Roman philosopher Seneca was known to use water-filled objects as a means to magnify text for reading as early as 4 B.C. It is believed that the Egyptians and Assyrians were the initial inventors of optical lens styles. They were depicted to made use of magnifying stones to enlarge text and print. Initially Magnifying technology was used for the purpose of vision correction and enhancing smaller images.
The first vision aid was invented around 1000 AD popularly known as reading stone. The reading stone was a glass sphere that was kept on top of the reading material to magnify the letters. The first wearable eye glasses were invented around 1284 in Italy. It is thought that Salvino D'Armate was their inventor but this claim has been proven to be totally false.
Early recorded evidence demonstrates that glasses first appeared in Pisa, Italy about the year 1286. Technically, they were formed from two primitive convex shaped glass/crystal stones. Each was surrounded by a frame and given a handle. These were then connected together through the ends of their handles by a rivet.
The 15th century marks a crucial time in the development of spectacles. The city of Florence by the middle of the fifteenth century led in innovation, production, sale, and spread of spectacles within and outside Italy as found in documents. Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press around 1450 made use of glasses by artisans as well as monks and other religious scholars. By the end of the 15th century, spectacle peddlers were selling glasses on the streets of Western Europe. People often rummaged through baskets filled with German metal and leather spectacles in order to improve their vision. The purchaser tried several pair and finally selected the one giving clear vision. This demand increased exponentially after 1665, when the first newspaper, the London Gazette, appeared.
During the 17th century tinted lenses first became popular. Round lenses were almost universal. Until the end of the 18th century oval lenses became more popular and fashionable. The earliest frames were made of wood, horn, or bone. Leather frames had a relatively short life span but were popular from the 16th to the middle of the 18th century. Rectangular lenses became popular in the mid-1830’s. Some materials for later frames included brass, tortoiseshell from the hawksbill turtle, baleen, steel, silver, and gold. The cases also were often very finely crafted. The oldest existing spectacle case in the world was found in 1982 in Freiburg, Germany and it probably dates to the 14th century.
Aristocrats commonly used monocles as a status symbol and fashion statement. The elegant double eyeglass on a handle (scissors glasses) and the typically elaborate single lens magnifier (quizzer) had become common among the more fashionable members of French and German society in the second half of the 18th century. Both Lafayette and Napoleon used scissors glasses.
Lorgnettes, used most often by women, developed around 1780 from the scissors glasses of France and England. It is believed to have been first popularized by London’s George Adams, Jr. (1750-1795). They had a handle on the temporal side.
In England, especially between 1758 and about 1790, the so-called Martin’s Margins became popular. London optician Benjamin Martin (1704-1782) developed Visual Glasses in 1756 in an attempt to reduce the supposed damage to the eyes from excessive light. The aperture of the lenses was reduced by a horn annulus placed inside the ordinary sized frame.
Bifocals or split lenses were improvised most likely in London after the 1760’s by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). They were made by halving lenses of differing powers and positioning the segments together with a straight line across the middle. The upper portion was ground for distance vision while the lower portion was ground for the near vision. He was certainly wearing them and able to order them from local opticians by the mid 1780’s. Franklin wrote to London philanthropist George Whatley in May 1785, "as I wear my own glasses constantly, I have only to move my eyes up or down, as I want to see distinctly far or near, the proper glasses being always ready." Franklin’s split lens bifocal was the first "no-jump" bifocal, one hundred years ahead of its time, because the distant optical center, the near optical center, and the combined optical center were all at the same point.
As the 19th Century came to a close, more and more people wore their eyeglasses everyday. A popular style of inexpensive, everyday spectacles was the pince-nez. French for "pinch nose," the pince-nez was first developed in France circa 1840 and began to be imported to America after the 1850s.
Pince-nez have no temples, but are fit snugly on the bridge of the nose. Pince- nez could be uncomfortable to wear and broke often from falling of the nose. The popularity of pince-nez was helped by political figures such as U.S. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge who wore them regularly.
Although pince-nez were still widely popular in the 1920s, they began to be seen as stuffy and old-fashioned. A Hollywood actor named Harold Lloyd was known for wearing tortoiseshell spectacles with large, round lenses. His photos and Hollywood movies started a fashion craze for temple spectacles.
In the 1930s sunglasses became popular for the first time. Sir William Crookes of England created a lens capable of absorbing both ultraviolet and infrared light. Further advances in sunglass design were accomplished in order to meet the needs of military pilots in World War II (1939 - 1945). As a result, manufacturers began to market sunglasses that were both practical and fashionable.
By the 1940s, advances in the manufacture of plastics made a large variety of spectacles available in every color of the rainbow. Women wore frames characterized by an upsweep on the top rim, a style that was very popular until the end of the 1950s, while men tended to sport gold wire frames.
By the latter half of the 20th century, spectacles were considered part of a person's wardrobe. More and more celebrities were influencing spectacle fashion, for example, in the 1970s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis helped to popularize oversized lenses.