History: Ancient specs as fascinating historical artefacts

Ancient Eye Glasses: Fascinating Historical Artefacts

In 2012 while working as a freelance copywriter, I did a series of articles for Direct Sight in the UK about the history of eye glasses. I only just remembered this one, it was incredibly fun to research and write and you can find the original here from 2012. I hope you enjoy it, from Content Catnip.

People in ancient times wore eye glasses for a multitude of reasons, in fact they wore them not as visual aids, as the technology wasn’t there yet.  Instead they wore them to conceal their expressions, protect against harsh environments and for many other reasons. One thing is for sure, the aura of prestige, power and intelligence that glasses bestow upon the wearer is deeply rooted in history.

Inuit People

The Inuit or Eskimo people of the Arctic can be credited for the world’s first sunglasses around 2000 years ago. These were very effective snow goggles that were made from bone, leather or wood with tiny slits to see through. These were designed to guard against snow glare, harsh winter conditions in the Arctic and to be able to see potential prey when on a hunt for a whale or seal.  A sublime example of these beautiful goggles was found on the West Coast of Alaska. These glasses then travelled with the Inuit or Thule people to Canada around 1200 to 1600 AD and were later crafted from walrus ivory.  They now reside in the collection at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation.

Ancient Eye Glasses: Fascinating Historical Artefacts
Inuit eye goggles

Ancient Egyptians

There is another contender for the winner of the world’s oldest eye glasses. This goes to the ancient Egyptians who pioneered a great many things in their time.  At around 5000 BC there is a depiction on hieroglyphs that shows a simple glass meniscal lens.

Ancient Romans

The Romans have a written record of magnification in the notes of the prolific philosopher Seneca, who wrote that ‘Letters, however small and indistinct, are seen enlarged and more clearly through a globe or glass filled with water’.  Bloodthirsty Roman emperor Nero was said to have watch gladiatorial matches using an emerald as a corrective lens.

Ancient Chinese

Ancient Chinese dynasties from around the 12th century onwards are recorded to have judges and statesmen who wore smoky-coloured quartz pince-nez style glasses, in order to conceal their eyes from the public gallery during court cases.   These types of glasses were not corrective and were purely about hiding the expression in the eyes.

Other places and times uncover possible origins for eye glasses.

•    A portrait of a bespectacled Cardinal Hugh de Provence by Tommaso da Modena from 1352 that shows him reading a scriptorium

•    In the northern alps of Bad Wildungen, a remote part of Germany, an altarpiece shows eyeglasses painted there dating from 1403.

Spectacles have had a long and illustrious history and for purposes we are only now beginning to understand.


Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Māori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Māori culture and loads more.

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