You might think that sunglasses are a recent discovery, but it's history dates back about 700 hundred years ago. Even in prehistoric time, the Inuit used Inuit sunglasses that were designed to reduce the glare of the sun.
Sunglasses date back 100's of years
The earliest historical reference to sunglasses dates back to ancient China and Rome. It's said that Roman emperor Nero watched gladiator fights through polished gems.
Like most ancient discoveries, the Chinese (from the 12th Century) are credited with inventing the first Chinese sunglasses. They were crafted both to protect the eyes from the glare of the sun and to hide facial expressions during a court session. But, the idea behind sunglasses is much older. The Inuit used Inuit sunglasses that were designed to reduce the amount of eye exposed to the sun’s rays.
Tinted lenses to correct vision impairments
James Ayscough began experimenting with tinted lenses in spectacles around 1752. Ayscough was persistent in the belief that blue-or green-tinted glass could potentially correct specific vision impairments. Protection from the sun’s rays was not a concern at this time.
Glasses tinted with yellow-amber and brown were also a commonly-prescribed item for people with syphilis in the 19th and early 20th century because one of the symptoms of the disease was sensitivity to light.
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Mass-production of sunglasses started in 1929
Inexpensive mass-production of sunglasses started in 1929 when Sam Foster introduced them to America. Foster sold his sunglasses on the beaches of Atlantic City, New Jersey under the name Foster Grant from a Woolworth on the Boardwalk. These sunglasses were made to protect people’s eyes from the sun’s rays.
Edwin H. Land (in 1936) combined his lens making skills with his patented Polaroid filter, creating the first polarised sunglasses.
Murano: The birthplace of spectacles
Murano in Venice can be easily dubbed as the birthplace of spectacles because of its glassworks. In fact, in about 13th century, they were the only ones producing soft glass, which were later used in something called ‘reading aids’. These spectacles were used exclusively as visual aids to enable far-sighted individuals to read.
Spectacles were accessories of status symbol
Before Polaroid filters with UV protection was invented, (in early 1936) tinted lenses just lessened the glare and amount of sunlight exposure to the eye.
Sunglasses started to trickle into the US mass market in 1929 and by the late thirties, were considered a cool accessory. According to an article in Life Magazine, only around 25% of them wore it to protect the eyes. The rest, wore it because it was considered a fashion accessory.
Sunglasses as a fashion statement
Since the late 2000s, moderately oversized sunglasses have become a fashion trend. They are also known as Jackie O’s, a style that was inspired by Jacqueline Kennedy (that’s where it gets the name) in the 1960s.
The most expensive pair of sunglasses sold on eBay was Elvis Presley’s famous Madison Square Garden’s. They sold for a whopping $250,000!
British singer, Elton John’s love of wacky sunglasses is what inspired the 1998 play Elton John’s Glasses. He has the largest personal collection of sunglasses in the world at around 20,000 pairs. Elton John sometimes wore oversized sunglasses on stage in the mid-1970s as part of his Captain Fantastic act.
Sunglasses in the 21st Century
Today, sunglasses with UV protection has almost become an industry standard, and there are a lot of tints available for sunglasses, and sunglasses styles are changing every year.
It’s only been about twenty years (of the last century) that eyeglasses/sunglasses acquired their current look and design. Today, eyewear come in practically all shapes and materials. And it’s safe to say that eyeglasses and sunglasses have established themselves as the most important visual aid the world over and have become a popular fashion accessory.
Currently, Xiamen, China, is the world’s largest producer of sunglasses. It exports about 120 million pairs each year.