Eyewear History: The 1950s & the Origins of Modern Eyewear

ACETATE

One of the great eyewear innovations of the 19th century initially had nothing to do with eyewear. Rather it was a consequence of another pressing concern of the times; a severe billiard ball famine.

In the mid 19th century the sport of billiards was rapidly growing in popularity. But billiard balls were made of Ivory and most of the world’s elephants had already been killed. The situation was serious enough that the billiards firm Phelan & Collender offered a prize of $10,000 to anyone who could invent a synthetic Ivory substitute.

In 1868 billiard fan John W. Hyatt invented celluloid. His creation not only saved elephants but many other animals that had been providing horn and shell to eyewear manufacturers.

By the 1870s celluloid had been adapted for use in spectacles, it was a more flexible material to work compared with shell or horn. It could be infused with a variety of colors and effects which would increase dramatically as production levels of glasses continue to rise to meet the ever-growing demand for eyewear in the 19th century.

young Michael Caine

SUNGLASSES

By the end of the 1920s, Hollywood had become the undisputed center of international filmmaking. The warm and sunny climate meant filmmakers could shoot outdoors at least 300 days a year, Hollywood stars were often photographed wearing sunglasses for the movie’s promotional material. Thanks to Hollywood’s starts growing popularity, a new worldwide audience started forging a connection between sunglasses and the glamorous.

The Optical industry responded very slowly. In spite of many attempts over the years to make eyewear fashionable, manufacturers were unconvinced that eyewear could have any aesthetic appeal. Most designs remained very conservative.

One more development from this period warrants our attention, an innovation that would change the shape of eyewear for decades to come.

THE HIGH JOINT

Up to this point, all frames whether made of celluloid, metal, or metal combination (called Windsor’s) were invariably round.

In 1931, my old employer, the American Optical Company, introduced the Ful-Vue: the first ‘pantoscopic’ frame.
For the first time ever, hinges were placed on the upper part of the frame (the high joint) that allowed lenses to tilt down towards the wearer’s face. There was a good optical reason: this tilt improved the performance of the lenses.

But the pantoscopic tilt had an added aesthetic bonus, it enabled glasses to fit the contours of the face more pleasingly. The ‘owl’ look was to become a thing of the past.
This new frame style came to be known as ‘cat eyes’. By the 1950s these cat eyes would become ubiquitous.

Lee Miller portrait

COLOR & CREATIVITY

For over 15 years from the start of the great depression until the end of WW2 the leitmotif of national life had been gloom tempered with a stiff upper lip. Whether mandated by lack of money or wartime shortages, austerity was a lifestyle familiar to most Americans. Now, with the hardship over, people could begin to shed that austerity and embrace frivolity without guilt.

Accordingly, taste in sunglasses began to veer sharply in the direction of fun and flights of fancy. A rainbow of colors and bizarre shapes flooded the market, materials were festooned with every kind of ornament imaginable.

How did this change come about?

When Irene Castle, a famous ballroom dancer bobbed her hair in 1915 the aesthetic ramifications of the ensuing style phenomenon were enormous. The bobbed hairstyle gave birth to the modern hair care industry and without long hair, there was no place to put ornamental combs other than on the shelf where the collected dust; but some smart manufacturers adapted and turned their attention to eyewear.
The ornamental-comb industry was little more than a memory by the 1950s with the best craftsmen having channeled their talents into eyewear.

A survey of fanciful eyewear of this period would reveal a whimsical hybrid of optical design and ornamental comb design.

The American sunglass market was also served by the largest optical companies such as Bausch & Lomb and American Optical which introduced their own lines of stylish sunglasses alongside the great European manufacturers based in the Alpine regions of France and Italy.

FASHION & EYEWEAR

At about this time the optical industry came up with a brilliant idea that would in time revolutionize the eyewear industry and turn it into the revenue-generating colossus it is today.

The idea was simply this. An eyewear company would pay an established fashion designer a commission in order to be able to add the designer’s name to their frame collection and market them as creations of the fashion house.

The first designer branded collection was launched in 1953 by the American Optical Company in collaboration with Claire McCardell – the famous inventor of American sportswear.
Three years later in 1956 American Optical released an even larger collection with the haute couturier Elsa Schiaparelli.

Within 15 years an avalanche of designer eyewear would finally dispel the stigma of having to wear glasses.

Robert Roope
Black Eyewear’s founder & designer


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