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A Brief History of Sunglasses

The Evolution of Sunglasses

From humble beginnings out in the furthest reaches of the tundra, to the red carpet, sunglasses have been around well before the advent of modern civilization. Over the years they served many different purposes, from reducing glare, to helping people with syphilis. This is a brief overview of how sunglasses became what they are today.


The advent of what we consider “sunglasses” didn’t come about until right around the early 20th century. In prehistoric times however, the Inuit people had a tool which were predecessors to our modern day fashion piece. They are referred to as “snow googles,” and they were designed to reduce the wearers exposure to the harsh light of the sun reflecting off the snow. Usually constructed of walrus ivory, these “glasses” were primarily used by hunters on the tundra. They have the same basic shape of modern day ski goggles, except there were no glass on them, only two thin slits for which to see through. These slits helped reduce the amount of exposure one had to the glaring sunlight and enabled much more visibility.

One example of Inuit style snow goggles One example of Inuit style snow goggles

In the northern tundra, snow reflects off the snow and can make it very difficult for people to see effectively. This is especially concerning when prehistoric hunters were out trying to hunt dangerous woolly mammoths and other such animals, that demand the hunter have maximum visibility if they wish to be successful in their endeavor. These snow goggles are very crude, but extremely effective given the time period.

This is most likely what Nero's emerald eyepiece. The real Emerald was lost after his reign as Emperor ended This is most likely what Nero's emerald eyepiece looked like. The real Emerald was lost after his reign as Emperor ended

During the reign of the Roman Empire, it is said that the Emperor Nero would often watch gladiator fights through what was essentially an emerald spectacle. Whether this actually helped him view the battles, or merely for aesthetic purposes is unknown. This would be the first instance in history where “sunglasses” are associated with fame and wealth, and this association persists to modern times. In China there are reports of glasses with crystal lenses being used to conceal the facial expression of a judge who is questioning a witness. Even today, it is common place for sunglasses to be used to conceal one’s facial expression, like in a game of poker.

Early Modern Developments

An example of James Ayscough's tinted spectacles. An example of James Ayscough's tinted spectacles.

The mid-18th century brought about another precursor to modern day sunglasses, and was introduced by a man named James Ayscough. Unlike others before him, he was not looking to combat glare from the sun, or snow blindness, rather he sought to improve one’s vision in very specific ways. By using blue and green tints on regular eyeglasses, he was attempting to correct vision impairments for people who could not see certain objects very well. He claimed it would render all objects more “pleasant” to observe, but in reality they most likely just further distorted the wearers vision.

Certainly rather odd looking by todays standards, these glasses were all the rage for some of the wealthier people who had Syphilis during the 19th century Certainly rather odd looking by today's standards, these glasses were all the rage for some of the wealthier people who had Syphilis during the 19th century

Around the turn of the 20th century, tinted glasses were starting to be purchased by people who had Syphilis. Syphilis will normally make one more susceptible to light and glare and these tinted glasses would help with varying degrees of success. The biggest downside was that they were very expensive, which meant most people couldn’t even use them anyway.

Becoming the Norm

Sunglasses in their modern form began to gain popularity in the 1920s and it was primarily because of movie stars. People in film at that time were known for wearing sunglasses, and it was thought to be as a means to conceal their identity from the public. The alternative theory is that the glasses were used to conceal their bloodshot eyes that were due to very bright arc lamps that were used to film back during that time. Regardless of the true reason, the association with celebrities and sunglasses still persists today.

Early 1920's sunglasses Early 1920's sunglasses

The popularity of sunglasses really didn’t explode until the 30’s, brought about by a man named Sam Foster. He produced very inexpensive sunglasses made from celluloid to be sold on beaches across America, although Atlantic City, NJ was one of the foremost locations for this development. By the late 30’s, millions had been sold and they became a must have fashion accessory for both men and women.

Foster's sunglasses ad circa 1930's Foster's sunglasses ad circa 1930's

It was around this time that polarized lenses also were developed and became very popular with fisherman because it helped them see through the water better. More expensive than their non-polarized counterparts, they did not sell quite as well, but were a must have for anyone who enjoyed spending time near water.

Today and Beyond

More popular than ever, sunglasses are now a permanent part of our society. This is especially true now that doctors are realizing the true dangers of UV rays, and that sunglasses should always be worn when exposed to bright sun. Thousands of different models are available to fit every sort of application one might find themselves in, from the beach to outer space. Numerous different grades and guidelines exist to help the consumer choice a pair that will adequately protect their eyes.

Currently there are developments that will put LCD Smart technology embedded in sunglasses. This will allow the wearer to use their smartphone or other electronic device to stream video directly to the lenses of the sunglasses. This is a controversial topic as of right now as issues with the platform are numerous. One of which is the device further distracting the wearer from things like driving or even walking. Nevertheless, this is certainly a step or two ahead of using Inuit snow goggles!

By Peter Cusumano

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