The earliest mention of spectacles known in England dates from 1328, when the will of the Bishop of Exeter mentions ‘spectaculum oculo’ (spectacles for the eyes). They were valued at two shillings (ten pence), which I gather was a considerable sum of money at the time. Although Pliny mentions that the Emperor Nero used an emerald to improve his vision, spectacles as we know them were invented in Northern Italy, as is recorded by a Dominican friar who wrote in 1306: ‘It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses‘. A painting in Cawston church (dating from around 1500) shows St Matthew wearing a pair of glasses. At this period these still had to be held up to the eyes, although an early form of pince-nez that gripped the nose had already been developed. By 1600 we have a picture of a Spanish Cardinal (by El Greco) wearing glasses with sidepieces extending over the ears.
The WORSHIPFUL COMPANY OF SPECTACLE MAKERS is one of the Guilds of the City of London, whose Charter was granted by King Charles I in 1628. They adopted the motto ‘A blessing for the aged’. My father became an optician by studying under the Spectacle Makers Company. He had to go up to London to take the exam, and on qualification he got the letters FSMC (Fellow of the Spectacle Makers Company) after his name. This entitled him to become a Freeman of the City of London. This was superior to being a Freeman of the City of Norwich (which he was not entitled to), and although he never took up the honour he remained proud of the possibility throughout his life. The term ‘Fellow’ did not however mean that he was a ‘Liveryman’ of the Company; that was restricted to a membership 400 (originally just 60) who were prominent London businessmen. Now that all opticians must have a university degree the Spectacle Makers Company is no longer directly involved in education.
Most ophthalmic opticians stuck to testing eyes, but my father took this a step further and really did become involved in making spectacles. This side of his business began in the 1940s and continued for the rest of his life. (Sight testing remained his main occupation except for a brief period when had an optical factory.) In spite of the fact that his qualification was from the Spectacle Makers Company it had nothing to do with the actual making of glasses. This skill he had to teach himself. If you wish to learn more of this side of his life I refer you to an earlier blog – FRANK MASON (PART THREE).
Another Norwich man who was entitled to become a Freeman of London was Jeremiah Colman who started his mustard business in 1814. He did take up the honour, in 1838. Although his business skills had nothing to do with spectacle making, it was as a Liveryman of the Spectacle Makers Company that he was enrolled as a Freeman of London. In the nineteenth century the Guilds of London had ceased to have a sole involvement with the industry stated in their title, their ostensible raison d’être. Already those with no connection with spectacles had begun to be admitted as members, although their interest in the training of opticians shows that some involvement with the industry remained. As far as the choice of Company was concerned, that depended on which one had a vacancy at the time, and in Jeremiah Colman’s case this was the Spectacle Makers. From starting off as just another minor flour miller in Norfolk, Jeremiah had become a very important businessman in London, whither a regular service by horse and cart delivered his product from Stoke mill. A cart-load may not seem very much, but if the amount was two or three cart-loads a week the volume begins to become quite substantial; you didn’t need that much mustard powder to supply Georgian London. Before Jeremiah’s death in 1854 the railway line from Norwich had removed any barriers to trade.
Although things like contact lenses and lazar eye surgery have made spectacles less necessary today, they are still the commonest form of visual aid. Although they had been about for 500 years, glasses did not reach the whole of European society until the 19th century. The earliest type of eyeglasses were for reading. I will not go into the technical difference between these and distance glasses, but these were a later development. By tradition Pope Leo X became the first person to wear distance glasses for short-sightedness in the 16th century. Dr Johnson only had a hazy view of the mountains on his visit to Scotland, and at the theatre in London he could not see the actors’ faces; I assume therefore that distance lenses (i.e concave rather than convex) were still no widely available. This was no doubt because the correction of myopia (the medical term for short sight) requires a sight test and a prescription tailored to the individual, unlike reading glasses. Distance lenses were common enough by the composer Franz Schubert’s time however, because his severe myopia was treated by wearing glasses.