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.