Dr Alun Withey

Welcome to my blog! I am an academic historian of medicine and the body, and 2014 AHRC/BBC 'New Generation Thinker'. Please enjoy and let me know what you think.

Seeing History: The rise of spectacles in early modern Britain.

The percentage of people in the UK requiring either spectacles or contact lenses has risen over successive decades. It is difficult to put exact figures on this; some estimates suggest that over 68% of the population in Britain currently wear glasses or lenses, and this varies dramatically within age groups. Around 29% of 16-18 year olds require some sort of visual aid; a 2005 report put the figure for the age group 65 and above as high as 98%. It seems that spectacles today have largely shed their pejorative connotations and even become desirable, helped by many high-profile celebrity spec-wearers. Indeed, opticians have even reported a growth in sales of spectacles with blank lenses over recent years, to cater for those who see glasses as a fashion item. This apparent love affair with spectacles is not consistent, however.

A prosthetic eye, possible 17th century.

Until the seventeenth century, eye complaints were troublesome and painful, and effectively seen as a form of disability. The virtual plague of ophthalmic conditions in early modern Britain is attested to by the ubiquity of remedies for eye complaints in remedy collections. Common were remedies for sore eyes, which were often treated (in line with the ‘doctrine of sympathies’) by using substances of a similar constitution to the eye. Remedies using snails were popular; one common example was to impale a garden snail on a pin and let the juice run into the eye. Another recommended using fresh goose dung, its gelatinous consistency resembling the watery eye. Yet another suggested the blowing of dried hen’s dung into the afflicted party’s eye just before they went to sleep. For more on the uses of animal substances in remedies, see Lisa Smith’s excellent blog post on the subject. http://www.wondersandmarvels.com/2012/05/the-puppy-water-and-other-early-modern-canine-receipts.html

Opthalmic surgery was also in its infancy, with a procedure known as ‘couching’ or ‘cooching’ being one of the most invasive operations undertaken, being used for the treatment of cataracts. Here, a small silver instrument called an itinerarium was passed into the sufferer’s eye. The intention was to physically push the cataract film back away from the lens of the eye and thus clear the vision. This was doubtless uncomfortable and seems almost impossible to imagine – bearing in mind the patient was awake and conscious at the time. We shouldn’t assume that it was necessarily dangerous though. The seventeenth-century diarist Walter Powell of Llantilio Crossenny, in Monmouthshire, endured the procedure three times and still carried on with his diary afterwards, so presumably his vision was little worse if it wasn’t much better.

The wearing of spectacles was certainly known in Tudor times. Most typically, these were armless and sat on the bridge of the wearer’s nose. There were other types of device that could be used. Fearing he was losing his sight after years of close working in extremely bad light, Samuel Pepys tried a revolutionary new device in 1668 (the “tubespecticall”) which involved reading through three-inch long paper tubes, which eliminated glare and excess light.  Essentially, however, these were items connected with a physical disability – the same as prosthetic limbs, bandages or trusses.

The 17th century, though, witnessed the beginning of a shift towards people being more comfortable with what was essentially a form of disability, and this was especially noticeable in portraiture. Fashion was a factor to some extent. In previous blog posts I have noted the use of steel as a desirable material, and shining steel spectacles represented a desirable fashion item. As such, steel spectacles could also be a mark of literacy and wealth.

Eighteenth-century spectacle makers also needed to adapt to the times, and produce items that could fit with current fashions. One of the most important exponents of this, and indeed in many ways a forefather of the modern spectacle designs, were ‘Martin’s Margins’, invented by the London maker Benjamin Martin. These were fairly revolutionary. Rather than sitting on the wearer’s nose, they had spring-loaded arms which enabled them to adhere seamlessly to the head, with less chance of falling off and being damaged.

Martin’s Margins

The eighteenth century was in fact an age of innovation in opthalmics. The optical instrument maker James Ayscough invented frames with long, folding arms to reach around the head, also known as ‘railway spectacles’. ‘Wig spectacles’ were designed with arms to slide into the fibres of a wig, and keep them in place – especially important given the increasingly ebalorate coiffeurs of the elites. The gradual introduction of steel springs in nose-pieces also helped fitting. The lenses of spectacles also developed through the eighteenth century. Around a third of the lens in a pair of ‘Martin’s Margins’, was filled with ox horn, to restrict light. Other developments included D-shaped spectacles in the 19th-century, which had side visors which provided protection from dust and light. A self-portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds depicts him wearing a pair of wig-spectacles:

Reynolds Self Portrait © PCMAG

To be depicted in spectacles drew attention to the eyes, and the vision of the subject, perhaps literally or notionally. Conversely, though, spectacles could also be used in morality paintings to emphasise undesirable traits, such as miserliness. This portrait of Benjamin Franklin shows him squinting to read a document through his new-fangled spectacles:

There was also a medical aspect to the use of spectacles: too much light was seen as potentially injurious to vision, and spectacles were sometimes designed to restrict the amount of light entering the eyes. Tinted lenses, especially green, were considered to be therapeutic in the 17th century (note the green lenses in the ‘Martin’s Margins’ above too).

So today’s fashion for spectacles has a long gestation, and it is interesting to see how perceptions of eye complaints have shifted over time. In fact, opthalmics has tended to move away from a strictly ‘medical’ field; the optician is now a common feature of the high-street and eye-tests and fittings can be done virtually on a drop-in basis. It is also interesting to note that the wearing of spectacles for fashion is not new. I heartily recommend a visit to the MusEYEum in the Royal College of Optometrists in London, where there is a fascinating library of artefacts and books about the history of spectacles, as well as some rare portraits of spectacle-wearers through history. The blog of its curator, Neil Handley, can be found here: http://www.college-optometrists.org/en/knowledge-centre/news/blog/index.cfm/id/199E66BA-4091-4C98-A53907402DE66669

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10 thoughts on “Seeing History: The rise of spectacles in early modern Britain.

  1. Pingback: Online history of medicine resources « Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine Library

  2. Pingback: Sight and blindness in Shakespeare | The Shakespeare blog

  3. Dear Dr. Wthey,

    I came across your blog from Two Nerdy Girls. Thank you. I enjoyed your work on spectacles. I just finished a historical novel, Summer Rose, which will publish in the next couple of weeks. I know from first-hand experience the value of research.

    I’m currently working on a historical novel which will incorporate the development of medicine in Philadelphia in the last quarter of the 1800s. I look forward to your blogs.
    Caroline Hartman

    • Dear Caroline,
      Thank you for your very kind comments and I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed the posts and blog. Your novels sound really interesting; please do let me know when the Philadelphia one is published, I’d like to read that.

      All best wishes and thanks again
      Alun

  4. Pingback: Seeing History: The rise of spectacles in early modern Britain. | Jeanne Treat's Blog

  5. Interesting post. I will be sure to follow your blog.

  6. My wife wrote this poem after reading your blog post and seeing the photo of the beautiful prosthetic eye.

    http://www.readmypoems.co.uk/2014/03/17th-century-prosthetic-eyeball.html

    Really enjoyed this post.

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