Steampunk sunglasses

Steampunk Goggles & Sunglasses: Tips to Stick With 1800s Fashion

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Steampunk goggles and, to some degree, steampunk glasses and sunglasses are perhaps the most iconic accessories of the steampunk style. But have you ever wondered what the perfect steampunk eyewear should look like?

Steampunk glassesSteampunk is an aesthetic movement inspired by, among other things, the Victorian era in England (1837-1901), the American Civil War (1861-1865) and the French Belle Epoque (1879-1914). Aesthetically, steampunk is therefore a fantasized version of the fashion of the 19th century (and early 20th century).

And so, ideally, steampunk eyewear should look like what people were wearing in the 19th century. But did people really wear goggles at that time? Did sunglasses even exist in the 1800s? And if so, what did they look like?

You’re about to find out! Let’s start with the goggles…

Goggles: Did People Wear Them in the Victorian Era?

As a matter of fact, yes! With the Railway Mania of the 1840s, cinder goggles began to be mass produced. Contrary to what one might think, these safety glasses were not reserved for only railway workers. The passengers also wore them as wagons at the time didn’t have glass in the windows! Besides, third class cars did not even have a roof! Dust and cinders from the chimneys of the steam locomotives would blow into the wagons. To protect themselves, the passengers used to wear protective eye pieces like these:

Cinder goggles

Steampunk goggles? Nope! These are cinder goggles from the 19th century!

Like the traditional glasses, these protective goggles could have temples. However, these were more often replaced by a leather strap or an elastic band so that the goggles fit tightly against the face for maximum protection. The lenses could be white, blue, green or smoky. So, good news: you can be historically accurate while wearing steampunk goggles with gorgeous colored lenses!

And What About Motorist and Aviator Goggles?

Holmes and Watson wearing steampunk outfit and goggleSherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) and his famous sidekick Doctor Watson (Jude Law) are both wearing goggles in this scene from the film Sherlock Holmes: a game of shadows, which was released in 2011.

The plot of the film takes place in 1891, but it was unusual to wear goggles when driving an automobile at that time. On the one hand, goggles were an affront to good taste, especially for ladies. On the other hand, wearing protective eyewear was unnecessary, since the maximum speed of motor vehicles was 15-20 km/h (9-12 mph). It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that faster automobiles appeared and drivers began to wear goggles frequently. These would then be considered absolutely necessary both for comfort and safety, according to Sir Alfred Charles William Harmsworth (see pages 67 and 73 of Motors and Motor-driving, his book published in 1904).

Aviator gogglesAviator goggles were also introduced in the early 20th century. It wasn’t long after the invention of the airplane in 1903 that goggles became a necessity for the pilots. The near death experience of Rudolf William “Shorty” Shroeder is there to remind us that one must protect his eyes from the bitter cold at high altitudes. On February 27, 1920, this U.S. Air Force test pilot achieved an altitude record for piloted aircraft, taking his Packard-LePère LUSAC 11 to 33,114 feet (10,000 meters). At that point, his air supply ran out and he made the terrible mistake of lifting his goggles to change his bottle of oxygen. The negative 67 degrees Fahrenheit (-50°C) air temperature immediately froze his eyeballs. Then, he passed out from the lack of oxygen. The airplane was within a few thousand feet of the ground when Shorty Schroeder regained consciousness, thanks to the normal air density of the lower altitude. Although he was almost blind, he miraculously managed to land his plane.

The point is that in the 19th century, the use of goggles was mostly limited to steam rail transport. Aviator, motorist, and motorcycle goggles were all introduced in the next century.

From Cinder Goggles to Steampunk Goggles

As you can see from the gallery below, steampunk goggles are largely inspired by the cinder goggles of the Victorian age. Same shape, different materials. To add to the steampunk vibe, steampunk goggles are usually made of copper or leather (or an imitation of these materials). Some designs also feature spikes – for a nice post-apocalyptic feel – or come with magnifying lenses to spice up the look with a touch of sophistication.

Steampunk costumes with steampunk goggles

In the steampunk world, engineers can expose themselves to steam spurts next to the machines; airship crew members need protection from wind and low temperatures at high altitudes; and mad scientists risk being injured by sparks or projections of dangerous substances. This may be the reason why safety goggles are a part of the steampunk “uniform”: to protect the eyes from these many dangers (and because they look seriously cool). If you too want to offer ocular security to your steamsona (steampunk persona), take a few seconds to browse these models and see if they are to your liking:

The problem with steampunk goggles is that apart from photoshoots, steampunk weddings or conventions, you don’t have that many occasions to wear them. It is the same with most steampunk clothing (corset, Victorian skirt) or steampunk accessories (top hat, can, monocle/eyeglass).

Steampunk sunglasses, however, are great to bring a touch of retro-future into daily life. But what did sunglasses look like in the 19th century?

Did Sunglasses Even Exist in the 19th Century?

Look at the picture below. It was taken in 1906 on a beach in Atlantic City, New Jersey. As you can see, sunglasses were quite rare at the beginning of the 20th century. Among the hundreds of people present, I only spotted one wearing sunglasses (perhaps you will have more luck!). Obviously, people preferred hats or parasols, which are ubiquitous.

Retro sunglasses worn by a man in 1906 in Atlantic City

Atlantic City, 1906 (click on the image to display its full and larger version)

In 1929, it was on the same beach in Atlantic City that Sam Forster would sell the first pair of sunglasses from his Foster Grant brand. By 1930, the sunglasses fashion had taken hold. But what was it like in the 19th century?

The First Sunglasses

In 1459, the Portuguese scientist Nuno Fernandes imported from Italy one pair of spectacles with colored lenses to use them when riding in the snow. This is probably the first record of someone using a pair of glasses to protect the eyes from the sun’s harmful rays. But for centuries, the function of tinted glasses was mainly therapeutic: many thought that blue or green lenses could correct certain vision impairments. It was not until the 1840s that the concept of sunglasses really emerged.

The first references to the term “sunglasses” were found in American newspapers of the middle of the 19th century. In the October 23, 1841 edition of The North Carolinian an advertisement was published for a shop called “the Subscriber.” Among the list of various items that this store advertised, sunglasses (“sun glasses” in the text) are found. Other vendors like W.H. Cary & Co, E. Samsom and W. W. Wesser & Co published similar advertisements in U.S. newspapers throughout the country during the same period. The first advertisements with pictures or photos of sunglasses were published later. Examples of those can be found in the June 19, 1898 edition of The Herald and the August 19, 1917 edition of the Evening Star.

First advertisements for vintage sunglasses

Some examples of ads for sunglasses in U.S. newspapers from the 19th and early 20th century. Take a look at the model on the right. Now that’s what steampunk sunglasses should look like!

Common Spectacle Styles in the 19th Century

In the first centuries of the existence of glasses, lenses were round. Between 1810 and 1830, the oval, lighter glasses, became the most popular style in America. Then it was the turn of rectangular and octagonal glasses in the 1840s, until oval shaped spectacles came back in vogue in the 1850s.

Eyeglass frames were generally made of metal (iron, silver, gold, steel, copper, bronze or other alloys), but some were manufactured from tortoise shell or cattle horn. As for their shapes, they were diverse and varied, as evidenced by this catalogue published in 1897.

Fashion sunglasses of Victorian times

Some examples of 19th-century glasses designs – Catalog of Maison D. Latour (1897)

Clip on nose, straight temples, curved temples, C-bridge, X-bridge… As you can see, spectacles of the 19th century cannot be reduced to a single style or look. Two models, however, stand out by being very original: glasses with side shield and glasses with four lenses:

Round frame sunglasses with side shields

An American soldier wearing steampunk glasses round sunglasses with side shields in 1863

Retro fashion - Prescription glasses with 4 lenses

Captain Thomas B. Griffith, volunteer during the American civil war, with four-lens glasses

The Perfect Steampunk Sunglasses

By now, you should know what steampunk glasses should look like! Here is our selection of steampunk sunglasses that match with the fashion of the 19th century:

Steampunk Glasses With Blue Lenses: Why Is It Such a Good Idea?

Blue Railway Spectacles 1807

Portrait of a Gentleman with blue spectacles, by John Wesley Jarvis (1807)

Did you know that blue lenses were all the rage in the 19th century? This may sound surprising, but there are several reasons for this.

In England in 1854, Robert Hunt found that a light beam passing through a blue lens could magnetize the needle of a compass. No other lens color achieved this result. As a consequence, mystical powers were attributed to blue glasses, and they became very popular.

Later, in 1871, American General A. J. Pleasanton demonstrated that the sunlight filtered through dark blue glass stimulates the growth of plants and animals. Many concluded that wearing eyeglasses with blue lenses would be beneficial to the human eye.

According to J. William Rosenthal, these reasons explain why blue spectacles were so widespread in the 19th century. So, choosing steampunk glasses with blue lenses is the way to go if you want to commit to 19th century fashion.

Steampunk Sunglasses Help Your Eyes as Well as Your Look

Steampunk sunglasses aren’t just a fashion accessory! They also help protect eyes from dust, drying breezes and, most important of all, the damaging effects of the ultraviolet (UV) rays emitted by the sun. Prolonged unprotected exposure to UV rays can cause keratitis (inflammation of the cornea) and increase the risk of developing cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Shades that are labeled UV400 have been treated to block all ultraviolet rays with wavelengths up to 400 nanometers (this covers all of UVA, UVB, and UVC rays). It’s worth noting that UV protection is independent of the tint or the shade of the lens.

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Last updated: 28 February 2020
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