A ‘Spectacle’ of the Face: Eyewear in the Nineteenth Century

Today’s guest post comes from Gemma Almond, who is a second year AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award student at the Science Museum and Swansea University. Her PhD focuses on vision aids and the correction of vision in the nineteenth century, and her research interests include disability history and the social history of medicine.

Today, the use of spectacles is not unusual. However, their use in the nineteenth century was still developing and they could be considered peculiar.[1] Spectacles were not the only option, and eyeglasses, a form of frame that did not have side-arms, were a popular choice with a proliferation of designs in the latter half of the century.


The Science Museum has an enormous collection of these vision aids, yet detailed study of these items alone cannot quite bring to life the wearing experience of these objects and what they would have looked like on the face. Consequently, this blog post will compare the use of spectacles and eyeglasses through the analysis of a remarkable private collection of cartes de visite amassed by the collector Ron Cosens. Cartes de visite were a popular form of photograph from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, and I will explore three features I found in my initial observations: the style of frame; the depiction of vision aids on the dress of persons; and the use of rimless spectacles. In doing so, I will draw upon popular literature to contextualise and explore the effect of vision aids on perceptions of facial beauty.

6. Spectacles Male5. Eyeglasses Male4. Spectacles Female3. Eyeglasses Female

Eyewear, when worn, becomes a central feature of the face. Perhaps if I were to ask the twenty-first century viewer to give their opinion on the vision aids in the above selection of cartes de visite, it is the eyeglasses that would appear unusual or provoke comment. The spectacles, on the other hand, are more likely to be less remarkable and perhaps, if anything, evoke surprise at their familiarity to styles that exist today. Equally, there could be a marked difference in the meaning and perception of vision aids in the nineteenth century. Spectacles were not always the design of choice and were often considered to be a more ‘sensible’, or ‘boring’ design. Eyeglasses were documented as being more popular but caused a lot of concern amongst medical professionals because of their lack of security on the face. So, why did people not heed the advice of the medical profession and continue to wear them?

Whilst there were many practical benefits for wearing eyeglasses, such as their weight and convenience for ad-hoc use, people could have also continued to wear eyeglasses because they were more concerned with the attractiveness of the vision aid, as opposed to its function. A provincial newspaper in the late nineteenth-century, included under the heading ‘Wise and Otherwise’ contained a joke at the expense of eyeglass-wearers:

‘Do you wear eyeglasses because you think you look better with them?’ asked Miss Pert.

‘I wear them because I know I look better with them,’ answered the short-sighted man, sadly’.[2]

In this instance, Miss Pert likely meant ‘look better’ in terms of physical appearance, and is scathing about this, whilst the short-sighted man meant ‘look better’ in terms of sight.  Indeed, eyeglasses were often perceived to be the more desirable design of choice. Other newspapers went as far as to describe the phenomenon as the ‘fashion in eyeglasses’ because it was deemed both ‘becoming and effect’ for women and men alike.[3] The article even proposed that in many instances these individuals were wearing ‘mere window pane’, which might suggest that the fashion for plain lenses has historical precedent.[4]  Eyeglasses, and on occasion spectacles, can be seen pinned to the clothing of individuals as a visible accessory in the cartes de visite photographs. In these instances, their visibility could be from their perceived importance to the person depicted, to potential social markers associated with spectacles and vision aids, such as intellect.

Yet, regardless of style, people could also be subject to negative perceptions for wearing any form of vision aid because they were also a visible marker of difference or ‘defect’. Early in the century, popular comment summarised that people did not want to wear spectacles because they cared more for their appearance and considered it ‘a badge of infirmity’.[5] This shyness or inclination to hide vision defects led to the development of more discrete spectacle frame designs in marked contrast, to the bold and fashionable styles. Discrete spectacle frames, such as those in the Science Museum’s collections, were often described as ‘invisible spectacles’ because they tended to be so from a distance. The development of this style can be paralleled with the focus of achieving more ‘natural’ prosthetics in the nineteenth century, and evidence of their almost-invisibility can be seen within the carte de visite photographs:

The reason behind this trend could be prejudices towards vision aids that persisted into the latter half of the century and ranged from the extreme of being unable to find employment, to being the subject of jokes in social situations.[6] Consequently, whilst vision aids could be a fashionable accessory, they could also be associated with stigma. With this in mind, and a variety of other reasons the medical profession brought under the heading of ‘vanity’, they criticised those that put off using any type of vision aid as much as those that wore ill-fitting eyeglasses.[7] Despite the variety of elaborate styles, the opinion that vision aids could ‘deform’ the ‘whole countenance’ persisted.[8]

The cartes de visite enhance my findings from the object and popular literature research, by providing an insight into how spectacles and eyeglasses were worn. My project, rather than confining the opinion of vision aids, will embrace, discuss, and highlight the multitude of opinions, which go beyond the scope of this post. However, what I have wanted to show here is that alongside their functional ability to correct the sight, vision aids could be considered both as ‘aids to beauty’, able both to ‘convert eyes into big and radiant orbs’, and disfiguring.[9] The Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts proposed in May 1859: ‘When the question lies between vanity and spectacles, it should be easy to decide which of the two is the most valuable possession’.[10] However, for the nineteenth century contemporary, I am not sure an answer to this question would have been so straightforward.


All photographs of the Science Museum’s collections are my own, and taken with permission. I would like to thank Neil Handley at the British Optical Association for drawing my attention to Ron Cosens’ collection of cards de visite, and to Ron Cosens for the permission to use some examples in this post. More information about his extensive collection can be found on his website.


[1] Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 18 February 1885.

[2] The Bury and Norwich Post and Suffolk Standard, 11 October 1898, p. 2.

[3] ‘The Fashion in Eyeglasses’, The Blackburn Standard and Weekly Express, 15 June 1889, p. 3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser, 1 August 1850.

[6] See, for example, Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, 24 September 1870, pp. 389-9 and Dublin University Magazine, June 1877, pp. 780-786.

[7] Interestingly, Georg Beer argued that an allowance should be made for the ‘fair sex’ for putting off glasses, but there was no excuse for ‘professional men, and fathers of families’, The Art of Preserving the Sight Unimpaired to an Extreme Old Age; and of Re-establishing and Strengthening it When it is Become Weak (London: Henry Colburn, 1815), p. 130.

[8] See, for example, The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, 18 June 1880.

[9] The Leeds Mercury, 4 April 1896.

[10] Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, 21 May 1859, pp. 327-9.

This entry was posted in Early Modern, Festival of Facialities, Modern, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A ‘Spectacle’ of the Face: Eyewear in the Nineteenth Century

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #49 | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Pingback: Call for Papers: ‘THE ALL-SEEING EYE’: Vision and Eyesight Across Time and Cultures Workshop | Effaced From History?

  3. Pingback: Free Event! ‘Making Faces: Beauty Lost and Found’ | Effaced From History?

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  5. Ali Khan says:

    Great Post … I really like the informative stuff …


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