Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tinted Glass Spectacles, c. 1830

Sunday, December 4, 2011
Susan reporting:

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

11 comments:

Pauline said...

Literarily speaking, O'Brian's Stephen Maturin comes to mind. He wore tinted spectacles to make his scary reptile eyes look less, well, scary. This was translated to the simple wearing of glasses in the movie "Master and Commander". Of course that was earlier than the ones in question here (by 25 years or so) but all the same.

Stan Steiner said...

For an excellent site on eyeglasses try www.antiquespectacles.com.

Jenny Girl said...

Wonderful craftsmanship. The first painting with these spectacles looks so out of the place to the time. As if it was a steam punk rendering or something. He is certainly working those glasses :)

Julianne Donaldson said...

Very cool. I like the steampunk look. It makes me want to unearth other trends in fashion that may not have been the norm but are nevertheless preserved (in art or literature). Thanks for the post!

Chris Woodyard said...

Here are several other Hispanic examples. Fray Francisco Rodriguez, Padre de Cocula by Abundio Rincon (1853):
http://u.univision.com/contentroot/locales/art/images/12mia/WLTV/2005/08/Independence_padre_cocula.jpg
and a man of the Canals family by an unknown Puerto Rican painter:
http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artwork/?id=35453

Susan said...

You always link to such interesting publications on Google Books! I loved Timms Guide to London. I downloaded that one.

Volunteering in Uganda said...

He used colored eyeglasses to create his terrifying diamond face look less, well, terrifying. This was converted to the easy sporting of eyeglasses in the film "Master and Commander". Of course that was previously than the ones in concern here by 25 decades or so but all the same.

Don Simpson said...

I've seen these on eBay (for more than I can afford), but I didn't realize the style was so old or had appeared in formal portraits. I was able to get a different type of interesting glasses, though:
http://donsimpson.deviantart.com/gallery/6694776#/d2tvq5x

Karen said...

There's a long-standing tradition of spectacles in portraiture - apparently in the 17th century it was seen as a particularly Spanish affectation, associated with knowledge/education. You can see a great example, a portrait of Don Francesco Caetani, here:

http://a-tarot.eu/p/jan-11/sic/francesco-gaetani.jpg

emaline said...

Also a similar favorite: http://www.clevelandart.org/art/1991.134.2. Nathaniel Olds. The plaque at the museum always said that he invented the specs - he was afraid whale oil lamps would blind us all - but it was painted in 1837, so maybe not? Still love this portrait though.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Emaline, Fabulous portrait - new to me! But despite what the museum is saying, he didn't invent this style of eyeglasses. There are lots of similar examples surviving, including many much earlier. I wonder if there's something peculiar to these that made them special - something not readily apparent in the portrait? Intriguing...

 
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