Traite de con uite de la famille

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19th Century Spectacles

The size and fit of 19th Century spectacles is different from today's eyewear. Most frames measure 4 1/2 inches wide, a few measure 4 5/8 inches wide. Every now and then I find a pair of custom made frames ( usually in coin silver or gold ) that measure narrower or wider than most. Such frames were most likely custom made for an individual. The widest frame from this period that I have seen measure 4 15/16 inches. The narrowest measure slightly less than 4 inches. Both frames were hand made from solid gold.

Frames that have wide temple arms are usually made earlier then frames with very narrow temple arms. Machinery that cut frame material was introduced in 1833. By mid century, this technology was much improved. Thin temple arms made it possible for the maker to get more frames from the same amount of material.



SPECTACLES are perhaps the easiest ophthalmic antiques to find. In a social content, spectacles were a label of keen intellect which began at the time of 15th century blue-blooded nobility.  Many 18th century gentlemen purchased and wore spectacles who could not read, and vainly created a false badge of rank.  This connection of brain-power with spectacles continues to this day.  Spectacles are found in endless variety which will overwhelm a beginning collector who is not focused on a specific collecting area.  Spectacles add a fitting period detail accessory for antiques or Revolutionary and Civil War collectors.  A small collection which illustrates an evolution of eye glasses makes a fascinating display for the ophthalmic professional.

"PINCE_NEZ," the first antique spectacles, did not have arms (temples). Amazingly, temples did not show up on spectacles until the beginning of the 18th century.  The earliest antique spectacles in regular use, made of wood or leather with a riveted center pivot, date to the 15th and 16th centuries and are documented by woodcuts and paintings from the period.  The "Nuremberg" type (a German city known for skilled workmanship and "cheap" goods), were made in considerable quantity during the 17th and 18th centuries of a continuous copper wire frame with round lenses.  Reading glasses of similar construction with a single lens were also made during the same period of time.  Pince-nez spectacles regained a spectacular popularity during the late 19th century through the 1930's and are found in endless variety and patents.

 TEMPLE SPECTACLES were invented in the 18th century with temples (arms) fitted with rings which enabled them to be pressed against the temples above the ear, a reliable improvement over Pince-nez.  These did not extend over the ear (which would have been a good idea).  Temple spectacles are also called Wig spectacles when the ends of the temples were secured under or in a wig.  Temples are sometimes double hinged or pivoted and ends with round or teardrop loops as various makers "improved" the methods of securing spectacles.  The loops were also used for a cord tied behind the head.  18th century lenses in a round form were common on temple spectacles and later smaller round lenses followed by oval. Occasionally, octagonal and rectangular lenses were also used in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  Bifocal lenses were invented during the late 18th century and attributed to Benjamin Franklin.


Round Lens Silver Spectacles

Iron Frame Double Hinged     

 Steel/Iron Frame Spectacles

Round lens, tear drop loops

 Oval Lenses/ Original Wraps   


Round Lens Silver Spectacles 

Round Lens Spectacles

Silver Frame Benjamin Martin's

Extra Large Round Loop Ends 

Brass Frames & Hinged Temples  

MarTin's. Horn Inserts.


LORGNETTES are a pair of lenses attached at one side by a handle, hinged or pivoted, and fold back into the handle for protection of the lenses.  Some double lens lorgnettes are hinged between the lenses and fold out to a single plane when in use.  These can date back to as early as the middle of the 18th century, however most are Victorian and some are made to this day.

SCISSORS SPECTACLES are similar to lorgnettes except the independent lenses fold into a central handle.  These can date to the late 18th century but were continually produced until the late 19th century.  Handles on scissors spectacles are often found with tortoiseshell or mother of pearl handles.

QUIZING GLASSES were in use from the mid 18th century to the late Victorian era.  These are a single lens casual reading magnifier and often very elaborate with both long and short handles.  Often worn around the nexk on a cord by both men and women, the fancy ones were considered more fashionable than spectacles.  Round lens MONOCLES have very small handles or small loops added and were awkwardly held by muscular effort in the eye socket for reading.

The above information is a very brief summary and although publishedinformation is limited on the subject of antique vision aids the following references are recommended and usually available on or through good used book sellers:

A SPECTACLE OF SPECTACLES, an Exhibition Catalog, Edition Leipzig, 1988.


FASHIONS IN EYEGLASSES, by Richard Corson, 1967.


Ferris Chapter lx 

 On the twelfth of November we reached Boonville, in the state of Missouri, having been in daily view of those splendid spectacles, burning prairies, since we left the Pawnee loups. At this place I disposed of my horse, and took passage on a steamboat to St. Louis, which I reached on the fifteenth, after an absence of nearly six years.

Invoice of Sundry Merchandise sold and delivered to the Missouri Company by Frs Regnier at St. Louis

the 3d May, 1809

3 Spectacles cases $.75


26 pair spectacles $.25


Page 6 and page 9

Rmo merchandise 1837

" 1/2doz Goggles $7.00 page 4

Invoice of Sundry Merchandise from the Rocky Mountain Outfit 1836
under charge of Fontenelle, Fitzpatrick, & Co.

1 3/4


Green Goggles

Robert Campbell's accounts from 1832







Invoice of goods sold to O'Fallon and Vandeburgh
by Robert Campbell on the Teton Fork of the
Columbia River and under the three Teton
mountain July 25th 1832

12 pr Goggles 4$ 48.00

Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans, by Thomas James

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