History of Science Museum: Collection Database Search

Narratives

Internal Exhibiton Label - 'Spectacles: Function & Fashion'

Spectacles

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Function

The history of spectacles goes back to the 13th century.

For almost 500 years the basic design of this deceptively simple device remained the same. Two lenses were held in a frame of metal, bone, horn, or wood placed on the bridge of the nose. Side arms were introduced in the 1720s. The sides, often double-hinged, were secured in the then-fashionable wigs, hence the name "wig spectacles".

[Inv. 51605, 60960, 16423, 47944, 41583, 17080]

Monks were among the earliest users of spectacles. As literacy became more common, they were used by a growing public, served by an increasingly commercial trade. From an early date lenses were made which could correct for either long or short sight.

The Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers was formed in London in 1629 with the motto on its coat of arms "A blessing to the aged".

What is the most important invention of the last 2,000 years and why? In 1999, the scientific publisher and writer John Brockman posed this question on his website and hundreds of scientists, writers, philosophers and artists posted answers.
Second on a list of 114 inventions came reading glasses.

Psychologist Nicholas Humphrey said "Simple pairs of spectacles have effectively doubled the active life of everyone who reads or does fine work--and prevented the world being ruled by people under 40". Newsweek magazine commented "That alone gets them into the inventions pantheon, but glasses also foster the mind-set that people need not accept the body nature gave them, and that physical limitations can be overcome with ingenuity."

[Spectacles to improve eye-sight Inv. 51872, 41583, 97928, 72087, 98523, 17080, 18887]

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Fashion

Technology and fashion have been more closely related than one might think.

Ornaments, precious materials, and imaginative design show that spectacles became a fashion accessory as much as a medical device. The 18th century fashion for wigs provided a handy new way of securing spectacles on the wearer's head and gave rise to the name "wig spectacles". Accessorising was as important in the 18th century as it is now!

Before it was widely thought of as a precious material, tortoiseshell was used in the making of spectacles for its strength and durability.

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Function or fashion?

Spectacles can be both medical and frivolous devices. New technical developments enable new styles, and fashion can act as an incentive for innovation. [Inv. 51605, 60960, 42490, 18887, 13465, 43523, 98696, 78061, 30078]

Which matters most? Look for yourself! [Inv. 93884, 97401, 86950, 88162, 69211]

This image [MS Museum 223] from an 1827 patent is for a new form of folding spectacles whose main innovation is to make the device more of an elegant accessory.

Hand-held lorgnettes were an alternative to double-hinged sides in the 18th and 19th century. In 18th-century France they became a status symbol as aristocrats at the court of Louis XV were encouraged to replace the increasingly "common" spectacles with lorgnettes.

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