Depending on which study you read, fewer than 50% of Americans regularly wear sunglasses while they are outdoors (one study actually pegs the number at only 31%!)—and that’s despite some 85% of Americans saying they recognize “eye protection is a major component of their overall good health.” You would think, given the health bulletins and seemingly constant public service announcements warning us how exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays is bad not only for your skin but your eyes too, that these numbers wearing sunglasses would be much higher.
While ultraviolet light was first discovered by German-Polish physicist Johann Ritter in 1801, their harmful effects on the eyes and skin weren’t understood or well-known until well into the 20th century. In other words, while the dangers of UV light and the benefits of wearing sunglasses to protect against those dangers would seem to be common knowledge nowadays, history tells us otherwise.
In fact, the phenomenon we know as sunglasses really hasn’t been around that long.
If you were to look back through history hoping to find “shades” analogous to the fashionable eyewear of today, you would be sadly disappointed. Here’s a quick look at some of the earliest days of sunglasses (if you can call them that).
- Primitive sunglasses worn by the Inuit back in prehistoric times were little more than eye shields made from walrus ivory with slits cut into them to help prevent snow blindness.
- Fast forward to the 12th century, and you can at least start to see some semblance to modern sunglasses (but not much). Cut from smoked quartz and hung from primitive frames, these crude lenses did not correct vision, nor did they protect against harmful UV rays. And while they did provide some relief from the bright sun, they were mainly worn by Chinese judges to conceal their facial expressions.
- Somewhere around 1430, the Chinese began to darken vision-correcting lenses, a skill they eventually introduced to Italy and to Europe, but there wasn’t much new in the sunglasses industry until the mid-1700s when London optician James Ayscough experimented with green-tinted lenses. He did this not to protect the eyes from the sun (though that was a byproduct of his lenses), but because he believed different colored lenses could help to correct poor or failing eyesight.
- Through the early 1900s experiments with early, tinted glasses continued and gradually people came to accept sunglasstechnology and its desirable protection from sunlight.
Sunglasses as we know and enjoy them today were not invented until the 20th century.
- In 1920s Hollywood, sunglasses soon became a favorite of movie stars. Not only did they help celebrities disguise themselves when out in public, shades also helped block celebrity eyes from the powerful flashbulbs and on-set lighting of the day. As a result, the public, wanting to emulate their favorite celebrities, soon equated sunglasses with glamor and coolness . . . and the rest (as they say) is Hollywood history.
- Sam Foster (of Foster Grant fame) is given credit for being the first person to mass-produce shades. In 1929, he began to sell them from a Woolworth’s on the Atlantic City boardwalk, and they became quite popular and in demand.
- During the 1930s and 1940s, Bausch & Lomb began making sunglasses for American military aviators, a design that has changed little since General Douglas MacArthur wore a pair to the movies.
- By the time the 1960s and 1970s rolled around, with pop icons such as Jackie Kennedy, John Lennon, and Marilyn Monroe sporting distinctive and fashionable shades, the tradition of rapidly changing eyewear trends (practically a new look for every season) had firmly taken hold.
Lessons from History
National Sunglasses Day is this week, Wednesday, June 27, so let’s take this occasion to make a little of our own history by boosting awareness of the importance of wearing sunglasses to protect our eyes from the sun’s harmful UV rays. It’s easy to fit our eyes with a pair of UV protecting eyewear, and we don’t have to break the bank to do so. Many affordable sunglass options can provide verified 100% UV protection.
We Can Help You Look and See Your Best
The skilled team of optometrists, opticians, and other eye care professionals at Sunglass & Optical Warehouse are here to help you find the right sunglasses for your face, your style preferences, and your budget. We’ve been doing it for more than 30 years, and we invite you to stop by one of our three San Diego locations to browse our collections.
With more than 60 brands of eyeglasses and sunglasses and more than 7,000 frames to choose from, our inventory of men’s and women’s sunglasses is one of the largest in the world, offering a wide range of prescription and non-prescription choices.
We carry top brands such as Ray-Ban, Persol, Tom Ford, Gucci, Prada, Oakley, Maui Jim, Rudy Project, Bolle, and many others, including polarized lenses, designer brands, sports frames, safety lenses, and unique, hard-to-find brands such as Salt Optics, Oliver Peoples, Otis, IC Berlin, Cazal, and Wiley-X).
Contact us today to discuss how we can help!