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What's Up Magazine

Fashionable and Collectible Eyeglasses

Nov 09, 2010 10:00PM ● By Anonymous


Back in the 1960s, sunglasses were often slanted upwards and the dark frames sometimes studded with rhinestones. Now considered retro and copied by designers, the originals bring big money.

The first sunglasses, marketed in the 1870s through mail order catalogues, were sold for the mere sum of 15 cents per pair. Nineteenth century sunglasses had frames made of steel and the lenses were thick pieces of oval-shaped glass. These early glasses still turn up for sale at estate auctions and antiques shops. Eyeglasses were made as early as the 13th century. However, most collectible eyeglasses one might hope to encounter today are usually no older than late 18th century.

By the 18th century there were three common types of eyeglasses in use, including the monocle, which consisted of a single lens for reading. Scissors-glasses were two eyepieces held together by a jointed frame that went under the nose, creating the appearance that one’s nose was about to be cut off, thus the name “scissors-glasses.” The third kind was called “temple spectacles,” which approximate modern spectacles in that they were held in place by bars that press against the temple.

Until the 1920s, most people did not want to be seen wearing eyeglasses. The one prominent American who proved an exception  was Benjamin Franklin who allowed himself to be portrayed wearing spectacles.

Women favored the lorgnette, spectacles with side-mounted handles of tortoise shell, silver, or mother-of-pearl. Lorgnettes evolved from the scissors glasses. The eyeglass portion often featured hinges that could be folded together and slide into the handle that often doubled as a protective case.

Men used monocles or the pince-nez (French for pinched nose), that were held in place by a steel spring that pinched the nose. Shuron pince-nez were equipped with special little grippers which slipped on to the bridge of the nose. They were advertised as “sure to stay on the nose.”

Eyeglass frames have been made of gutta-percha, a rubber-like plastic; pinchbeck, a zinc and copper alloy; silver; gold; steel; bake lite; and most recently plastic. Although dealers often price eyeglasses based on their materials, with gold frames commanding the highest price, oftentimes glasses made from plebian materials such as pinchbeck and steel are rarer due to their antiquity and style. Another collectible item in addition to the glasses themselves are the cases created to protect them. Elaborate cases were made of gold, silver, ivory, leather, papier-mâché, and wood. Some cases were actually lined with fine silk fur. Spectacle cases made in the Orient were often finely carved or made of painted wood and decorated with embroidery, cloth, or sharkskin. Fine eyeglass cases were often personalized with monograms. Leather cases often had entire names and addresses embossed with gold tooling.

Among some unusual sunglasses from the 19th century were ones with an additional set of lenses that could be worn along the temples to shield against the sparks of the locomotive. Other unusual sunglasses had a hinged dark lens for optional use.

Even heard of rain glasses? Well during the 1970s, tinted glasses with wipers that worked by battery were introduced. They never caught on, so if you can find a pair now they are a collector’s item.