VOLUME: 1 JAN 12, 2022
Every single object in our lives, even and perhaps especially the ones we take for granted, has its individual history, and it’s both surprising and ironic that the story of modern eyewear is perceptibly opaque.
When did “modernity” begin for the tinted discs we fasten together in a frame and perch on our faces? Was it when Nero, Rome’s fifth emperor, a patron of athletics and the arts (and arranger of his own mother’s murder) began tempering the sun’s impact on his pupils during gladiator matches by viewing them through polished gemstones? Or is credit due to 12th Century Chinese judges who hid their gaze from the sun and defendants alike with slabs of smoked quartz? Perhaps Carlo Goldoni, the 18th Century Viennese playwright who became one of the earliest adopters of tinted spectacles, was inspired by such figures.
Here’s something certain: the first to really get sun-protective eyewear right were the Inuits. Faced with the everyday threat of snow blindness in the bright and highly reflective Arctic environment, they engineered functional goggles from wood, bone, walrus tusks, and caribou antlers. They carved these materials into oblong bands that they could fasten to their heads with leather ties, making narrow but long slits over each eye that provided adequate protection and remarkably good peripheral views. While their contemporaries stared as much at glassy stones as through them, the Inuits hunted and survived in the world’s harshest environment with a design that remains functional to this day.
But hand-carved bone goggles probably aren’t what comes to most minds as modern eyewear. The thing is, all the way up until the 20th Century, inventors and innovators maintained a practical mindset toward specs that kept things medical and mundane. Leave it to a businessman to see how they could be so much more.
The industrialist in question was Sam Foster. In 1929, Foster offered up for sale a lifestyle accessory to Atlantic City beach-goers that they’d only recently begun to see donned by Hollywood’s glossy stars — mostly to protect their eyes from bright studio lights — and likely never considered affording themselves: sunglasses. They helped with the sun, sure, but they were also fashionable. This, Foster realized, was a shift worth some money; previously guided solely by material technology and prescriptive necessity, eyewear could now evolve along a new track defined by aesthetic, taste, and trendiness.