Medieval – Jacobean Spectacles: A Visual History

I originally did the research and made the reproductions in 2003 when I was involved in reenactment. Most of the ” ‘tude” was aimed at a couple of stolid purveyors of Fakelore.

Fakelore or pseudo-folklore is inauthentic, manufactured folklore presented as if it were genuinely traditional.

Richard M. Dorson 1950

Or as often seen in the worlds of reenactment, fakelore is mistaken for fact, so often repeated it becomes entrenched. So when one idiot tried to have me ousted from an event for my entirely accurate replica specs, I did the research below. Printed it off and handed it to her. She still wasn’t happy so I published it online. For several years, this and the howto make your own article were the first and only online.

1400 – 1500

15th century wooden frames
Replica of a 14th (late 1300’s) cetury wooden bow-spring frame
early 15th century wooden hinge frames
Very early 1400’s wooden rivet frames
Tring Londodn 1440 reproduction
These are replicas of the frames found in 1974 Tring Lane, London archaeological dig
14th to 15th century horn frames
Very popular style mass produced throughout the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries

1500 – 1600

rare bone hinged specatcles very early 1500's
This style and manufacture of frame can be seen on nearly identical items from nearly every period until the 1900’s. A version in amber with darkened lenses is found in Spectacles, Lorgnettes and Monocles by DC Davidson
replica of 1500's leather spectacles
16th century replica leather spectacle frames
Leather-rimmed spectacles, Germany, 1500-1600
Although leather frames were massed produced in Germany at this time, especially from 1550 to 1700 – they purposely did not find use in England.

“[…] we do know they (leather frames) were made in London and that they were met with hot resistance from the elder freeman of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers. This company administered the law and imposed fines on people making or selling leather frames, empty or glazed.” [1]

Spectacles, Lorgnettes & Monocles
By D C Davidson & R J S MacGregor – Published by Shire Publications – 2002

1600 – 1700

very early 1600's horn frame
1600’s early horn Spanish frames
these are a particularly interesting example that show two holes for the string to be tied – as my DH found in wearing the single bar specs in the demonstration, tieing his string to the lacing loop and to the rim closure provided a more stable fit.
1600-1650 early in one piece wire frame spectacles
Early 1600 – 1650 wire rims
This may be one of the first examples of Leonischer wire rimmed frames – made all in one piece of bent/domed sheet. The nose area is commonly padded with wrapped silk thread. This design changes very little over the next 4 centuries and becomes the standard pince-nez of the 1900’s.
rivet brass wire rimmed specs c.1650
1650 – 1700 rivet specs
made with brass wire and repaired with silk thread and brass wire. With matching brass engraved case.
rare horn rivet specs c.1650
1650 – 1700 rare horn rivet specs
leonischer wire frames c.1650
1650 – 1700 brass “Leonischer” wire frames
tortoiseshell rims and steel spring frames with papermache case c.1650
c. 1650 tortoiseshell rims with steel spring and paper mache case
leather spectacles 1690
While this pair looks to be the crudest and earliest pair of frames on record – they are actually so late! Which I believe makes the point of class and status and need.

Historical Documentation – Paintings, engravings actual documents and stuff…

Peasants wearing specs in 1550 and Arnold! Pretty much blows the “you can’t have specs” argument to hell! LMAO Thanks go to M.T. for finding the reference!

“A german woodcut of an old woman spinning with spectacles tied to her head-dress. c. 1550 (V&A Museum)
“A Handbook of Costume” by Janet Arnold

near sighted woman, spinning - 1550 - full image

This is the most touted image for frames – and the ones I made a reproduction of in sterling silver – everyone quotes and refers to it and who am I to buck with tradition (YES! You may replace the b!). So here’s the guy with the strings round his ears, single bar, top lacing loop, dead centre side closures which may be either wire wrapped or screw bolted ( I actually did find an engraving proving bottom screw bolt closure for 1540 – but damned If I can remember where!!!).

market centre

c. 1600 engraving of a spectacle shop and market  
What I love about this engraving is that it shows the extensiveness of who was wearing specs! Absolutely everyone. Now, yes there is documentation from the Spanish saying all the courtiers were wearing specs the sizes of dinner plates to show intellectual they were – “BUT” cry the Mavins, where is the proof that anyone else under a nobleman did? Well, here! Tailors, bootmakers, booksellers and passers-by. And wearing them to walk around in – thereby for nearsightedness! I stick my tongue out at the lot of you!

These next plates are taken from Fashions in Eyeglasses by Richard Corson. Unfortunately he does not state where he got the engravings from. BUT! I have found images of some of the real specs. So, although these are still on par with Norris for being possible redrawings – they are pointing in some very clear directions that do have physical backups.

  1. 1510 Italian
  2. 1500 – 1550 English made from horn
  3. 1500 German – made from horn
  4. 1583, German (Dresden). Leather and horn.
  5. c. 1600 German. Leather and horn. From a manuscript in Nürnberg.
  6. c. 1600 German. Leather. From a manuscript in Nürnberg.
1500 - 1600 specs
  1. 1500 – 1600 German, Spectacle makers’ ‘masterpiece’. The same designs for the master peices continued to be used in Nürnberg until 1723.

    in other words it was an exam peice! Complete this to standard and you get in the guild – it works the same today for silversmiths.
  2. 1500 – 1600 German, Spectacle makers’ ‘masterpiece’ with the Regensburg coat of arms.
  3. 1500 – 1600 German, Spectacle makers’ ‘masterpiece’.
  4. c. 1600 German.
  5. c. 1600 German. Folding eyeglasses of horn. From a manuscript in Nürnberg. Whether the design was actually made or not is not certain. They were held with the lenses downward, the handle in front of the forehead.
  1. 1600 – 1700 German Frames of heavy brass wire tied with binding thread to hold the lenses firmly in place. This style continued in use throughout the eighteeth century.
  2. Rigid frames made of leather
  3. End of the century Chinese. Made of horn. Small holes at either side of the frame are for attaching cords.
  4. End of the 1600’s. Spring frames with attached spring bridge.
  5. Perspective glass with silver mounting. These were used by fashionable gentlemen throughout the century.
  6. Frames made of brass wire. After the lenses were inserted, the frames were pulled tight and tied with binding thread. Not used before the 1600’s.
  7. 1687 German, Spectacle makers’ ‘masterpiece’ – see the image below of the actual spectacles!
late 1600's masters' peice
1687 German, Spectacle makers’ ‘masterpiece’ from above drawing “G”

Actual spectacles 1675, English. (f)
  1. c. 1700, German. Spring frames with wire winding, tied with binding thread. Made in Nürnberg
  2. Last quarter. Brass magnifying glass, used in England.
  3. End of the century, Swiss. Prospect glass, used in England. The outer body is of green shagreen (shark’s skin), the single drawtube is covered in green tooled vellum, and the mounts are of ivory, that for the object-glass bearing the inscription ‘Giuseppe Moschino in Geneva’. (Science Museum London)
  4. 1677, French. Pivoted eyeglasses. Also worn in England.
  5. c. 1600, German. However, they were probably known as early as 1550. Double horn frames. The bridge, made of curved strips of horn, gives enough flexibility to hold the glasses on the nose.
  6. 1675, English. Slit frames to give slight flexibility.
  7. c. 1600, German. Horn rims, side springs also of horn.
  8. c. 1630, German. Gilded silver. Made in Augsburg.

Check out the article on How I Made Simple One Bar Specs 1400-1700

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