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What is the History of Eyeglasses?

The first image magnification technology was developed between the years 1000 and 1250. Inventors noticed that convex shaped glass had the ability to magnify and the first simple magnifiers, or reading stones, were born.  These early magnifying glasses served as a precursor to eyeglasses.

Eyeglasses first appeared in Pisa, Italy, around the year 1286. They consisted of two framed glass or crystal stones, and were held up to the eyes using a handle. It is unclear who invented these primitive eyeglasses, but their use soon spread throughout Europe.

During this time, Venice, Italy, was a Mecca for medieval glass production. The guild of crystal workers was established in 1284. In 1300, they adopted regulations for the manufacture of “discs for the eyes.” This served as a major catalyst for the future of eyeglasses. By the end of the 14th century, thousands of eyeglasses were being exported to all of Europe.

By the mid-1400s, Florence, Italy became a leader in production, sale and innovation of eyeglasses. Glass makers in the area began to create eyeglasses in various strengths for hyperopes, presbyopes, and myopes. A complex grading system was also implemented after the realization that vision slowly declines with age. Eyeglasses were graded with strengths progressing for every five years of age.

During the 15th century, eyeglasses were in popular demand. Peddlers selling eyeglasses were common on the streets of Western Europe. Demand increased significantly after the appearance of the first newspaper, The London Press, in 1665. The possession of eyeglasses became an indication of intelligence, status, and wealth. This view was shared by the people of Europe, China, Italy, and Spain.

Germany became a major player in the history of eyeglasses during the 17th century. The finest frames were produced here, although the Italians still made the highest quality lenses. During this time period, eyeglasses also became more widely used in the United States. The first optical shop was established in Philadelphia in 1799 by John McAllister, Sr.

Before the War of 1812, McAllister imported all the eyeglasses sold in his optical shop. Due to the trade embargo with Great Britain, he began making his own eyeglass frames in 1815. He and his son John McAllister, Jr., distributed the first astigmatic lenses in the United States. In 1828, they began to import cylindrical lenses which were meant to correct astigmatism.

There were over 300 eyeglass retailers in the United States during the 1820s and 1830s. In light of the success of the McAllisters, eyeglass production developed rapidly. Companies diversified their product lines which resulted in products such as telescopes, binoculars, and microscopes.

At the beginning of the 20th century, eyeglass manufacturers began to emphasize style as well as function. Improved plastics used to make frames in the early 1900s presented new frame styling. By the 1950s, eyeglasses had become a popular fashion accessory in Europe and the United States. Wearers demanded comfortable and stylish designs which displayed elegance while remaining functional. Today, eyeglasses are an accessory that not only improve vision, but also display personality.


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