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A Short History of Sunglasses

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Dr. Marc Weinstein

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The sunglasses you wear every day serve a simple purpose– to beat the sun. It’s something that humans have dealt with since the beginning of time, but how did our ancestors do it? UV protection certainly wasn’t a thing. And when did they become a symbol of fashion and style? Read on for a very brief history of how sunglasses came to be.

The Snow Goggles

We often associate sunglasses with summertime, vacations and beach-goers but surprisingly, the first sunglasses weren’t invented by people who lived in tropical climates. They were actually invented about 2,000 years ago by the Inuit people to protect their eyes from the sun’s harsh reflection off the Arctic’s ice and snow. Made of wood or bone, they had two slits for the wearer to see through and as a bonus, also helped to sharpen their vision as the slits helped to focus their eyesight.

Seeing Through Polished Gemstones

It’s said that Roman Emperor Nero used to watch gladiator fights using polished emeralds. Truly sunglasses fit for a king. The Chinese also had a similar idea using flat pieces of tinted quartz. Worn by judges in court, they most likely were worn to conceal facial expressions rather than to block sunlight. It’s evident that both these glasses, made from precious gemstones, were never adopted by the masses. However, this might have been the first sign of sunglasses being associated with class and fashion.

Sunglasses For Health

Centuries later is when sunglasses as we know them begin to take form. In England in the 1700s, an optician named James Ayscough began prescribing colored lenses to help with vision issues. His belief was that different colors provided different solutions.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that these colored lenses were used to actually block light. During a major syphilis outbreak in Europe, yellow and brown lenses were prescribed to help with patients’ sensitivity to light.

Going Hollywood

Things took a major turn during the 1920s when movie stars began wearing dark glasses and sunglasses became a ubiquitous symbol of celebrity, style and glamor. They wore them for two reasons, to hide their identity in public and to cover red eyes caused by powerful movie studio lamps.

At the same time, sunglasses finally were geared towards the masses when businessman Sam Foster, who owned a plastics manufacturing company, began creating and selling sunglasses on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. The brand was called Foster Grant and they were worn by all of Hollywood’s stars. Sunglasses became such a big hit that 20 million were sold in the U.S by 1937.

They were still mostly worn for fashion until the 1930s when the Army needed glasses for pilots to avoid glare. That’s when polarized lenses and the aviator style came to be.

Since then, as we’ve come to learn of the effects that UV rays have on our eyes, UV protection has become the norm on our sunnies. And while utility still comes first, sunglasses, now with millions of different styles, have remained a staple of fashion.