What a spectacle!

Lewis Walpole Library

If you are fortunate enough to have good vision then spectacles are not something you may give a second thought about.

Looking at some many Georgian images and reading so many old newspapers it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t written about spectacles, so time to correct that.

John Cuff, Master of the Spectacle Makers's Company, by Johann Zoffany, 1772 (Royal Collection)
John Cuff, Master of the Spectacle Makers’ Company, by Johann Zoffany, 1772 (Royal Collection)

Spectacles had been around for some considerable time before the Georgian era, but they were predominantly the pince-nez type such as these

pince nez
Lewis Walpole Library

It is thought that around 1730 Edward Scarlett, optician to their Royal Highnesses,  of Dean Street, Soho changed the design of spectacles forever with his unique idea of producing spectacles of differing strengths and with ‘arms‘.  Although many reports indicate that it this happened around 1730.

The Daily Journal of the 20th May 1724 reported that he started to use this technique much earlier:

fitting spectacles to weak eyes by the focal length of the glass’

Edward had an illustrious career being appointed as the optician to the King in 1727, he died at his home on Macclesfield Street, St Ann’s aged 84 in December 1778 and was buried on Christmas Eve.



Spectacles could be purchased over the counter, very much as today you can buy reading glasses in the local pharmacy etc., or Edward could grind them to your personal specification, the way an optician would today.

Until this time, spectacles were simply designed for either the young or the old – not very scientific! The frames were made mainly of whalebone, tortoiseshell and horn as these materials were immensely strong and flexible.

Lewis Walpole Library

It took about another 30 years before the advent of what we would today know as bifocals, these were mainly designed for artists so that they could see their subject in the distance and their canvas close-up with relative ease.

The Venetians were always at the forefront in design and it was they who produced the first sunglasses using coloured glass. These proved to be very popular with celebrities of the day and so naturally everyone with an interest in the latest fashion followed suit.

NPG 412; Hannah More by Henry William Pickersgill
Hannah More (holding her spectacles in a case) by Henry William Pickersgill. National Portrait Gallery

Had you noticed that there are relatively few portraits from the Georgian era depicting people wearing glasses, could this be the reason?

According to the Lady’s Magazine of 1802:

In the last century, to wear spectacles was regarded as an unequivocal mark of wisdom. The nose which bore them was always that of an informed person. the eyes to which they transmitted the softened rays of light were supposed to have been dimmed by much reading and the head which they decorated and to which they imparted a certain venerable air must of course have been occupied by profound meditation and study.

With that last thought in mind,  it seems highly unlikely that this is what spectacles in any shape or form, were ever intended to be used for!

Bare breasts
Lewis Walpole Library

As this blog proved to be popular there is a follow-up to it –  What a Spectacle (Part 2).


15 thoughts on “What a spectacle!

  1. helenajust

    I often wonder how people with short (or long) sight managed in the past, given how common it is for people to need spectacles or contact lenses today. Whenever I squint at something to try and read it without my glasses I think of it again. So this is interesting! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve worn glasses since the age of 11 and I’m lost without them. And although I knew spectacles have been around for a long time, I had no idea when they were first made to suit the needs of a specific customer. Very interesting.
    I couldn’t help but notice though, that there are no portraits in this post of women wearing glasses (even though there is a lady portrayed with glasses)… Which would tie in with much later (early and mid 20th century) texts I’ve read about women who try to go without spectacles for as long as possible for the sake of vanity.


    1. All Things Georgian

      Hi Lauriana
      Thank you so much taking the time to drop us a note about our blog and your comments about women not wearing spectacles in portraits has inspired us to do further research and we’re presently writing up a follow up article – so watch this space!


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  4. Pince-nez were a specific type of eyewear and were not invented until the 19th century; unfortunately it is a common error to describe earlier nose spectacles by that term. Scarlett certainly seems to have been one of the first to provide lenses to an individual prescription (albeit there was still no scientific means of testing for this) but that is unrelated to his marketing of spectacle frames with sides (the correct term) or ‘temples’ (the historic term). No one knows who actually invented spectacle sides or when – it could even be a pre-Georgian design development. That said many Georgians went throughout the whole of the 18th century before giving up their traditional style nose spectacles which remained common even past 1800. This is an interesting little blog post nonetheless.


    1. All Things Georgian

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and for providing additional information. We weren’t sure what the correct term was for eye wear prior to pince-nez hence our referring to them as pince-nez type, a term we felt sure our readers would, in all likelihood be familiar with. 🙂


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    1. Sarah Murden

      We’re always thrilled that people enjoy our blog posts – we wonder what people of the 18th century would have made of 21st century technology – 3d spectacles! 🙂


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