Detail of portrait from 1807 showing a young man in ‘sunglasses.’

Sunglasses: A History of Protective, Stylish, and Popular Eyewear

(Read the article on one page)

I never leave my house without a pair of sunglasses. Usually, there are also pairs in my purse, in my car, and in a coat that I keep in the trunk. In fact, I am both proud and ashamed to admit that I do wear "sunglasses indoors, in winter, at nighttime," as Ed Sheeran eloquently states in his recent song, "New Man." As unrealistic as that line is intended to sound, sunglasses have long had a tradition of uses outside of those that are currently considered the norm. The origins of sunglasses extend beyond the simple purpose of UV protection and style; once upon a time, tinted lenses were also intended to conceal, magnify, and correct.

Looking Cool in the Cold and Courtrooms

Sunglasses started as a necessity for the Inuit people living in the far north. Possibly due to the reflective nature of snow (being white), sunlight was damagingly intense for the Inuit. Their version of sunglasses, however, was not designed as they are now. Rather than wide, tinted lenses, the Inuit carved their sunglasses from walrus ivory. They were round and connected by a nose piece. The ivory blocked the sun from their eyes by literally blocking all light except for that which sneaked through slim, small slits. Intensity was not affected, but the amount of exposure to direct sunlight was certainly diminished.

Inuit snow goggles.

Inuit snow goggles. ( Public Domain )

Alternately, sunglasses were a staple of courtrooms in 13th century China. While serving as judges during trial, sunglasses made of "smoke-colored quartz" were used to prevent the prosecution and defense from being able to read the judges' expressions. This likely provided a better sense of justice, as arguments could not be altered or influenced by accidental facial reactions.

Halfway across the world, contemporary Venetian glass blowers are thought to have created hand-held magnifying glasses or monocles (sometimes called "reading stones") to aid those with sight difficulties in reading.

Early 20th century gold filled monocle with gallery. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Color Tinted Frames

The use of color tints and darkening features were explored in the early modern period to aid with visual impairments. While spectacles utilizing prisms and such were already in practice to correct eye sight, it was around the 18th century that the first indications of using tint and color for these purposes arose. A man called James Ayscough attempted to correct certain impairments through the use of blue or green colored glass. Ayscough's line of work, however, was in the invention of scientific instruments - his mentor having created the first microscopes. The relationship between microscopes and prescription lenses is rather evident (both allow the enlargement of text and images), so Ayscough's leap to tinted lenses is in fact not much of a leap at all. His suggestion for tinted lenses was intended as a corrective solution, possibly to combat colorblindness or depth perception. Regardless, Ayscough's spectacles are thought to have been the predecessors of the "cool" sunglasses Life magazine raved about in the 1930s.

Blue-tinted lenses with a metal wire frame.

Blue-tinted lenses with a metal wire frame. ( Arlington House )

Fashion for the Eyes

Sunglasses as strictly fashionable light dimmers did not arise until the 20th century, based on the previous work done by men such as Ayscough and in conjunction with new optical technology. The widespread distribution of sunglasses is widely credited to Sam Foster: movie stars appreciated the way the lenses protected their eyes from the spotlights of movie sets, and then later how the glasses could disguise them from the paparazzi. And, of course, once the famous started wearing products in public, the public swarmed to adopt the tradition as well. Soon, tinted lenses were marketed as "cool" and "mysterious".

An ad for Foster Grant mass-produced fashion sunglasses.

An ad for Foster Grant mass-produced fashion sunglasses. ( Rubell’s Antiques )

The adoption of aviator glasses by the military only furthered the reputation of sunglasses as stylish. Ray Ban, a name known throughout sunglass circles, designed anti-glare aviators in 1936, using the same technology as the new Polaroid cameras. The primary tool that Polaroid inadvertently contributed to the sunglass endeavor was when sunglass companies borrowed their polarized lens - the technology providing anti-glare which ensures sunlight is filtered to prevent damage to the eye. By 1938, Life magazine was putting pen to paper about the "new fad" of sunglasses.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Myths & Legends

Tracing the origins of the Serpent Cult
In mythology, the serpent symbolises fertility and procreation, wisdom, death, and resurrection (due to the shedding of its skin, which is not akin to rebirth), and in the earliest schools of...

Human Origins

Ancient Technology

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article