In two new books, British cultural historian Travis Elborough and German biographer Stefana Sabin both trace the evolution of spectacles, which Elborough believes to be one of humanity's greatest inventions. Sabin provides a short cultural vignette of around 100 pages, while Elborough, in nearly 350 pages, provides a much more detailed historical and scientific account, although not ignoring the ever changing cultural impact of spectacles.
Travis Elborough takes the reader from the early attempts at improving eyesight to the rise and fall of Google Glass and warnings of the deleterious impact on eyes from increasingly staring at screens. Both refer to the fuzzy visuals of ancient history through Greek philosophy and Arab scholarship.
Both follow the trail of lens-making in Pisa from the late 13th century and the significant developments of "God-given vision' in Florence and Venice, notably in the 15th century, when lenses were usually attached to a band around the head. Henry VIII had his bolted onto his battle helmet. Lenses that hooked over the ears did not appear until the 1720s.
Elborough describes the rapid take-up of spectacles in the 19th century when cheap, small-type printing, in the form of newspapers, railway timetables and three-decker novels led to an increasing demand for spectacles.
In the 20th century, Elborough and Sabin extend the depiction of spectacles from literature to the cinematic.
Dorothy Parker famously wrote in 1926, "men seldom make passes / at girls who wear glasses". A 2017 survey revealed that women wearing glasses on the dating app Tinder were 12 per cent less likely to receive an approving "right swipe" than those without.
Elborough's chapter on glasses and female sexuality includes the myopic Marilyn Monroe character in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953).
Monroe's confession that she had "always been attracted to men in glasses" may have contributed to her marrying the bespectacled Arthur Miller.
Michael Caine's Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965) made glasses fashionable, as did Gloria Steinem's "aviators" in the 1970's. Sabin notes that JK Rowling's "bespectacled hero" Harry Potter led to an acceptance by young adults of wearing glasses.
Ronald Reagan, however, saw glasses as a negative and therefore wore contact lenses in public. No such problem for Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese in our visually-oriented politics, although Albanese's new Byblos Black Havana glasses quickly led to critical comments from Morrison.
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