Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 26, 2022

The many shades of sunglasses: a short history

September 21, 2017
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PUBLIC DOMAIN The concept of sunglasses dates back to the Ancient Roman Empire.

’ve never liked wearing sunglasses. I don’t like making the world dimmer, and I’ve never lived in a place that’s bright enough that it’s been necessary.

However, after years of living in cities with impeccable public transportation systems, I’ve decided it’s about time I learn how to drive.

And through this experience, I’ve learned to appreciate a pair of sunglasses while driving down the highway straight into a blinding ball of light.

That got me thinking. Who invented the accessory which indicates to the common people which movie character is supposed to be fashion forward? Who first decided that daylight was simply too bright, and they needed something to help filter it through? Well the answer may surprise you.

It turns out that some early artifacts of sunglasses actually came from the Inuits. In their snowy environment, these people used a sort of sun goggle in order to protect themselves from snow blindness (damage done to the eyes by sunlight reflecting off the snow). They were made out of ivory or antler. The pieces were carved first to fit the wearer’s face and then with slits to see through.

The first references to sunglasses, however, comes from ancient Rome and later China in the 12th century. Though the veracity of this particular story is ambiguous, I’m pretty sure none of you think of me as a credible source, so I’m going to tell it anyway.

Nero, the ancient Roman emperor who ruled from 54 A.D. till his death in 68 A.D., was known to be near sighted. This was quite the difficult predicament before the invention of glasses.

However, this wasn’t all that plagued him. He also had trouble viewing fights due to the bright sunlight (do you see where this is going?). So what did he do to ease these troubles?

Why, he simply used emeralds, effectively making the first (and most expensive) pair of sunglasses. While a lesser man might’ve simply used a hat to block that pesky sunlight, Nero was beyond such commonalities.

However, sunglasses more as we know them today were actually used as far back as the 12th century in China. These sunglasses were often made from smoky quartz, and in some cases tortoiseshell was used in order to craft the frame.

These glasses didn’t actually protect the wearer from ultraviolet rays and were used instead to hide the expression of the wearer. Incidentally, this is not a use for sunglasses that I had ever thought of, though it certainly gives me more respect for them.

Who knew that sunglasses could be both fashionable and help me in creating a mysterious aura about myself.

Sunglass technology didn’t make its way to the west until an Englishman, James Ayscough, experimenting in the 18th century, made the first precursor to sunglasses as we know them today (you know, the kind that protect your eyes and everything).

Ayscough suggested green tinted spectacles in order to help those with sensitivity to light, perhaps lending some validity to Nero’s use of emeralds.

From here, sunglass technology continued to improve until in 1929, the first mass produced sunglasses, Foster Grants, came into being. However, it wasn’t until Hollywood stars began wearing them both on and off set that the craze really began.

Though I still can’t wear them everyday, I do acknowledge that sunglasses have had an interesting place in history.

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