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What did the Victorians make of spectacles?

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04/08/2016

By | The Researcher’s View

Nowadays spectacles are commonplace, but in the 19th century some commentators were alarmed by their proliferation. The author of the ‘Health, Beauty and the Toilet’ column, for example, asked “WHY do we see so many children wearing glasses now-a-days, when it was not the case twenty years ago?”(Bow Bells magazine, 18 November 1892). And an article in the ‘York Herald’ in 1843 observed that “spectacles by persons of various age has become so general… their manufacture so extensive”.

L0059635 Two men wearing revolving top hats with several attachments Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Two men wearing revolving top hats with several attachments for optical aids and tobacco etc. Coloured etching. Lettering "Living Made Easy" Coloured etching 1830 Published: 1 January 1830. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Spectacles – one of the things making life easier in the 19th century. Coloured etching by R Seymour, 1830. Wellcome Library reference no. 16168i.

The correction of vision became more important during the 19th century for many reasons: the rise of ophthalmology, changing environments, and fascination with the eye and vision in British culture. Equally, there was an increase in social practices such as reading for leisure, faster locomotion, and compulsory education. All these new areas of contemporary life necessitated new visual standards and a demand for a high degree of visual acuity.

Advice on the right and wrong ways to read.

Advice on the right and wrong ways to read, in ‘Our Eyes and How to Preserve Them from Infancy to Old Age‘ by J D Browning, 1887.

Correspondingly, better knowledge on the physiology and anatomy of the eye led to unprecedented examination in a new discipline – ‘metrology’ – that sought more accurate diagnosis and measurement of vision. These studies highlighted the eye’s vulnerability to disease and error. Texts such as Thomas Bickerton’s ‘Colour Blindness and Defective Eyesight in Sailors’ and Robert Brudenell Carter’s ‘Eyesight in Schools, encouraged demands for compulsory eyesight testing for children in education, and occupations where imperfect vision could impinge on personal or third-party safety.

Reading test

Examples of sight tests in ‘Our Eyes, and How to Preserve Them From Infancy to Old Age’ by J D Browning, 1887.

Books aimed at a more popular audience included the test-types and coloured wools required for eyesight and colour vision testing that could be done in the home.

Berlin wool colour chart

The Berlin wool colour chart in the ‘Detection of Colour-Blindness and Imperfect Eyesight‘ by Charles Roberts, 1884.

This greater awareness and adoption of vision testing in the 19th century led to a corresponding concern of how vision errors could be optimally corrected. Remarkably, spectacles were not always favoured by the medical profession, and patients with eye defects might be subjected to bloodletting by leeches, or purging instead. However, earlier medical advice on the need to exercise and strengthen the eye by withholding spectacles was gradually replaced by fears of eyestrain.

eyechart

Sheet eye chart in the ‘Detection of Colour-Blindness and Imperfect Eyesight‘ by Charles Roberts, 1884.

By the latter half of the 19th century, there was a growing consensus within the medical establishment that spectacles prevented eye fatigue and should be immediately prescribed when vision defects became apparent. As a result, the value of spectacles was continually emphasised. A notable Dutch ophthalmologist, F. C. Donders stated that “spectacles our eyes and how to preserve them are among the most indispensable instruments for man”. Similarly, others referred to them as a “luxury beyond description“, or an item of the most “universal benefit“.

Examination with the ophthalmascope

Examination by ophthalmascope in ‘Ophthalmic Surgery and Treatment‘ by J F Phillips, 1869.

The Science Museum holds several hundred spectacles, originally from the Wellcome collections, which cover a wide variety of 19th century spectacle designs. Spectacles were utilised for two primary purposes in this period: correction and protection. Protective spectacles included coloured lenses for lessening the effect of bright light, and wire gauze spectacles for travel or work in environments that were subject to flying foreign particles. Corrective spectacles included spherical and cylindrical lenses for the treatment of a variety of eye defects in a range of strengths and materials.

Eyes in spectacle frames

Advice on buying the right frames in ‘Our Eyes, and How to Preserve Them From Infancy to Old Age‘ by J D Browning, 1887.

Spectacles could also be designed for a purpose that was less than functional.  Corrective and protective spectacles could reflect individual tastes in the variety of frame materials that were available, such as tortoiseshell, steel, silver, and gold. Yet plain glass lenses and the iconic monocle were also used as a symbolic or fashion item across the century.  The ‘Preston Guardian’ on 30 August 1884, for example, exclaimed “the fashion that obtains in Preston at the present day of wearing spectacles has developed itself in an extraordinary manner”.

Examples of frames

Examples of 19th century frames from the Wellcome collections at the Science Museum, London. Image credit: Gemma Almond.

Whether as a fashion item, an instrument that was able to assist a person’s vision, or as part of an advance in medical knowledge on the eye, the study of spectacles is a useful tool for exploring a broad range of themes in the 19th century. As an ‘everyday’ object, spectacles provide an insight into the more common experiences of 19th century life. Yet their assistive, or corrective, function also highlights the lack of attention that has been given to partially sighted individuals at this time. Whilst there is an extensive body of literature on blindness in the 19th century, the experiences of those with conditions that were becoming correctable have not yet been explored.

Wellcome collection at the Science Museum, London.

Spectacles from the Wellcome collection stored at the Science Museum, London. Image credit: Gemma Almond.

Research into the Wellcome’s spectacle collections at the Science Museum provides an area of interdisciplinary study that speaks to disability history, material culture, and the social history of medicine.

Author

Gemma Almond is studying for a PhD on spectacles and vision correction in 19th century Britain at Swansea University and the Science Museum, London. Gemma is a former Paralympic swimmer and international medalist.

3 comments on What did the Victorians make of spectacles?
  • Melvin Foster

    05/08/2016

    What a great fact about spectacles . I loved to read it

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  • sandra walker

    11/08/2016

    Very interesting but an important aspect for the Victorian period’s adoption of spectacle wear has to include the evolution of shopkeeper opticians (selling scientific instruments for examining nature) to becoming professional scientific measurers of refractive error (ophthalmic opticians). More detail about this can be found by reading The Optician journals that was first published in the 1890’s – but maybe as an optometrist with an interest in the history of optometry I am biased . A very brief overview can be found at http://www.eyesightinsights.info/nineteenth-century-opticians/

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