Modernist Spectacles

Modernist Spectacles

Eyecare and Eyewear in Literary and Cultural History, c. 1890-1950

An automatic sight tester and glasses dispenser from c. 1890, exhibited in the British Optical Museum, London.
An automatic sight tester from c. 1890, exhibited in the British Optical Museum, London.

This project investigates eyesight across the late-Victorian to modern period, focusing on the lived-experience of using vision correction devices and having lower than average vision, the changing cultural and societal perceptions of glasses-wearers and those with ‘poor’ eyesight, and the ways in which eye conditions were regarded and treated by optical professionals. My methodology includes a mixture of close reading – of literary texts and other cultural artefacts, such as films and museum objects – as well as historical study and theory-informed analysis. The goal of this project is to better understand the complex interrelations between bodily difference, medical intervention, societal prejudice, self-image, fashion, vision and thought, through the lens (pun very much intended) of eyecare and eyewear.


I gave a talk relating to this project at the Modernism, Medicine and the Embodied Mind conference at the University of Bristol, on 15 July 2016. You can listen to a podcast of my talk, ‘”Frozen in Stereoscope”: Embodied Perception and Visual Impairment in the Work of James Joyce’, here.

Blog posts:

The Mystery of the Missing Pince-Nez: When Life Imitates Art

Spectral Spectacles: 3 Tales of Ghostly Glasses

Eyestrain on the Train: Automatic Sight Testing, Victorian Reading Habits, and W. H. Smith’s

An Eye-opening Experience at the British Optical Association Museum