The Evolution of Reading Glasses

Reading glasses seem pretty much ubiquitous these days. With Baby Boomers entering retirement age, more and more of us are finding readers to be a necessary tool. As we age, the lens becomes less elastic, with the result that focusing on things close up – like words on a page – becomes more difficult. This is easily corrected with a pair of reading glasses, and newer advances in plastics can provide improved durability and quality.

But what did people do before?

Before the printing press, literacy rates worldwide were never very high and so it would not have had nearly as negative an impact on a person’s daily life as presbyopia does today. But the ability to magnify something using glass or other materials dates back to the Egyptians in the 8th century BC. However, it was not until the Dark Ages began giving way to the Renaissance that true reading glasses were invented. While we do not know exactly who first invented them, it’s clear that between 1280 and 1300, someone in Pisa, Italy came up with the first pair of wearable reading glasses.

Initially, these consisted of metal frames and glass lenses, which did the trick but also had many drawbacks. For one, they were quite expensive, and easily damaged. They also weren’t at all convenient. The primary design was a sort of scissors configuation, in which two lenses were attached to the ends of two arms, which were joined at the bottom by a hinge. When you needed them, you pulled them out of a pocket or pouch and pulled the arms apart to fit your face, manually holding them in front of you much as you would a magnifying glass.

In the interests of greater convenience, these eventually gave way to other designs, most notably, the pince-nez that Theodore Roosevelt made famous. While the pressure on the wearer’s nose invariably caused headaches, this had obvious benefits over the scissors configuration. However, Roosevelt was not without options – the modern format, with temples that pass over the ears was invented in the late 18th century in London.

Roosevelt was, however, only the first in a long line of celebrities whose glasses were an easily-recognizable part of their personal style. John Lennon’s round glasses, Buddy Holly’s horn-rimmed frames, and – more recently – the band Weezer’s thick-framed glasses.

Reading glasses are truly a tool, with literally centuries of research and technology behind them. Wearers also are no longer limited to the cheap reading glasses with flimsy frames and cheap plastic lenses that offer no points for style. In fact, modern reading glasses come in a bewilderingly broad variety of styles that fit any face shape and personal style. The discerning reading-glasses-wearer can easily find both form and function, style and quality – without breaking the bank.