Ophthalmic Heritage & Museum of Vision

The History of Spectacles

The invention of spectacles profoundly influenced progress in the arts and sciences, yet we do not know whom to thank for this invention. Marco Polo, journeying to China in 1270, is said to have observed elderly Chinese using spectacles. The Chinese themselves claim that spectacles originated in Arabia in the 11th century.


In the western world, the invention of spectacles is believed to have occurred between 1268-1289. Riveted spectacles to correct presbyopia (the inability to focus on objects that are near) were one of the earliest pairs invented. The wearers, mostly monks and scholars, held the lenses in front of their eyes or balanced them on their nose since any movement would send the lenses falling .The invention of the printing press in 1452 and the growing availability of books prompted the mass production of inexpensive spectacles that were sold in cities by peddlers. The middle and lower classes began wearing spectacles mounted in leather, wood, horn, bone or even light steel. The upper classes on the other hand, favored more genteel, although cumbersome, hand-held spectacles with frames of gold and silver.


The first significant advance in frame design occurred in the 1600s with lenses fixed to a rigid bridge rather than riveted, allowing them to stay in place. Quizzing glasses, small single lenses with decorative stems, and hand-held scissors glasses, became favorites among famous individuals such as Goethe, Washington and Napoleon during the early 1700s and early 1800s. Between 1725 and 1750, a London optician designed the first temple spectacles, while Ben Franklin invented bifocals.

Ornate prospect glasses, French lorgnettes and miniature spyglasses became all the rage in pre-Revolutionary France. In the late 1800s, Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge made Pince-Nez and trifocals popular, while cylindrical lenses for astigmatism became available.


The 20th century as a whole became a time of gradual and dramatic change in the eyewear world. Along with progress in lens acuity and frame shapes, eyewear became, and still is, a popular accessory for both men and women whether worn plain or in prescription strength.

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