I wear my sunglasses at night
So I can, so I can
Watch you weave then breathe your storylines
And I wear my sunglasses at night
So I can, so I can
Keep track of the visions in my eyes
— the first single from Corey Hart’s first album, 1983’s First Offense
Let’s talk spectacles.
Back when, “eyeglasses” referred to the things you put on your nose – pince nez or somesuch; spectacles had those arms on the side that attached to your ears (or perhaps, just pulled the contraption tight up against the side of the head).
Some hate’em – perhaps they despise being called four-eyes, or goggle head, or “the owl,” as happened to the pink loving, glasses-wearing heroine of the children’s tale, Princess Peepers (words by Pam Calvert, pix by Tuesday Mourning, 2008, filed in the Lennoxville Library at C-62).
Princess Peepers loves her specs: “In fact, she had different glasses for every occasion.” Some are sparkly, some are rose-coloured, some are buggy looking (for talking nature walks). But when she transfers to the Royal Academy For Perfect Princesses, her new classmates are mean to her. And so PP gives them up.
… and can no longer see a thing. Confusion ensues.
It turns out her spectacles are not just about fashion and fun.
Certainly spectacles wearers sometimes try to mix fashion and usefulness, and sometimes not. In a paper titled “History on Your Face – Common Spectacle Styles Before, During and After the Civil War, 1835 – 1870” (that being the US civil war), the authors write: “Although many spectacles were fitted by opticians to the individual consumer (especially in larger cities), most were purchased by persons who tried on several, or many, spectacles until one pair seemed to work. Merchants often allowed their customers a period of time to exchange glasses until happy with their vision improvement.”
Coloured glass, however, was often uncorrected and used simply to shield from the sun – just like today.
Those who wore such contraptions were often jeered: “General Meade constantly wore spectacles, as derisively noted in numerous accounts. One newspaper reporter wrote ‘He wears spectacles and is not considered a handsome man.’ When an annoyed friend approached Meade with a problem, Meade replied, ‘Why, my dear General, you should not let that annoy you,’ and recalled an incident where his men called him ‘a four-eyed son-of-a-b***h, and upon my soul, I could not get mad at them.’”
Enlisted men and officers on both sides of the conflict sported happenin’ eyewear.
“Colored lens spectacles with green, blue or smoked (gray or neutral) glass were readily and cheaply available from any optician or fancy hardware store…. Oculists, opticians and physicians often preferred one color over another when choosing among green, blue and smoked glasses. Most opticians and oculists had strong opinions about the best tint of glass for spectacles, and many preferred the gray or ‘London smoke’ glasses, since colors remained unaffected by the neutral tint. Norwich oculist Charles Carleton, on the other hand, stated that blue ‘is the proper color to be employed. Smoke-glasses should never be used, as they diminish the whole volume of light, and thereby render the image less distinct.’ Although green glass had been the preferred color of spectacle glasses, by the 1830’s written opinion turned toward to blue, and by the 1860’s to neutral gray as the colored glass of choice.” Still later, some swore by orange.
Nowadays, black is in, as with the secret agents in the popular Men In Black movies. Those hi-tech glasses also protect our heroes from a gadget that flashes away the short-term memories of the civilians who discover secrets they should not know. The film was based on a 1990 comic book series, which also might have inspired the sunglasses in the fabulous book series that begins with Artemis Fowl (by Eoin Colfer, 2001, filed in Young Adult).
Master Artemis Fowl, 12, is an Evil Genius. He is determined to take on the family mantle and return the Fowls to bazillionaire status, rescuing all from penury. This because dad has disappeared, his mom is incapacitated, and the trust is down to its last few millions.
Thank goodness, then, for Captain Holly Short, a soldier in the faerie army who is determined to Put A Stop to Fowl’s foul plans. Her sunglasses play an important role.
The multiple award-winning Artemis Fowl series is well written, fun and spawned multiple sequels.
Of course, by the end you may need to pull on a pair yourself, much like the X-Men’s Cyclops, whose specially made glasses allow him to control the death lasers that pop out of his eyes (find volumes 1 and 2 of The Astonishing X-Men  in the YA section of Graphic Novels). Or perhaps you’d prefer journalist (ahem) Hunter S. Thompson’s shades in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas? (Find Gonzo, the 2012 “graphic biography” by Will Bingley, via interlibrary loan.) Or the hot pair worn by The Terminator? (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2012 memoirs, Total Recall, are also available via interlibrary loan.)
The Guardian newspaper once ran a highly personal list of top-ten eyeglasses in literature:
+ Lord of the Flies by William Golding: “Perhaps the most famous pair of glasses in literature belongs to Piggy in Golding’s novel. They are used as ‘burning glasses’ to start a fire (physically impossible as Piggy is short-sighted).” Any more would spoil this deeply pessimistic tale for those who have not read it.
+ Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling (in C-258 and Audio Books): Potter’s spectacles are lost or broken with astonishing regularity.
+ Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift: “When he gets to Lilliput, Gulliver manages to keep his specs hidden from the midgets who rifle his pockets.”
+ Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (in Large Print and in Adult Fiction): Spy master George Smiley is short, fat and wears thick eyeglasses which he cleans with his tie.
+ The Oxford Reading Tree by Roderick Hunt and Alex Brychta: A particularly British selection, “The witty stories of siblings Biff, Chip and Kipper teach hundreds of thousands of children to read. The droll illustrations by Alex Brychta sometimes feature a bespectacled character in the background doing something foolish (the artist himself), and most of the stories have a pair of glasses abandoned somewhere for the reader to spot.”
+ Emma by Jane Austen: Emma visits the Bates home and finds Frank Churchill fixing a pair of spectacles.
+ East Lynne by Mrs Henry Wood: A disgraced woman returns to her home town but is not recognized because of her bonnet and new eyeglasses. “Then one day they fall off and break…”
+ “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez” by Arthur Conan Doyle. Starring Sherlock Holmes (and found in Audio and in Adult Fiction). Enough said.
+ Focus by Arthur Miller: “Set in the 1940s, Miller’s novel features nondescript New York middle manager Newman, whose life changes radically when he gets a new pair of glasses. Suddenly he starts being mistaken for a Jew. Previously he was indifferent to racism, but suddenly a world of bigotry is revealed to him.”
+ The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald: “One image hangs over Fitzgerald’s novel: an enormous billboard of a giant pair of glasses, advertising the services of a New York optometrist.”
(Unless noted as being on our shelves, try online or an interlibrary loan. And check out the civil war spectacles article online, at http://www.historiceyewearcompany.com/files/HOYFrevisedMcBrayer.pdf .)
Just keep those cool shades on. Maybe they’ll encourage the sun to come out?
– Eleanor Brown, May 29, 2015