Research Ramblings: 19th Century Eyeglasses and the Museum of Vision, Part 3

As mentioned in my previous post, Jenny Benjamin of the Museum of Vision responded to my question about the eyewear options for a post-Civil War working class girl by sending pages from an eyewear catalog.

A page from the 1895 eyewear catalog

A page from the 1895 eyewear catalog

Not surprisingly, the selection isn’t very broad. After all, spectacles were not considered a fashion accessory back then. They are, however, considered a fashion accessory now, and Jenny mentioned she owns a pair of replica glasses. Apparently, If you want old fashioned glasses, you can go to Tom Valenza at www.historiceyewearcompany.com. His most recent claim to fame is outfitting the cast for the musical Hamilton. He also works with Civil War reenactors, and Jenny says his replicas are so good “they can fool the best of us.”

That piqued my interest. I’m old enough to remember opticians offering both glass and plastic lenses. As heavy as my hiqh prescription lenses are now, the glass ones were worse. So I posed this follow up to Jenny:

Quick question since you own a pair of Tom’s historic styled glasses. How comfortable are they? Any particular quirks associated with wearing them? (Even though my lenses are the lightest material, my ears and temples get fatigued from the weight after half a day of wear.)

Her response:

Ah, yes, comfort was not a high priority in the mid-1800s! Lenses were made of glass so they would be heavier than what the average person is used to. Because of that, I believe Tom doesn’t use authentic lenses, but the colors his lenses come in are true to the time period.

There are two key areas for comfort with eyeglasses: the bridge and the temples (ear pieces).

Bridges for eyeglasses in this time period did not have nose-pads. (This is different than pince-nez type specs). The metal of bridges for eyeglasses was thin so they could be bent to keep them tight. Otherwise, they were liable to slip down the nose. They were known to leave red marks on the face and cause headaches if worn too long.

Temple pieces were generally also made of thin metal and bent to keep them tight to the head. For those doing work that required them to hunch over, the riding bow or curved temples were best because they clung to the ears. However, most spectacles had the cheaper straight temples. All of these temples had a tendency to get caught in long hair – not pleasant. It probably wasn’t practical for a girl to take her glasses on and off if her hair was up.

Her reply makes me grateful for all the advances in material science since the 1800s. I am also grateful for all the details Jenny mentioned, like the red face marks and temples getting stuck in hair.

And so this researching effort has successfully concluded. Though if I have more eyewear history questions, I know where to go. Thanks, Jenny!

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