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When Were Glasses Invented? The Fascinating History of Specs

Shu Kie

Written By:

Shu Kie

Updated: 03 October 2022 •  

We’re so used to slipping on our specs everyday, they’ve truly become part of the fabric of our lives. But have you ever stopped to think when the first glasses were invented?
 
Or even more mind-boggling, what did people do before they had glasses at their fingertips?
 
Have you wondered who had the genius idea to correct sight and start an entire world of style possibilities at the same time? We’ve done a little deep dive to figure out when glasses were first invented, including the who, what, why, and how.
 

The very first specs in existence

It is thought that glasses were first invented in the late 1200s (1270-1280).
 
As you can imagine, these early specs were incredibly simple pieces of blown glass held together with leather or wood and were often just held to the face when required.
 
How do we know this? Well, firstly, we can look to art! Check out the painting below of Cardinal Hugo of Provence hard at work at his desk rocking a pretty great pair of early specs.
 
the painting of hugh of saint-cher wearing glasses in 1352

 
This painting is by Tommaso de Modena (1326 – 1379) and was found in the Basilica San Nicolo’s Chapter House in Treviso, Italy. This checks out as Italy is the birthplace of optical eyewear (man, those guys really did us many favors when it comes to inventions both culinary and otherwise!)
 
But let’s backtrack a little further. Before glasses were created to sit on the face or close to the eyes, the concept was a little broader. People would place crystals and stones onto pages of text to enlarge them, helping the reader to see. They would also fill clear glass bowls with water and place them over the pages, also helping to magnify the letters.
 
Then, someone super smart realized that if the materials were held close to the eyes, the effect was doubly effective. Some people think a guy called Salvino D’Armati invented eyeglasses in the 13th century, but this is still debated and has even been called a great hoax. When it comes down to it, no-one knows for sure who we have to thank for our modern day specs, but we can speculate (sorry – had to).
 
There are some very early writings regarding optics, primarily, the aptly named ‘Optics’ by Ptolemy in the 2nd century. In this book, which hasn’t really survived translation all too well, Ptolemy writes a little about improved optics by using a convex lens.
 
So, by then, people were clued-up on how optics worked and the general science behind magnification and distance. But when did the concept actually turn into a tangible, practical item?
 
Well, we know that by the early 1300s, there were special guilds formed in Venice surrounding the making and selling of glasses, so they were well underway by then and worn mostly by scholars and monks. It makes sense that Murano, Venice became the hive of glasses, as the area is still known for its expertise in glass blowing and craft.
 
It all escalated when the printing press was invented in approximately 1436 and everyone knuckled down to some good old reading. Naturally, the need for corrected and improved eyesight completely exploded, taking the development of glasses along with it.
 
Thanks to this world-changing development (the printing press), eyeglass technology also sped up, leading to different kinds of lenses to correct different types of eyesight issues.
 

When were sunglasses invented?

But what about sunglasses? Well, fascinatingly, the Emperor Nero (37AD – 68AD) was said to have used pieces of emerald or greenstone to shield his eyes from the sun’s glare during battle. How cool is that?
 
In other words, sunglasses have been doing the good work of blocking harmful light since way back when (truly way back).
 
We’ll leave the history of sunglasses for another day!
 
glasses worn by the eighth shogun yoshimasa ashikaga

A pair of glasses from 1475 worn by Eighth Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga who reigned in Japan from 1447 to 1473. Source: Open Culture

 

When did we start using glasses as fashion accessories?

While there was a period when glasses were thought of as a sign of class and intelligence (thanks to the association with reading and study), glasses were also thought of as an embarrassing sign of old age.
 
This meant that many fancy-pants people actually used hand-held optical aids such as the lorgnette, or dainty specs that hung around the neck during the 1800s.
 
a lorgnette

 
Wealthy classes also rocked the monocle and the pince-nez to improve sight without seeming lower class, old, or simply unfashionable.
 
It wasn’t really until as late as the 1960s and 70s that eyeglasses became a fashion statement and an accepted accessory for all. Pop culture icons such as Gloria Steinem, Buddy Holly (who brought specky-cool to the 1950s!) John Lennon and Diane Keaton brought glasses into the hip mainstream. From there, glasses continued to become acceptable, fashionable, and even sexy.
 
Part of the reason for this boom in coolness was that materials, styles, colors, and shapes were being developed quickly. Glasses turned from a simple necessity to a possible form of self-expression and fashionable fun. From bejeweled wingtips to tortoiseshell pantos, there was something for everyone.
 
buddy holly wearing a pair of black glasses frames

Buddy Holly in his iconic black frames. Source: The Sector M

 

How glasses have showed up in pop culture

Since those rudimentary days of the late 1200s, glasses have become positively iconic time and time again! Glasses have become far more than optical aids, they’re a style statement, an act of rebellion, and often, a symbol of an iconic character known the world over.
 
The name on all of our lips when it comes to “famous frames” is Harry Potter and his round, NHS-style metal rims. But what about Marilyn Monroe’s 1950s wingtips? Or Tom Cruise’s aviators in ‘Top Gun’?
 
However, glasses haven’t always had a good reputation. For decades, glasses have been a symbol of “the nerd” or the brainiac. Just look back at the TV shows, movies, and even cartoons we watched as kids. Steve Urkel from ‘Family Matters’, Milhouse and Professor Frink from ‘The Simpsons’, Eugene from ‘Grease’, and Velma from ‘Scooby Doo’. What do these characters have in common? They’re considered nerds and they wear a big ole pair of specs. However, they (for the most part) are considered intelligent and high-achieving, (of course!).
 
While glasses may have been a target for bullies in the past, times have certainly changed. Not only are some of the most celebrated celebrities associated with glasses, but the very idea of intelligence has changed. It’s cool to be smart, educated, aware, creative, and successful now, ushering in the trend of glasses as a style accessory.
 

Fancy new materials and glasses today

As us spec-wearing fanatics know well, glasses these days are a modern marvel of cutting edge technology and self expression. Even those with super strong prescriptions can enjoy thin, feather-light lenses (a far-cry from those bug-eyed thick numbers from yesteryear!).
 
For example, here at Mouqy we champion the high-index lens, allowing hard-core prescriptions and light lenses to blend seamlessly. Our lenses are also scratch-resistant, anti-reflection, and liquid repelling. They also come in blue light blocking variations, to help protect your eyes from digital screens. In other words, glasses these days work hard for us and our crazy modern lives!
 
And that’s just the lenses. Glasses frames these days are a whole other ballgame, and come in materials from titanium to acetate. There are shapes, colors, sizes, and aesthetics to suit absolutely anyone. The cool part? Anything goes, trend-wise, as long as it makes the wearer happy.
 
And, unlike the old days when a pair would set you back an eye-watering amount, glasses are much more affordable. With the rise of online glasses retailers, it’s now easier than ever to get a good and reliable pair sent straight to your doorstep.
 
So, now we can appreciate the long history of glasses and the journey they took to get to our faces! What does your glasses history look like?

Shu Kie

Written by:

Shu Kie

Shu Kie is Mouqy’s certified optician with over 5 years of experience in the optical industry. She earned her certification from Association of British Dispensing Opticians (ABDO).
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