use of celluloid as a coating for the frames or even the lenses (to achieve a sunglasses effect), though this is not an inevitable feature and thus is not primarily diagnostic of whether or not specific spectacles are Windsors. However, the presence of celluloid, as well as other coatings such as plastic later in the history of these glasses, does not disqualify them from being considered Windsors, either.

Riding bow temples – these are thin wire temples with a strongly curved further extremity, so that they can be hooked over the ears. They were an early 19th century British invention which quickly spread abroad, and were originally meant to keep spectacles in place while galloping about on horseback, a rapid, jolting motion that might dislodge other eyewear. In the case of Windsor glasses, riding bow temples were adopted simply to keep the glasses in place, since they exert absolutely no gripping action on the nose and would slip off immediatley if not for the wires hooked firmly behind the ears.

Generally, though not always, slender metal construction of eyerims, bridges, and temples, though these may look thicker thanks to heavy rubber or zylonite coatings.

windsor antique eyeglasses      Antique Windsor glasses were produced with frames made from practically every metal then used in the eyeglass industry – including Roman steel (a soft variety), hard steel (popular in the Civil War period), gold-filled, silver, solid gold in various karats of purity (up to a maximum of 14 karat gold), aluminum, brass, nickel, and a host of alloys as well.

Though it was not until around 1880 that Windsor vintage glasses rocketed to success in the United States and became fully as popular as other types of vintage eyewear – with such eminent personalities as Theodore Roosevelt wearing them alongside pince nez – there are existing examples, apparently of American manufacture, dating back as far as the early 1840s.