Museum of Vision

Dedicated to preserving ophthalmic history

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  1. Selections from the Sherman Collection
  2. History of Ophthalmology in the Asia Pacific
  3. Their Eyes to the Sky
  4. Great Insights and Great Thinkers in Ophthalmology
  5. Beyond Ophthalmology, Beyond the Clinic
  6. Extreme Vision: Science Fiction or Truth
  7. Contagion! Epidemics in Ophthalmic History
  8. The Eyes of War
  9. Spectacular Spectacles
  10. To Fool the Eye
  11. Windows to the Soul
  12. Picturing The Eye: Ophthalmic Film and Photography
  13. Collecting Ophthalmology: 30 Years at the Museum


Spectacles dating between 1700 and 1799.

18th Century Spectacles Collection


Spectacles dating between 1800 and 1899

19th Century Spectacles Collection


The museum has over 150 specimens of lorgnettes.  Here are a few highlights.

Lorgnette Collection


The museum has 450 specimens of pince-nez.  Here are a few highlights.

Pince-nez Collection


Spectacles dating between 1900 and 1999.

20th Century Spectacle Collection

Timeline of Eyeglasses

Leather framed spectacles, c1700
Leather framed spectacles, c1700

A simple historical timeline of eyeglasses starts with their invention, believed to be between 1268 and 1289 in Italy. The inventor is unknown.  The earliest eyeglasses were worn by monks and scholars. They were held in front of the eyes or balanced on the nose. The invention of the printing press in 1452, the growing rate of literacy and the availability of books, encouraged new designs and the eventual mass production of inexpensive eyeglasses.

Find details about eyeglasses in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries:



In the 1700s, eyeglasses were made by hand. The century's most important contributions to eyeglasses were the invention of side or temple pieces that rest over the ear (first advertised in 1728) and bifocals, invented by Benjamin Franklin, in 1784.

Common styles in the 1700s included:

Martin's Margins. Developed by Benjamin Martin these eyeglasses were characterized by lens inserts commonly carved from cattle horn.

Wig spectacles. These were eyeglasses with long temple pieces that extended far beyond the ears. These were popular during this period among men who regularly wore wigs.

Bifocals. Invented by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) in 1784, the bifocal was an extremely important invention in the history of eyeglasses.

Scissor spectacles. These eyeglasses were commonly used by men who did not wish to wear their eyeglasses. U.S. President George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte both used scissor spectacles.


Larger scale manufacturing started to become possible by the end of this century and eyeglasses came in fewer styles. A large percentage of people bought cheap ready-made glasses sold by traveling peddlers, jewelers and at general stores.


In the 1800s eyeglasses were considered evidence of old age and infirmity. As a result, people preferred to wear spectacles only when they were needed. This was especially true for women. Those who could afford it found hand-held designs such as the lorgnette to avoid having glasses on their faces.

Lorgnettes were developed around 1780 from scissor spectacles. Early lorgnette designs consisted of a pair of eyeglasses with a single, long handle. In 1830, a French manufacturer designed a hinged bridge with a spring, which allowed the eyeglasses to be folded. Lorgnettes became so popular during the mid to late 1800s that manufacturers placed them into all manner of objects including mechanical pencils, fans and even an ear trumpet.


The 1900s saw eyeglasses become an industry of their own, complete with manufacturing and distribution networks. Styles quickly changed in this century as Hollywood and celebrities began to influence fashion and new materials became available, especially plastics.


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 off 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.

1920 to 1950

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. Although colored lenses were available early in spectacle manufacturing, it was not until 1913 that 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.

1950 to Today

By the latter half of the 20th century, spectacles were considered part of a person's wardrobe. Similar to clothes, eyeglasses needed to be continually updated or a person could be perceived as old-fashioned. More and more celebrities were influencing spectacle fashion, for example, in the 1970s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis helped to popularize oversized lenses.

Starting in the 1980s technical innovations produced higher quality, plastic lenses. These were lighter and safer to wear.

  1. How the Eye Works and Refraction
  2. Brief History of Optics and Lenses
  3. Timeline of Eyeglasses
  4. Contact Lenses
  5. Telescopes and Binoculars
  6. Protective Eyewear

User Submitted Comments

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From Cheese, 3/16/2016 1:09:00 PM
this helped me w/ my project thx
From Janna, 3/3/2016 7:26:00 AM
I wanted to see how glasses styles have changed over time and found this fascinating online museum! Thank you so much for this exhibit! I've shared it with my friends. :)
From Joe, 10/22/2015 11:56:00 AM
This helped me complete my essay on the history of glasses.
From Rachel Merrilee, 12/10/2014 7:33:00 AM
Have you checked Eyeglass Retrospective:Where Fashion Meets Science by Nancy Schiffer. She is amazing!

American Academy of Ophthalmology