Sunglasses are a common part of life in today’s world. Used as both a fashion statement and for their protective qualities from the sun, many people consider their outfit incomplete without a pair of sunglasses. So, what is the history behind them?
The earliest form of sunglasses are estimated to date to around 2,000 years ago. These early types of eye protection were made by the Inuit and were created from antler, walrus ivory, bone, or driftwood. They were generally curved so they fit tightly to the face and had thin slits for the wearer to see through. This design did not block the sun completely but did cut down on the glare and amount of light entering the eyes.
People had long used glass to improve their ability to see, but prior to the 17th or 18th centuries, people had to hold items up to their eyes when needed. The modern idea of eyeglasses, with a frame extending over the ear, changed eyewear. People were able to wear corrective lenses without having to hold them constantly. A precursor to sunglasses is credited to James Ayscough, an optician who had a shop in London from 1740 to 1759. He recommended blue or green tinted lenses to treat some vision problems. These are considered an early form of sunglasses.
Darkened lenses were used to treat vision problems such as sensitivity to light (especially for sufferers of syphilis) in the early 20th century and were associated with poor health. That changed in the 1920s when celebrities began wearing sunglasses to both help disguise themselves and to help protect their eyes from the powerful and harmful rays of the klieg lights used on sets. As people began to associate sunglasses with celebrities rather ill health, sunglass sales increased. Sam Foster found a way to mass produce sunglasses made from celluloid in 1929 and began selling them in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The trend became firmly established and sunglasses took their place in the world of fashion.
A pair of sunglasses here in our collection date to the 1930s. The glasses are dark tinted and have round wire frames and wire temples to rest over the ears. This pair came from W.L. Melis, an optometrist in Cañon City. Melis operated an optical shop for 15 years or so. He opened his shop in 1931 or 1932 after owning a jewelry store in the city for some years. He retired from active work in his shop in 1947, three years before he passed away. The last location of the shop was a 623 Main Street.
Happy National Sunglasses Day!
The information presented in this article is compiled using research conducted by the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center.