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

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

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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.

Ray Ban aviator glasses Rich Niewiroski Jr

Ray Ban aviator glasses Rich Niewiroski Jr. (CC BY 2.5)

A simple glance around a crowded beach or outdoor shopping mall reveals that the fad never died down, but rather increased in popularity and variety. Now, sunglasses can both be made to protect against the sun's rays and to correct vision—a large improvement from Ayscough's attempts to use tint for correction.

In many ways, prescription sunglasses are the culmination of the practical origins of glasses, the corrective purposes of tint, and, of course, their eventual development into high fashion for celebrities. Yet while nonprescription glasses are considered by some to still be an unnecessary fad, it should not be forgotten that they developed from centuries of innovative efforts. Their uses, shades of tint, and corrective powers might have evolved over time, but the protective purposes of sunglasses have remained stalwart.

Top Image: Detail of portrait from 1807 showing a young man in ‘sunglasses.’ Source: Two Nerdy History Girls

By Riley Winters


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"Origins and History of Sunglasses." Glasses History. Accessed August 1, 2017.

"Prehistoric Inuit Snow-Goggles, circa 1200." Canadian Museum of Civilization. Accessed July 31, 2017.

Sheeran, Ed. 2017. "New Man." ÷. Asylum Records and Atlantic Records, CD.

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Washizu, Hiroko. 2011. "The Optics of Green Spectacles". The Edgar Allan Poe Review. Penn State University Press. 12.2. pp. 48-57.

Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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