TERRE HAUTE —
Today’s Historic Treasure didn’t start out to become a fashion statement or even to provide protection for the eyes. What we call sunglasses today originally served a judicial purpose. In the 12th century, Chinese judges wore smoke-colored quartz lenses to hide their eye expressions while studying evidence in court.
Italians Salvino degli Armati and Alessandro Spina are credited with inventing the first wearable eyeglasses around 1282-1299, but it wasn’t until around 1752 that eyeglass designer James Ayscough introduced his spectacles with double-hinged sidepieces. These were the first sunglasses like glasses, with blue-green tinted lenses.
Sunglasses were introduced into America in the early 1900s, but most credit the widespread commercial use of sunglasses to Sam Foster, founder of the Foster Grant Company. In 1929, he sold the first pair of Foster Grants at the Woolworth store on the Atlantic City boardwalk in New Jersey. By 1930, sunglasses were all the rage.
The development of polarized lenses soon followed with the use of a cellophane-like filter invented by Edwin H. Land in 1936. These polarizing light lenses were important in reducing light glare.
In the 1930s the Army Air Corp commissioned the optics firm Bausch & Lomb to produce a highly-effective spectacle that would protect pilots from high altitude glare. With World War II brewing, in 1937, the Ray-Ban Company designed anti-glare sunglasses for the Air Force and other military branches using the polarizing lens technology developed by Land. This design, with a slightly drooping frame perimeter, maximally shielded the pilot’s eyes. Since then, the Ray-Ban Aviator has become an iconic style.
The 1960s “Sunglasses of the Stars” ad campaign by Foster Grant, asking “Isn’t that ... behind those Foster Grants?” helped make wearing sunglasses more fashionable than ever. Sunglasses even made their way to the comic strip “Peanuts.” On May 27, 1971 the world’s most famous beagle, Snoopy, first donned his shades, as alter ego “Joe Cool.”
The two pairs of sunglasses shown above are from the ’60s. One is a vintage “cat’s-eye” style, with angled lenses and rhinestone accents, the other has sports iridescent purple lenses. The ’60s were truly colorful.
The technology of sunglasses moves on. In 2004, the Oakley Company developed the “Thump” line, with a built-in audio player, and Foster Grant now has sunglasses with a magnetic nose bridge that opens from the front, so they’ll never be lost. I’m sure these will become the Historic Treasures of the future.
• The Vigo County Historical Society’s museum is at 1411 S. Sixth St. Hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through