Spectacles. Lets start with some history. The Roman Emperor Nero used to use a large emerald to view the Games. Either he was short-sighted or liked to see green gladiators.
In the meantime Chinese had already elaborated a form of spectacles. Confucius advised his cobbler to use them to help inflamed eyes. His wife had, in fact, thrown pepper in his face. This was around 500 BC. However, they could not help vision.
The Eskimos in Alaska around the year 1000 had also invented a form of spectacles. They protected against snow-blindness. Made of wood, bone and many other materials, they held on by leather thongs. All had just a slit for the eyes to see through.
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Spectacles in the fourteenth century
A tombstone in Florence in Italy dating from the fourteenth century is inscribed to Salvino d’Armato degli Armati. He is named as the inventor of spectacles. Thomas da Modena in Italy painted the earliest known picture of spectacles being worn. It would appear, therefore, that spectacles for reading were invented in Italy.
The seventeenth century
There after the design didn’t change much for over two centuries. Production was mainly based in Holland and Germany. In Nuremburg a new design with metal frames was evolved. Makers in London then wanted to form their own guild. King Charles I granted them a charter in 1629. This spurred the Londoners on to become leaders in the field. Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary in 1661: “I did this evening buy myself a pair of green spectacles”.
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The eighteenth century
More people, especially men, were learning to read. This led to the creation of newspapers. Edward Scarlett in the 1720s had the idea of inventing spectacles with arms. As they became widely available leaders of fashion also began using hand-held ‘scissor’ models. They felt it made them look more studious. Wig ones with short arms also became much used.
The nineteenth century
Then came folding lorgnettes, a form of folding spectacles attached to a holder. Robert Bretel Bate invented them in 1825. Early ones were usually of gold with round lenses and a short handle. Indeed, as they became more popular they were used by young and old. When elbow-length gloves began to be worn a very slim glove lorgnette appeared. Dress-clip lorgnettes were also much admired in the 1930s. Monocles and pince-nez were also in vogue.
The collector, therefore, has any number of old and unusual spectacles to track down, many with a variety of uses. Particularly as their use dates back for hundreds of years. In the early twentieth century they were used not only for reading but also for protection. In the US they were issued to engine drivers to protect them from sparks and soot. Similar ones existed for protection by stone masons. Shooting spectacles were also made to improve vision.
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Prices can vary considerably from a few dollars to many hundreds. A lot depends on the age and condition. A quick look at a few asking prices on the internet are as follows: US Civil War era wire frame spectacles with case, $19. US folding pince-nez with case, $29. Vintage motorcycle goggles, $85. 19thcentury sharp shooter spectacles, $79. 19thcentury German reading spectacles with case, $159. A rare gold folding pince-nez, $395. A silver folding lorgnette c. 1920, $499.
Serious collectors would be advised to examine the desired object personally by hand to certain its real condition. Indeed, it is not at all easy to judge just by looking at a photograph and one could be very disappointed. Therefore the best place to start looking would be in specialist antique shops and markets