Facts That Figure: Eyeglasses

Facts That Figure: Eyeglasses

By: C.G. Hoffman

The Jewish people are known as the people of the book, but they can just as well be called the people with glasses. Myopia, or nearsightedness, is especially prevalent among Frum Jews, with Frum Jewish men in Israel three times as likely as their non-religious counterparts to be in need of eyeglasses, a combination of genetics and a lifestyle that places great importance on book learning.

How did ancient people deal with nearsightedness? They didn’t! Lens crafting was a science that wasn’t developed for thousands of years, although the Romans did craft a glass sphere that would make small things appear larger, much like a magnifying glass. Aristotle is the first known writer to write about myopia, or people who couldn’t see very well from far.

There are records that talk about Nero, the emperor of Rome watching gladiatorial contests through a pair of polished emeralds, although maybe he was just showing off his wealth. A later Arab innovator created “reading stones” from polished glass, but the date is unknown.

The Italians were expert glassblowers, so it comes as no surprise that the first pair of wearable eyeglasses were made in Italy, in the 13th century. They were essentially two “reading stones” held together with a wood frame, and they were made to be held in front of the eyes, or precariously perched on the bridge of the nose.

Eyeglasses in Renaissance times were a status symbol, as the wearers were believed to be both intelligent and rich. The poor, who likely couldn’t read, had no use for such fancy fripperies!

The printing press helped make book reading more accessible and more affordable for the masses, and with increased education and more people reading, came increased demand for eyeglasses. The most popular kinds of corrective eyeglasses were either a single lensed monocle that was held up to the eye, or a pince nez, or pinch nose, a two glassed version that was held together by a hinge and literally pinched the nose.

The 1700’s saw the emergence of long attachments that fit behind the ear, making it possible to wear eyeglasses all day. These glasses were much heavier than today’s glasses, and some took to carrying with them scissor glasses, so called because they could be folded up and put into a pocket. 

America’s favorite multi-talented inventor, Benjamin Franklin, invented bifocals, for those who had problems with seeing both far and near. His first attempt had him literally cutting both kinds of lenses in half, and attaching them together.

Before specially trained eye doctors prescribed eyeglasses specifically suited to the patient’s level of need, people would shop for eyeglasses much like in a boutique. They would try them on and see which one was best! In the 1800’s eye exams started becoming commonplace. In 1862 the standardized eye chart that we all know was invented by Dutchman Herman Snellen.

The 1800’s was not a very good time for nearsighted ladies. Poor eyesight was considered a defect, and it was not fashionable for ladies to wear glasses. Enter the lorgnette: two framed lenses with a long handle at the side. Easy to lift to your eyes when you need it, discreet enough to put down when you wanted to look your best!

The advent of plastics in the early 20th century revolutionized the eyeglass industry. Eyeglasses became cheaper, lighter and more fashionable. Not just the frames, but the lenses too: Plastics enabled the development of hundreds of specialized lenses to correct different types of vision problems.

Many inventors tried to develop wearable contact lenses, and one 19th century inventor fitted glass lenses on rabbits before trying them on himself. Plastic lenses that sit only on the cornea, and are thus much more comfortable and wearable for longer periods, were first developed after WWII. They rose in popularity in the 1970’s, when lenses that allowed oxygen through were developed. Today, over 37 million Americans wear contact lenses.

Glasses may become a relic of the past with the rise in popularity of LASIK corrective surgery. An estimated 20-25 million surgeries have been performed since the FDA approved the surgery in 1999.

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