Steampunk sunglasses

Steampunk Glasses: Do They Look like 19th Century Eyewear?


Have you ever wondered what the perfect steampunk glasses should look like?

Steampunk 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).

Steampunk goggles and to some degree, steampunk sunglasses, are some of the most iconic accessories of the retrofuture style. Ideally, steampunk glasses 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?

Let’s start with the goggles…

Steampunk Goggles: Did People Wear Them in the 19th Century?

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).

But how was it at the time of the Industrial Revolution?

Cinder Goggles, the Original Steampunk Goggles

With the rail boom 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, because at the time, wagons 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 wore protective glasses like these:

steampunk goggles
Antique 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.

According to this Maison D. Latour catalog from 1897, in France, the cinder goggles were called lunettes mistraliennes when they had temples or lunettes chemins de fer when it was not the case. The lenses could be white, blue or smoky.

Let’s Go for a Ride! But First, Let Me Put My Goggles on!

Sherlock Holmes and his famous sidekick Doctor Watson are both wearing antique glasses that look like steampunk goggles in this scene from the movie “Sherlock Holmes: a game of shadows” which was released in 2011:

Sherlock Holmes & John Watson wearing steampunk goggles

John Watson (Jude Law) and Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) driving an automobile

The plot of the film takes place in 1891, but it was unusual to wear goggles when driving an automobile at that time. On 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 it was not until the early 1900s that 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 First Introduced for the Early Airplane Pilots

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 -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.

So, steampunk goggles have their historical origins in the 19th century. However, at that time, the use of goggles was rather limited to steam rail transport.

Steampunk Sunglasses: Are They Inspired by 19th-Century Fashion?

While I am sure that no one really doubted the existence of goggles in the 19th century, the question must be raised as to whether or not sunglasses existed at that time.

Look at the picture below. It was taken in 1906 on a beach in Atlantic city. 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 who wore 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 sunglasses from his Foster Grant brand. By 1930, the sunglasses fashion was born. But before then, were sunglasses so rare? Are steampunk sunglasses really inspired by 19th-century fashion?

History of Sunglasses

Glasses with tinted lenses appeared for the first time in China in the 12th century. The eyes are the mirror of the soul, they say. Well, chinese judges wore smoke-colored quartz lenses to mask their emotions in court.

In 1459, the Portuguese scientist Nuno Fernandes imported from Italy one pair of spectacles (at the time, that’s how eyeglasses were called) 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.

In 1752, blue or green corrective glasses had started to become popular in Europe thanks to James Ayscough. This English optician was convinced that these glasses were of better quality than the white glasses, and that they had some soothing virtues. Also, many thought that blue or green glasses could correct certain vision impairments.

For centuries, the primary function of colored glasses would remain therapeutic. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that the concept of sunglasses really emerged.

The first references to the term “sunglasses” were found in American newspapers of the 1840’s. In the October 23, 1841 edition of The North Carolinian was published an advertisement 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, or W. W. Wesser & Co have passed similar advertisements in other U.S. newspapers at the same period.

first advertisement for sunglasses
1917 advertisement for vintage sunglasses

The first American illustrated advertisements for sunglasses, in The herald in 1898 and Evening star in 1917. Now that’s what retro sunglasses and vintage sunglasses should look like!

First gogglesEskimos Invented Snow Goggles 2,000 Years Ago

The Inuit, better known to many as Eskimos, traditionally used snow goggles to protect their eyes from the glaring Arctic sun and avoid snow blindness (an eye injury caused by exposure to sunlight reflected from ice and snow). The eyepieces were made of walrus ivory, bone or wood. They were carved to fit the wearer’s face and held in place by a strap, allowing only a small sliver of light through the slits. A mixture of soot and oil was sometimes applied around the slits to help cut down the glare even more.

Inuit snow goggles

The first Inuit goggles are said to date back 2,000 years, and they are still worn by traditional Inuit hunters nowadays.

Blue Glasses Were All the Rage in the 19th Century

In England in 1854, Robert Hunt found that a light beam passing through a blue lens is able to magnetize the needle of a compass. No other lens color can achieve 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 by a dark blue glass stimulates the growth of plants and animals. Many concluded that wearing glasses with blue lenses would certainly be beneficial to the human eye.

According to J. William Rosenthal, these reasons explain why blue spectacles were so widespread in the 19th century.

Blue Railway Spectacles 1807

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

Plague doctorSyphilis Glasses: Myth or Reality

In the 19th century, syphilis was almost as frequent as the common cold in Europe. Many famous historical figures of the time had syphilis, such as Schubert, Stendhal, Manet, or Maupassant (syphilis was more frequent amongst artists and writers due to their unbridled lifestyle).

Many people believe that sunglasses were prescribed to syphilitic patients who suffered from sensitivity to light when the disease affected the ocular region.

However, medical texts of the time make no mention of tinted glasses as treatment for photophobia (sensitivity to light) brought on by syphilis. It’s probably a myth.

Drawing by Oomizuao

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.

The frames were generally made of metal (iron, silver, gold, steel, copper, bronze or other alloys), but some were manufactured from tortoise shells or cattle horns. These were more lightweight, but they broke easily. That is why they fell out of fashion by the 1860’s.

Pince-nez (frameless spectacles), straight temples, curved temples, C bridges, crank bridge, scroll bridge… Similarly to the lenses, the shape of the frames were diverse and varied.

Therefore, spectacles of the 19th-century cannot be reduced to a single style or look. Glasses came in various shapes and colors, as evidenced by this catalog published at the end of the period.

Two models, however, stand out by being very original: glasses with side shield and glasses with 4 lenses:

Round sunglasses with side shield

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

Railway spectacles

Captain Thomas B. Griffith, volunteer during the American civil war, with 4 lenses glasses

Examples of steampunk glasses

Some examples of 19th-century glasses designs, according to this catalog of the Maison D. Latour

Now you should know how your steampunk sunglasses should look like!

UV400You Should Wear Steampunk Sunglasses to Protect Your Eyes from Sunlight!

Sunglasses aren’t just a fashion accessory. Also known as shades, they are an important protection for your eyes against the ultraviolet (UV) rays emitted by the sun. Prolonged unprotected exposure to UV rays can have harmful effects on your eyes. It can cause keratitis (inflammation of the cornea), and increase your risk of developing cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

The UV400 label indicates that the lenses have been treated to block all ultraviolet rays with wavelengths up to 400 nanometers (this covers all of UVA, UVB and UVC rays).

UV protection is independent of the tint or the shade of the lenses.

Steampunk Glasses: Get Them, Wear Them, Love Them!

The problem with steampunk goggles is that, apart from photoshoots, steampunk wedding 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).

On the other hand, Steampunk sunglasses are great to bring a little steampunk into our daily life, so be sure to check out our selection from View :
And when the weather doesn’t lend itself to wearing shades, wearing a steampunk watch is a good alternative to bring a retrofuturistic feel to your style!
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Last updated: 10 January 2020
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