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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

“The better to see you with, My Dear”



Colonial Eye Wear


The first record of spectacles in America were a pair belonging to someone aboard the Mayflower with a cost value of $75. Colonial American corrective eyewear was uncommon, as eyeglasses had to be imported from Europe, which made their price dear. By the early 18th century only the wealthiest colonists could afford a sum as high as $200 for spectacles.




Various means were tried to hold these early corrective lenses in place. One such attempt required a wire or wooden rod to run up over the forehead and under the hat. Some were merely clasped to the bridge of the nose. Later, the lenses were contained in a leather holder with string attached that fit over the ears and tied behind the head.

By 1728, frames with temples were introduced.  “Temples” refer to the arms on a pair of eyeglasses that loop over the ears and hold the spectacles in place. Early temples were short and ended in a ring to which a leather thong or ribbon was strung and then tied at the back of the head beneath a wig or a hat. Gradually, temples were made longer with either a hinge in the middle for folding or a telescoping arm for sliding the temples to adjust to a longer length.

Early frames were made of wire or lead and produced in a forge.  Later, jewelers fashioned frames from silver, pewter or gold. Cases were sold to hold the spectacles. They were generally made of tin and lined with cloth.

Appraisal value dropped over the years.  A Rhode Island probate record dated 1799 lists two pairs of “specticles” at .33¢. Another lists a pair of spectacles and case for .50¢.

But where did colonists go, you may wonder, when Grandpa could no longer see to read his Bible or Almanack and Grandmother’s vision blurred at her fine needlework? Traveling peddlers were one source or perhaps a local store. In 1807, one Providence, Rhode Island, store was recorded as offering an assortment of spectacles for all ages, from 12.5¢ to as much as $8 a pair.

In 1824, spectacles had become glasses and in 1825 rimless glasses were introduced although they did not become popular until the end of the century.

Colored glass was in use as early as the 16th century, with green being the most preferred shade.  These tinted lenses were used to protect the eyes from damaging white light. Blue lenses became the popular choice in the 17th century, changing to smoke in the 18th century and then to amber and amethyst by the 19th century.



Lisa Norato writes seafaring historical romance of the Federal era. She is the author of Prize of My Heart and the soon-to-be released The Promise Keeper, both set in the shipbuilding capital of Duxbury, Massachusetts. A life-long New Englander, Lisa lives in a historic village with homes and churches dating as far back as the eighteenth century.


8 comments:

  1. What an interesting post! It never dawned on me to check about spectacles in connection with the writing. The price differential was particularly surprising. Now, how do I find out who provided the spectacles in 18th century Philadelphia? Hmmm.
    More research to do.

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    1. Thank you, Judith. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post.Thanks for stopping by and reading. I'd be very interested to know what you discover with you further research. Good luck!

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  2. I enjoyed this post, Lisa. Do you think the appraisal value went down because more glasses were being made and readily available? I had no idea they were once so expensive.Congratulations on your next book getting ready to release!

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    1. Hi Carla. So happy you enjoyed the post and thanks for your good wishes on my upcoming release! I was shocked at the initial cost of spectacles, too. Yes, I do believe the appraisal value of glasses dropped because they became more readily available. As Americans recognized the demand and need for spectacles, they learned to fashion them for themselves. Also, I'm sure there must have been an eyeglass maker or two who immigrated from Europe and brought their techniques and craft with them. I would guess that by the time country peddlers carried glasses among their wares, they must have become common and readily available.

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  3. Lisa, I tried researching this very subject six to seven years ago when I was researching for one of my MSes! I couldn't find eyeglasses available in the back country and it was suggested, as per one of your comments, that peddlers may have offered them. Thanks for the great post!

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    1. Carrie, it was difficult finding information on this subject, but I happened upon an article that got me started. Ship's captains have used spyglasses from way back, and I imagine eyeglasses must have been made using the same technique. I'm thinking now that researching telescopes might be a good place to start for further info on the evolution of eyeglasses. It seems that the greatest challenge for eyeglass makers was not the glass themselves, but finding a way to keep them on the face. So glad you enjoyed the post!

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  4. Great post. I would like to purchase a pair of spectacles for 33cents now.
    Blessings,Tina

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    1. Blessings to you also, Tina! Thanks for reading. Ha! As someone who wears glasses herself, I have to agree-yes, the cost of eyeglasses has gone way up since Colonial days, unfortunately.

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