A Brief History of Sunglasses

The history of sunglasses can be traced back hundreds of years to the great Chinese dynasties. At the time smoke tinting was the method used to darken eyeglasses. The glasses were not initially intended to protect people’s eyes from the sun and indeed early tinted glasses were said to have been worn by judges in China who, for centuries, regularly wore the darkened lenses not for vision-correction or to reduce glare from the sun (although they did have the ability to do this) but these smoke-colored flat panes of quartz were actually used to conceal the eye expressions and to a point, facial expressions of the judges whilst in court.

Smoke-tinted lenses did occasionally serve as sunglasses but that was never their primary function, so when vision-correcting eyeglasses were introduced into China from Italy in c.1430, they too were tinted, though still mainly for use in the courts.

In the mid-18th century, an English man by the name of James Ayscough began experimenting with tinted lenses in glasses, or spectacles as they were known. These were not “sunglasses” as such, as Ayscough strongly believed that blue, or even green-tinted glass could correct specific vision problems. Protection from the sun’s rays was not an issue for Ayscough at the time.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that modern-type sunglasses came to be. Early silent movie stars were said to wear them before filming to shield their eyes from the glare of stage lights, which were often as bright as the sun itself. In 1929, an American named Sam Foster began mass-producing cheap sunglasses that were designed to protect people’s eyes from the sun. These were snapped up by beachgoers in New Jersey and this period consequently saw a massive upsurge in demand for them. And so the dawn of sunglasses as a fashion accessory was upon us. By 1930, sunglasses were all the rage and anyone who was anyone had to own a pair.

In 1936, sunglasses became polarized when Edwin H. Land, founder of the Polaroid Corporation, invented the first inexpensive filters capable of polarising light, Polaroid film. Around this time, even more, Americans started buying sunglasses. With famous stars of stage and music also wearing them, they were becoming not only a way to protect eyes against the sun but also a way to look “cool”. Sunglasses had by now become a cultural phenomenon with some people even starting to wear them when it wasn’t sunny and sometimes even when they were indoors. According to popular belief though, sunglasses really became “cool” during the Second World War, when wartime images of soldiers wearing sunglasses made them an inspirational item among young people the world over.

In the sixties, an ingenious advertising campaign by the comb and glass firm of Foster Grant “persuaded” fashion designers of the day, as well as Hollywood film stars to escalate the sunglass craze and a giant industry was born, where only a few decades earlier none existed.

With the ever-increasing concerns over the effects of the sun’s rays, the future of sunglasses looks assured. The UV protection is now an industry standard and there are sunglasses available for a variety of pursuits. The different lens tints available are numerous and sunglasses have changed styles many times over the years. Some prescription glasses have also been given tints that only appear when the sun’s rays hit the glasses. Technology is certainly alive and well in the sunglass business and who knows what we can expect in the future?