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 to. Looking at some many Georgian images and reading so many old newspapers it suddenly occurred to us that we 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 already started to use this technique of  ‘fitting spectacles to weak eyes by the focal length of the glass’ much earlier.

Edward had an illustrious career being appointed as the optician to King George 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 in the way you can buy reading glasses in the local pharmacy etc., or he could grind them to your specification, similar to the way you would buy them today from an optician. 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 we have written a follow-up to it  What a Spectacle (Part 2).