A short history of sunglasses

Posted by Julie Kailus on

While sunglasses seem like a fairly modern invention, it turns out that this popular accessory has a long history, beginning with some very primitive approaches to shielding the eyes. Here’s a short story on how sunnies came to light. 

Prehistory: The Inuit peoples of the Arctic region are credited with an initial invention to protect the eyes from sun glare, which is especially intense off of snow and water. They flattened and carved walrus ivory or caribou antlers and fastened the rough “snow goggles” with animal-tendon strap. A small horizontal slit in the bone frames allowed wearers to see while cutting down on the reflection of the sun’s harmful rays.

AD 54-AD 68: The Roman emperor Nero was another person first associated with an early version of eyewear resembling sunglasses. Supposedly he observed famed gladiator fights through handheld “gem lenses” made of polished emeralds. Was it fashion or was it effective—who really knows?

12th century: We know that by the 12th century, or possibly earlier, judges in Chinese courts began wearing “crystal sunglasses”—with flat lenses made of smoky quartz—designed to mask their expressions while interrogating witnesses. While these early spectacles didn’t stop UV rays, they did prevent glare—and obviously served other purposes.

17th-18th century: In the mid 1620s, an English eyeglasses manufacturer Spectacle Makers Company began making prescription glasses to correct visual impairments in older people. By the mid 18th century, James Ayscough took the corrective lens trend a step further by developing the first colored prescription sunglasses. He thought blue and green lenses could aid in specific vision issues.

20th century: While there were a lot of experiments with tinted glasses, sun-blocking lenses did not arrive until the 20th century. In 1929, Sam Foster began selling the first mass-produced, truly protective and fashion-forward sunglasses. He sold his Foster Grants at Woolworth stores on beachside boardwalks throughout New Jersey.

The rest of the modern sunglasses story is, as they say, history.

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