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L0059071 Turn pin spectacles, steel wire, eye preservers, double foldA recent conversation with Matthew Ward from History Needs You piqued my curiosity about a pair of spectacles in the Wellcome Collection [pictured left]. At first glance, you may think these oddly tinted glasses belong to the wardrobe department of a whimsical Tim Burton film. And yet, these glasses are over 200 years old, made not for the likes of Johnny Depp, but rather an 18th-century gentleman.

This got me wondering: were these Georgian spectacles a precursor to modern-day sunglasses? Or were they something altogether different?

Here’s what I discovered.

grabimg.phpIn 1750, the optician, James Ayscough, began making double-hinged spectacles with tinted lenses, like the ones pictured above. Ayscough felt that white lenses created an an ‘offensive glaring Light, very painful and prejudicial to the Eyes.’ Instead, he advised ‘green or blue glass, tho’ it tinge every Object with its own Colour.’ This would take ‘off the glaring Light from the Paper,’ and render ‘every Object so easy and pleasant, that the tenderest Eye, may thro’ it view any thing intently, without Pain.’ [1]

Were these avant-garde spectacles the Ray-Bans of its day? Not quite.

Ayscough didn’t devise these lenses to protect his patients’ eyes from the sun. Rather, he believed that white glass had a ‘softer Body than any other’ and therefore would ‘not receive so true a Figure in the polishing, as a Glass of a harder Nature.’ This resulted in a distorted lens full of ‘Specks and Veins’ which would only further impair a person’s already imperfect vision. Ayscough held tinted glass in such esteem that he even recommended it be used for the construction of telescopes and microscopes. [2]

While Ayscough double-hinged design was something of a new rage in the 18th century, he was not the first to use tinted glass when making spectacles (although he was one of the first to write extensively on the subject). Already by the mid-1600s, people were purchasing and wearing tinted glasses throughout England.

One such person was the famous diarist, Samuel Pepys.

Many people believe that coloured spectacles were prescribed to syphilitic patients who suffered from photosensitivity brought on by the advancement of the disease into the ocular region. There has been much speculation on whether Pepys—whose own brother died of syphilis in 1663—also suffered from lues venerea, and whether this led to his decision to purchase green tinted glasses from the spectacle-maker, John Turlington.

00Although it makes for an intriguing tale, Pepys never mentions the glasses in relation to syphilis (nor does he allude to any syphilitic symptoms other than a mouth ulcer in 1660). Rather, he writes that his ‘eyes are very bad, and will be worse if not helped.’ And so on 24 December 1666, ‘I did buy me a pair of green spectacles, to see whether they will help my eyes.’ [3]

For Pepys, the purchase seems to have come from a desire to alleviate eye soreness and nothing else.

Moreover, a quick scan through 18th-century medical texts on syphilis reveals no mention of tinted glasses.  In Daniel Turner’s Syphilis: A Practical Dissertation on the Venereal Disease (1717), he doesn’t even discuss eye-related disorders associated with the pox. Contrastingly, in the Treatise of the Venereal Disease (1789), the author correctly notes that syphilis can cause inflammation of the eye, but he offers no specific remedy for this condition. Similarly, in William Buchan’s Observations Concerning the Prevention and Cure of the Veneral Disease (1796), coloured spectacles are not referenced. Instead, Buchan recommends blistering plasters behind the ear or on the temple to alleviate ocular problems related to the advancement of syphilis.

It should also be noted that spectacles, like the ones featured in this article, would have been fairly expensive. Even if medical practitioners had offered them as treatment for photosensitivity brought on by ocular syphilis, the majority of those suffering from the disease would have been unable to afford them.


1. James Ayscough, A Short Account of the Nature and Use of Spectacles (1750), p 13.
2. Ibid.
3. Diary of Samuel Pepys, vol. 48 (24 December 1666). For more on Pepys’s eye disorders, see Graham W. Wilson, ‘The Big Brown Eyes of Samuel Pepys,’ in Archives of Ophthalmology, 120 (July 2002): pp. 969-975. For information on Pepys’ general health, see D. Powers, ‘The Medical History of Mr and Mrs Samuel Pepys,’ in the Lancet (1895): pp. 1357- 1360.