American humorist Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) once wrote caustically that "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses." Her comment tells as much about the eyeglass fashions available in her youth as about the customs of flirtation. Ms. Parker would be pleasantly surprised to visit any suburban shopping mall today and to see the wide variety of eyeglass frames now available. Frames have become hot fashion accessories just like jewelry or shoes, and the wearer can change them to match moods or to convey an image.
The ancient Greeks made the first studies of vision and the workings of the eye. They also attempted to understand magnification and to use it to understand vision problems. Alhazen, an Arabian scientist who lived during the eleventh century, studied the refraction (bending) of light and the connection between optic nerves and the brain. It was the thirteenth century Polish scientist, Vitello, who first understood that the shapes of lenses could be used to control the focus of light rays.
In 1257, the English friar Roger Bacon explored so many aspects of science that he was imprisoned by the monks of his Franciscan order who were suspicious of his knowledge. While he was in prison, Friar Bacon sent Pope Clement IV some magnifying lenses for reading; despite Bacon's controversial standing, the monks who labored over detailed manuscripts and copy work quickly adopted the use of his spectacles. Bacon's work occurred at the same time as that of Salvino d'Armato of Florence, Italy, and several Chinese and German scientists. All can be thanked for their collective invention of spectacles.
The invention of devices to keep spectacles on the nose took several more centuries. And, despite Ms. Parker's rhyme, style and a variety of lens shapes and frames have been important since the beginning of eyeglass frames. The earliest eyeglasses were unframed lenses that were simply held by hand in front of the face. Alternatively, two lenses were mounted in a half frame that could be held with one hand. Spectacles also were attached to hats or tied around the head with bands made of leather or ribbon. Will Somers, a jester to the court of Henry VIII, sported a suit of armor with spectacles attached to the metal helmet with rivets. The painter El Greco portrayed Cardinal Niño de Guevara wearing glasses with cords that looped over his ears. The seventeenth century design called the forehead frame consisted of a metal band that encircled the head and had metal frames mounted to it.
The most common frames held two lenses on a frame that rode on the lower part of the nose. Lightweight materials were used to lessen the burden and pinching of these "nose frames." In the court of the Spanish King Philip V and Queen Marie-Louise (about 1701), all 500 of the queen's ladies-in-waiting wore tortoise-shell frames because of their light weight. This style saluted both fashion and superstition; the frames supposedly brought good luck because the tortoise is sacred in China. Attempts at stylistic designs were varied and clever. The bridge pieces that rest on the nose were decorated in endless ways. Lenses were mount-ed in fans, watch fobs, and on walking sticks. The status-conscious had their nose frames made of gold or other precious materials or employed artists to decorate the frames with coats of arms.
Other than nose glasses, lens wearers could choose the monocle (a single lens in a frame or holder), the lorgnette (a pair of lenses with a nose bridge and a single handle on one side), a quizzer or quizzing glass (a monocle that was mirrored so the wearer could see to the rear as well), the perspective glass (a single lens worn on a ribbon and used for distance vision), or scissors glasses that had two eyepieces mounted on a hinged handle that was held up in front of the nose. Finally, in 1728, Edward Scarlett of London developed temples for frames. These clamps gripped the temple area and held nose glasses more securely to the face. A loop at the end of each temple piece held ribbons that were tied around the head or wig. By the 1880s, temples were curved to extend and fit over the ears to hold spectacles in place.
In the Colonies, spectacles were imported and were very expensive until American glass-making skills improved enough to develop an eyeglass trade. Just as curved and fitted temples were developed and adopted all over the world, fashion reverted to a style called the oxford that consisted of nose glasses improved by a more elastic and wearable bridge. These glasses were also called pince-nez and had nose pads fitted to small springs on the flexible bridge. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge wore oxfords. During the 1900s, simple steel-framed glasses were the most common, although less expensive frames were available in a material called gutta-percha—a rubbery plastic-like substance. Tortoiseshell and horn-rimmed glasses became popular in the 1920s and 1930s, but many of these frames were actually made of celluloid, an early plastic that could be dyed and molded to resemble animal horn or tortoise shell. Steel-framed spectacles and sunglasses were issued to millions of servicemen during World War II.
The business of manufacturing eyeglass frames and lenses made its most dramatic leap in the twentieth century with the rise of plastics. Plastic lenses are lighter in weight and can be manufactured as bifocals, trifocals, and quadrifocals to correct a wider range of vision problems. Frames made of plastic are also less expensive. A broad range of styles and colors can be made in plastic and changed to suit wardrobes, fads, and moods. Sunglasses also became affordable, thanks to the plastics industry, but Hollywood was responsible for their popularity. Large, square-rimmed glasses like those worn by Clark Kent became popular among men in the 1950s, and the ladies favored "cat's-eye" glasses that angled up at the temples. Granny glasses with fine metal frames accompanied the flash of the "flower power" generation in the 1960s and may have been responsible for making antique eyeglasses popular collectibles. Although contact lenses were also developed during this century and have become very popular, the variety of available eyeglass frames has kept glasses fashionable.
Eyeglasses frames are typically made of either metal or a type of plastic called cellulose-acetate. Cellulose acetate is derived from cotton and is flexible and strong. It is produced in long narrow sheets that are slightly wider than eyeglass frames. The sheets are up to 3 ft (0.91 m) long and 0.33 in (0.84 cm) thick.
Eyeglasses manufacturers may retain their own staff of designers or use outside consultants to design frames. The consultants often include fashion designers, who create their own lines of eye wear that change along with trends in clothing design. The designers' names are important in selling eyeglasses and especially in interesting fashion-conscious buyers in multiple pairs of glasses or sunglasses. There are definitely trends or fashions in eyewear including light- or dark-colored frames, thick or delicate ones, and decorative shapes or ornament-bearing styles. Specialized frames for children and half-frames for reading glasses are also designed with an eye to style.
Designs also incorporate certain standards including bridge size and eye size. The bridge size allows for different thicknesses of the upper part of the nose where the nose
Eyeglasses frames must be manufactured with great attention to detail because they are critical in supporting lenses to improve vision, they must be comfortable for the wearer, and they are an accessory to professional dress and personal style. Although processes for making frames are performed by machines, operators are responsible for each step and are quality control checkers for their particular operations. The eyeglasses industry has become highly competitive because of the aspects of fad and fashion involved, but operators are well aware that their products provide vision care. Fronts and temples for eyeglasses can be rejected at any step in the process of manufacture.
No byproducts result from the manufacture of eyeglass frames. Plastic waste is generated during blanking, with the bulk of the waste from the lens portion of the frame that is cut out. This waste is carefully collected and recycled.
The past 50 years of eyeglass history have soundly established the future of frames. Despite the popularity of contact lenses and the advent of laser surgery to correct vision problems, many people will find eyeglasses necessary or desirable for their personal needs. Improved technology in the manufacture of plastic lenses and frames and in the comfort of fitted frames have made eyeglasses more enjoyable to wear. The fashion industry also actively supports eyeglass frames as an added avenue for expressive designs and a popular method of stating personal style.
Corson, Richard. Fashions in Eyeglasses. Dufour Editions, Inc., 1967.
Goldstein, Margaret J. Eyeglasses. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1997.
Gottlieb, Leonard. Factory Made: How Things are Manufactured. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1978.
Kelley, Alberta. Lenses, Spectacles, Eyeglasses, and Contacts: The Story of Vision Aids. New York: Elsevier/Nelson Books, 1978.
York, Alan. "Eyeglasses: Fads and Fashions in Spectacles." In The Encyclopedia of Collectibles: Dogs to Fishing Tackle. Andrea DiNoto, ed. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1978.
Morais, Richard C. "Luxottica's golden spectacles," Forbes (May 20, 1996): 98.
The Antique Spectacles Home Page. 9 September 1998. http://web.ukonline.co.uk/christopher.ridings/ (March 11, 1999).
University of Waterloo Museum of Visual Science and Optometry. 6 December 1996. http://www.optometry.uwaterloo.ca/-museum/ (March 11, 1999).
— Gillian S. Holmes