While the collection of the Winterthur Museum primarily features American decorative arts, their curators clearly possess our Nerdy History weakness for once-ordinary things from the past that are just too interesting not to share. (Examples from Winterthur that I've mentioned here include bourdaloues and sleeve puffs.) Each time I visit, I discover some new/old curious thing in the museum's ever-changing display cases, including the spectacles, left.
Made in New York in c 1830, these spectacles are beautifully crafted of silver and clear and colored glass. They're also wonderfully ingenious, an early predecessor of 20th c clip-on sunglasses. At this time, spectacle frames were made to order by jewelers and watchmakers. The green-tinted lenses are hinged to swing over the clear glass, and are thought to have offered additional protection against bright sunlight. The bows can fold over the lenses, and have sliding pieces for a customizable fit. Because the bows are not curved to fit over the ears like modern glasses, a ribbon could be threaded through the eyelets to secure the spectacles - again much like modern leashes.
Soon after I saw these spectacles, I spotted this striking young gentleman, right, c 1807 in the De Witt Wallace Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, and he's wearing similar spectacles with green-colored lenses in silver frames. I don't know if he wore the spectacles against the sun, or because he suffered from some sort of weakness or injury to his eyes, or if he might even be blind - it's unusual that his face is turned to one side instead of looking directly towards the viewer in a more traditional portrait pose. Or is he simply too cool for Federal-era America? Alas, his name and his story are now lost, so all that is conjecture.
But then I came across this Spanish gentleman, lower left, from a slightly later date. He, too, is wearing spectacles with hinged tinted or smoked lenses similar to the Winterthur pair, but in this case the colored lenses are used as side visors. Again, because this gentleman's identity is also now forgotten, I can't offer his reason for wearing the spectacles, especially while sitting for his portrait – though they do give him a definite steampunk air.
This kind of spectacles could have been worn by anyone sensitive to bright light or sunshine, but at this time they were also becoming popular with travelers. Passengers on the early open-car railroads were subjected to smoke, wind, flying cinders, and sparks, and spectacles such as these were so often suggested to protect the eyes that they became known as 'railway spectacles'. Later railway spectacles would replace the tinted side lenses with mesh gauze screens that eventually would evolve into modern protective goggles. Here's an advertisement from the 1840s for "Gauze Railway Spectacles and Blue Glass Eye Protectors."
For much more about the history of eyeglasses and spectacles, check out the College of Optometrists on-line MusEYEum here.
Upper left: Spectacles, made by Charles Brewer & Company, New York, 1829-33, Winterthur Museum, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont Right: Portrait of a Gentleman, by John Wesley Jarvis, 1807, Private collection Lower left: Portrait of a Spanish Gentleman, by Jose Buzo Caceres, 1832, British Optical Association Museum, London
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.