Iconic Reading Glasses

by Public Service Associate Hannah

When I say glasses, what comes to mind? The pair you place on your nose each morning? A pair of cheaters left behind at some restaurant? Or maybe a celebrity’s iconic look. As someone who has worn glasses since the fifth grade, with no interest in adding contact hygiene to my daily routine, glasses mean the world to me. They go hand in hand (eye in eye?) with my love of reading! So naturally, I decided to write a BPL Blog about glasses.

What do Harry Potter, Ozzy Osbourne, and John Lennon have in common with Benjamin Franklin? Fantastically round eyeglasses! While Franklin did not invent glasses, his innovative bifocals (1779) played a great role in the somewhat fuzzy history of corrective lenses. Many historians believe that the first eyeglasses were produced in thirteenth century Italy, where craftspeople (or monks) curved and slimmed down glass stones, long used for magnification, and set them into wood, metal, or leather that could be held or balanced on the nose. Centuries of ophthalmology and optometry research later, we use space-age plastic and polycarbonate to manipulate the light in much the same way our near and far-sighted ancestors did. As for Franklin’s 3D eyeglasses in National Treasure? Just a fun movie prop.

“Well, you know what they say about girls who wear glasses…Men aren’t attentive to girls who wear glasses” – How To Marry A Millionaire (1953)

I suggest borrowing the Mayo Clinic Guide To Better Vision if you want to deep dive into how eyes work, but The Vision Council estimates there were 197.6 million adult vision correction users (75.6%) in the U.S. in 2021. In 2019, the National Health Interview Survey found 25.3% of children aged 2–17 years wore glasses or contact lenses. With this many of us, does the “wearing glasses makes you an ugly duckling” trope still exist? I for one see no fault with Pola Debevoise (Marilyn Monroe) and her striking cat eye frames!

Other famously bespectacled individuals include Malcolm X, who faithfully wore American Optical Sirmont glasses, and Elton John, whose many marvelous glasses are the cherry on top of his look. In his memoir Me, John shared that he started wearing glasses at 13 years old in homage to Buddy Holly. Similarly, fashion and design maven Iris Apfel, so often draped in statement jewelry, started wearing eyewear before she needed them, stating “Many years later, when I was much older and truly needed them, I thought, Well if I’m going to have to wear glasses, I might as well have GLASSES.”

Of course, glasses change more than our appearance. They can change lives. Research by the Center for Research and Reform in Education and the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University showed children who received eye exams and glasses did better in school and the impacts were greater than more costly measures such as lengthening the school day, providing computers, or creating charter schools. A list of local programs that provide exams and glasses to those in need can be found at Cap4Kids. BPL also has a donation bin in the lobby for the Lions Recycle For Sight Program.

In conclusion, glasses are underrated and Groucho Marx glasses being used as a disguise make more sense than Clark Kent’s frames concealing the fact he is clearly Superman.

Further Reading Suggestions: 

  • Making a Spectacle: A Fashionable History of Glasses by Jessica Glasscock
  • Positive Vision: Enjoying the Adventures and Advantages of Poor Eyesight by Ken Brandt
  • Linus Gets Glasses by Sheri Tani
  • Rosie’s Glasses written and illustrated by Dave Whamond
  • Wearing Glasses by Harriet Brundle