Travis Elborough: The Eyeglass Advantage for Middle Aged Eyes
At the age of 47, Travis Elborough realized that his glasses were both part of how he looked and how he appeared to others. His new book Through the Looking Glass has given him a new perspective on his glasses.
Through a glass, gloomily A fear of eye health led to a new take on specs. Image: LMPC via Getty Images
At 47, after almost two years late, I finally bit the financial bullet and accepted that I needed varifocals. If the pain of buying these particular glasses was mostly borne in the wallet, my ego was bruised as a result. The weather has been reasonably nice to me. I still have a head full of mostly brown hair and all of my own teeth. But now my eyes were showing their age, as the optician tactfully explained. Windows to my soul, they had always been a bit flawed, myopic with a slight astigmatism and requiring double glazing since I was about ten years old. Now, however, they were letting me down, not so much by being weak, but by shattering a dearly beloved illusion that I was still a young man.
In the famous speech “The Seven Ages of Man” by William Shakespeare As you like it, glasses are synonymous with becoming an old man, as Jacques describes the sixth age as a move: “In the skinny pants and slippers.” With glasses on the nose and a pocket on the side. I was only ten years old when I received my first pair, the classic square frame and standard NHS numbers made of sturdy brown plastic.
Now, however, the optician, worried about something he had seen deep in my middle aged eyes, also referred me to Moorfields Eye Hospital for glaucoma testing. The terrifying specter of a future where I could actually be beyond the aid of glasses suddenly made me realize how vital these things on my face were. And yet, I had taken them completely for granted, hardly thinking of an invention arguably as transformative as the wheel or the cans.
Over the next two years (and until the lockdown reduced those releases), I pored over books, journals, and catalogs in the library at the College of Optometrists in London. I visited Algha Works, an eyewear factory in Hackney Wick that has been making eyewear since 1932, and spoke to ophthalmic opticians, members of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers and the Ophthalmic Antiques International Collectors’ Club . And I probably watched again The Ippress file about 20 times. Everything to produce Through glasses: the spectacular life of glasses, my personal and cultural history of eyewear, calculated to be worn by some four billion people around the world.
Glasses are at the same time my appearance, in the sense of helping my vision, and my gaze on others, because I am rarely without them on
The book goes from the earliest theories of how the eye works, to wearable technology and the augmented reality of Google-style smart glasses, to models as delicious as the nose-clip, tortoiseshell Windsors and Ray- glasses. Ban aviator, as well as iconic sunglasses. spectacle wearers such as Harold Lloyd, Buddy Holly and Gloria Steinem, along the way.
As I had to discover, and rightly perhaps, the origins of glasses are decidedly unclear. Lentils of one kind could date back to ancient Mesopotamia; Roman Emperor Nero is renowned for witnessing gladiatorial fights using an emerald or piece of green crystal to soothe or shade his eyes. Elsewhere, the Stoic philosopher Seneca noted the magnifying effect of looking at things through a globe filled with water. But the first known reference to the spectacles themselves comes only in the Middle Ages, in the text of a sermon given in a Dominican monastery in Florence. This document fixes the date of their creation around 1286 and their birthplace is Pisa – later hometown of that other great Italian innovator in optics, Galileo.
The very first types of glasses were nose glasses, primitive devices made up of two disc-shaped frames fashioned from wood, metal, or animal bone and simply riveted together. It will take another two hundred years before the arrival of glasses with concave lenses for myopic. More surprisingly still, glasses with side pieces to hold them firmly in place would not appear until the 1720s, although the Chinese and the Spanish had previously developed a method of securing glasses to the head with ropes or ribbons, which mysteriously failed to catch on anywhere else.
In Spain, exceptionally, glasses also became incredibly fashionable for women in the 16th century. Bigger, more ostentatious glasses were an indication of wealth and rank, even those who didn’t need them donned them to keep up with the trend. A phenomenon that has parallels with the geek chic of more recent times, with the likes of Urban Outfitters stocking clear lens glasses for people who are style conscious but visually intact.
For me, like most types with glasses, I guess glasses are both my appearance, in the sense of helping my vision, and how I look to others, as I am rarely without them. Writing this book has made me view performances with a renewed reverence and has proven to be eye-opening in every sense of the word, something that I hope readers, whatever their prescriptions, will experience as well.
Travis Elborough on the other side of the mirror is out now