18th Century Spectacles & Eyeglasses

Last updated: July 2, 2022

A description of the wearing of spectacles, from The Annals of Philadelphia:

Even spectacles, permanently useful as they are, have been subjected to the caprice of fashion. Now they are occasionally seen of gold — a thing I never saw in my youth; neither did I ever see one young man with spectacles — now so numerous! A purblind or half-sighted youth then deemed it his positive disparagement to be so regarded. Such would have rather run against a street post six times a day, than have been seen with them! Indeed, in early olden time they had not the art of using temple spectacles. Old Mrs. Shoemaker, who died in 1825 at the age of 95, said that she had lived many years in Philadelphia before she ever saw temple spectacles — a name then given as a new discovery, but now so common as to have lost its distinctive character. In her early years the only spectacles she ever saw were called “bridge spectacles,” without any side supporters, and held on the nose solely by nipping the bridge of the nose. Such as these, were first invented in 1280. What a time for those “eyes were dim with age!” before that era! happily, they had no reading then to manage.

Likewise, from the Spirit of the Republic Journals for 1802:

In the laſt century, to wear ſpectacles was regarded as an unequivocal mark of wiſdom. The noſe which bore them was always that of an informed perſon — the eyes to which they tranſmitted the ſoftened rays of light were ſuppoſed to have been dimmed by much reading — and the head which they decorated, and to which they imparted a certain venerable air, muſt of courſe have been occupied by profound meditation and ſtudy. Towards the end of the century, young men adopted the same faſhion, it being thought as dangerous to ſee, as it was of advantage to be dim-ſighted. So prevalent at length was this faſhion of wearing ſpectacles become, that many perſons whoſe eyes were excellent took to wearing them, uſing only the precaution, leſt they ſhould injure their ſight, of firſt taking out the glaſſes! Thus they conformed to the eſtablished mode. But at preſent ſpectactles ſeem to have returned to their primitive uſe, and to be worn only by thoſe who have really an occaſion for them.

Pages elsewhere on this site focus on tinted spectacles of the 17th & 18th centuries, and eyeglasses and spectacles from the 14th-16th centuries.

Nose spectacles (“bridge spectacles”)

Double folding frame spectacles

Scissor spectacles

Turn-pin spectacles

Lorgnettes

  • Gilai OIS629, “an Adams Style Lorgnette made in England under the name ‘Pocket Spectacles,’” late 18th century

Cases

  • RL-93, a steel flip-top case, c. 1727-1760
  • MoV 1984.000.00383, brown papier-mâché, c. 1740-1780
  • MoV 1988.057.00005, “shagreen case is shaped like the spectacles, and is open at the top to insert the frames,” 1750
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  • Colonial Williamsburg 1982-154, probably Birmingham, England; “hinged steel spectacles case with interior traces of red japanning; exterior engraved ‘James Perry / Hooper / St. Jno. Baptist / Parish Bristol / 1772’”
  • MoV 1999.024.00040, mother-of-pearl case for a pair of riveted spectacles, c. 1780

Additional 18th century depictions of people with eyewear