The History of Eyeglasses in a nutshell
A long time ago, because eyeglasses hadn't been invented yet. If you were nearsighted, farsighted or had astigmatism, you were out of luck. Everything was blurry.
But what did people whose vision wasn't perfect do before that? They did one of two things: either resigned themselves to being unable to see well or did what clever people always do, improvise.
It wasn't until the first image magnification technology was developed between the years 1000 and 1250. Inventors noticed that convex shaped glass had the ability to magnify and the first simple magnifiers, or reading stones, were born. These early magnifying glasses served as a precursor to eyeglasses.
Although the exact date is in dispute, eyeglasses first appeared in Pisa, Italy, around the year 1286. They consisted of two framed glass or crystal stones and were held up to the eyes using a handle. It is unclear who invented these primitive eyeglasses, but their use soon spread throughout Europe.
During this time, Venice, Italy, was a Mecca for medieval glass production. The guild of crystal workers was established in 1284. In 1300, they adopted regulations for the manufacture of "discs for the eyes". This served as a major catalyst for the future of eyeglasses. By the end of the 14th century, thousands of eyeglasses were being exported to all of Europe.
By the mid-1400s, Florence, Italy became a leader in production, sales, and innovation of eyeglasses. Glass makers in the area began to create eyeglasses in various strengths for hyperopes, presbyopes, and myopes. A complex grading system was also implemented after the realization that vision slowly declines with age.
During the 15th century, eyeglasses were in popular demand. Peddlers selling eyeglasses were common on the streets of Western Europe. Demand increased significantly after the appearance of the first newspaper, The London Press, in 1665. The possession of eyeglasses became an indication of intelligence, status, and wealth. This view was shared by the people of Europe, China, Italy, and Spain.
An important breakthrough came in the early 16th century when concave lenses were created for the nearsighted Pope Leo X. Now eyeglasses for farsightedness and nearsightedness existed. However, all of these early versions of eyeglasses came with a major problem - they wouldn't stay on your face.
So Spanish eyeglass manufacturers tied silk ribbons to the lenses and looped the ribbons on the wearer's ears. When these glasses were introduced to China by Spanish and Italian missionaries, the Chinese discarded the notion of looping the ribbons at the ears. They tied little weights to the end of the ribbons to make them stay on the ear. Then a London optician, Edward Scarlett, in 1730 created the forerunner of the modern temple arms, two rigid rods that attached to the lenses and rested on top of the ears. Twenty-two years later the eyeglasses designer James Ayscough refined the temple arms, adding hinges to enable them to fold. He also tinted all of his lenses green or blue, not to make them sunglasses, but because he thought these tints also helped to improve vision.
During the 17th century, Germany became a major player in the history of eyeglasses. The finest frames were produced here, although the Italians still made the highest quality lenses. During this time period, eyeglasses also became more widely used in the United States.
The next big innovation in eyeglasses came with the invention of the bifocal. Although most sources routinely credit the invention of bifocals to Benjamin Franklin, in the mid-1780s, an article on the website of the College of Optometrists interrogates this claim by examining all the evidence available. It tentatively concludes that it is more likely that bifocals were invented in England in the 1760s, and that Franklin saw them there and ordered a pair for himself.
The next important date in the history of eyeglasses is 1825 when English astronomer George Airy created concave cylindrical lenses that corrected his nearsighted astigmatism. Trifocals quickly followed, in 1827. Other developments that occurred in the late 18th or early 19th centuries were the monocle, which was immortalized by the character Eustace Tilley, and the lorgnette, eyeglasses on a stick that will turn anyone wearing them into an instant dowager.
At the beginning of the 20th century, eyeglass manufacturers began to emphasize style as well as function. Improved plastics used to make frames in the early 1900s presented new frame styling.
Fused bifocals, improving on the Franklin-style design by fusing the distance- and near-vision lenses together, were introduced in 1908. Sunglasses became popular in the 1930s, in part because the filter to polarize sunlight was invented in 1929, enabling sunglasses to absorb ultraviolet and infrared light. Another reason for the popularity of sunglasses is because glamorous movie stars were photographed wearing them.
By the 1950s, eyeglasses had become a popular fashion accessory in Europe and the United States. Wearers demanded comfortable and stylish designs which displayed elegance while remaining functional. Along with the fashion statement eyeglasses were becoming, advancement in lens technology brought progressive lenses (no-line multifocal glasses) to the public in 1959. Almost all eyeglass lenses are now made of plastic, which is lighter than glasses and breaks cleanly rather than shattering in shards.
Plastic photochromic lenses, which turn dark in the bright sunlight and become clear again out of the sun, first became available in the late 1960s. At that time they were called "photo gray" because this was the only color they came in. Photo gray lenses were available in glass only, but in the 1990s they became available in plastic, and in the 21st century they are now available in a variety of colors.
Eyeglasses styles come and go, and as is frequent in fashion, everything old eventually becomes new again. A case in point: Gold-rimmed and rimless glasses used to be popular. Now not so much. Oversized, bulky wire-framed glasses were favored in the 1970s. Now not so much. Currently, retro glasses that for the past 40 years were unpopular, such as square, horn-rim, and brow-line glasses, rule the optical store shelves.