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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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“.
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.
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”.
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.
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.