The History of Sunglasses

Sunglasses for the masses are a relatively new phenomenon.  Most of the population in ancient societies simply had to deal with bright sunlight either by squinting or wearing wide brim hats.  Unfortunately, this most certainly led to earlier cataract formation and fibrous growths on the surface of their eyes similar to a callous on your hands we call either pingueculas or pterygiums.

A select few cultures had interesting alternatives.  Inuit natives (we call Eskimos) in Alaska would use walrus ivory to craft sunglasses consisting of a narrow horizontal slit in front of each eye to reduce the blinding sun glass reflecting from the snow and icebergs.  They also served to protect the eyes from blowing snow and cold winds.

It is known in Roman times, several emperors used polished emeralds to view gladiator fights in order to block glare and not be seen squinting by his subjects.

In the 12th Century, very wealthy Chinese used thinly sliced, polished quartz then smoked to tint.  Later, in the 1400’s, the Chinese developed tinted glass which was quickly adopted by the Italians.  This was applied to create beautiful stained glass windows in cathedrals.  In the 1700s, an English optician James Ayscough developed blue and green tinted lenses thinking they help with vision impairments.  Instead, this tinted glass worked wonderfully outdoors for folks with normal vision.  It is know that tinted lenses were prescribed by physicians for patients having certain conditions such as albinism, chronic inflammatory diseases and even syphilis.

In the 1920’s, Hollywood sets required incredibly bright lights utilizing carbon-arcs of high voltage electricity.  Between takes and during rehearsals, actors would often utilize sunglasses to shield their eyes from the intense light.  They soon learned sunglasses were a great way to hide their celebrity when out in public.  Of course, the general population soon took notice and sunglasses became all the rage!  The first mass-produced sunglasses were devised by Sam Foster in 1929 and soon the Foster-Grant company became a household name.

Sunglasses are more than a fashion accessory.  In the late 1930’s, The U.S. Army Air Corp (now the Air Force) commissioned optical company Bausch & Lomb to design a sunglass lens to protect pilots eyes from glare and bright sun at altitude.  Thus, the grey-green aviator sunglass was born, providing a wide area of protection even when pilots looked low at their instruments.

As both function and fashion have bolstered sunglasses case, not to mention celebrity use, they are now an invaluable staple in modern life.  For Coloradans, we intimately know the advantages of having a great pair of sunglasses matched for a particular activity, whether it is driving, skiing, biking, running, or just relaxing while eating outside at one of the many great eats in Boulder.

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