Did an ancient Roman wear sunglasses?

Did an ancient Roman wear sunglasses?

August 04, 2016


Sunglasses have been associated with celebrities, wealth and risqué behavior for a reason.  They were once rare and used only by royalty, worn by syphilis victims who were spurned in the Victorian era, and used by movie stars to protect the eyes from harsh lights.  Though everyone has at least one pair of them today, the history of sunglasses tells us how they became so popular.

No trees in the colosseum

The history of modern-day sunglasses reaches back to the 30’s.  Not the 1930’s but the time of Roman Emperor, Nero, who wore what was probably the most expensive sunglasses of all time.  When at the colosseum, Nero peered through a lens made of a polished green gem.  Today, that gem is called “emerald” and has a value greater than diamond.

Snow glare in the Arctic

The millennials took a different approach – not those millennials, but the ancient Inuits of 1000 A.D.  Ivory was carved into a mask shape, with a slit to minimize snow glare.  They were strapped on the face and were the first of what became known as snow goggles.

Emotional problems in court

In the 12th Century, sunglasses were used in China but might better be named “court glasses” as they served a different purpose.  Constructed of lenses of smoky quartz, they were worn in court to conceal emotions.  Today, judges don’t allow the use of sunglasses for the same reason.

Prescriptions and bad vision

Several other notable events in the history of sunglasses started with poor eyesight.  In the mid-1400s, prescription glasses, made of ground glass, appeared in Italy.  Three hundred years later, in the 1700s, a blue-green tint was added to the lens to improve visual acuity.  

Effects of syphilis in the Victorian era

No antibiotics were available during the epidemic of the infectious disease, syphilis.   The disease emerged in the “Victorian Era” and victims of the STD were spurned for immorality.  Fortunately for victims, one significant problem of glasses had been resolved.  Earpieces had been invented to hold up the shaded lenses, which helped to counter two effects caused by the disease.  Darkened shades relieved sun-sensitivity of the eyes and a nose cover could be attached to conceal deterioration of the nostrils.  

The lights heat up

Sun shades became associated with film production during the silent movie period when technology posed a threat.  Actors were subject to frequent bursts of magnesium from flash-photography and were also bothered by arc-lighting used to light the sets.  Wearing sunglasses protected Charlie Chaplin from both.

During the depression

In 1929, sunglasses were introduced at Woolworths in Atlantic City; they were restricted to prescription.  Foster was the founder of a plastics manufacturing company which was the first to use plastics and injection molding.   The company’s major product, hair combs, had fallen out of use and the company was nearly bankrupt when Foster patented his darkened glasses. Though sunglasses saved the company, few people could afford the 10-cent price and they were once again associated with wealth and leisure.

Assistance for the military

At the same time that Foster began selling his sunglasses, Bausch and Lomb – still known for eye products – were tasked with developing tinted lenses for the military to protect pilots from harsh reflections.  Founding the Ray-Ban company to protect pilots from the glare of the sun – their Aviator glasses “banned rays.”  Polarized lenses, invented by the Polaroid company, were incorporated in 1936 – providing actual protection against UV light, known to be harmful to vision.

Celebrities and style

Ray-Ban’s Aviators were quite heavy, but when combined with lighter weight plastic technology – resulted in the “Wayfarer” design, popularized by bad-boy celebrity, James Dean, who also happened to be wealthy.  Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn produce memories of the cat eye design, to be replaced by the big lenses worn by Jacqueline Kennedy, once again worn to conceal the emotions.  Benjamin Franklin’s tiny round lenses were again popularized by rock and roll legends John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin – while Elvis opted for the Jacque O design.

Tom Cruise is known for both Aviators and Wayfarers, but the star most known for sunglasses is likely Elton John, who is reported to have 20,000 pairs.  Today, whether purchased for a little or a lot, sunglasses all incorporate both plastics and polarization.  Inexpensive versions provide the same protection as designer versions, which is good because everyone has a pair – most more than one.   Still, even though Elton John’s collection may not be as vast as rumored – it is worth more than Nero’s emeralds.