The eye and vision in the slums – Lauren Dobson

Spectacles and the use of ophthalmology 


This illustration of an ophthalmology examination appeared in John Phillips’ medical textbook Ophthalmology Surgery and Treatment: with advice on the use and abuse of spectacles, published in 1869. In the second half of the nineteenth century, medical professionals discovered that spectacles helped eye health and prevented eye fatigue, which resulted in being prescribed to those suffering with diseases and defects of the eye and sight. The nineteenth century also brought in a change in attitudes towards the eye and vision, with the need for compulsory education, reading for leisure, the development of medical knowledge and the advancement of medical technology.[1]

Attitudes towards the eye and vision had two aspects: firstly, there was the literal side with the developing science of ophthalmology and its medical technology including the invention of the ophthalmoscope. Two ophthalmoscopes were invented in the period, one was invented in 1849 by Charles Babbage and the other in 1869 in A.R. Wallace[2]; an ophthalmoscope was used to examine the inner eye, an example of one makes an appearance in Phillips’ illustration. The other aspect was figurative with the rise of journalism and the mass printing press, including the Illustrated London News. This was first published on 14 May 1842 and contained sixteen pages with thirty two engravings.[3]

History of spectacles

Despite newly-developed attitudes and medical intervention in vision and sight, spectacles had been invented in the thirteenth century. There is ongoing speculation to who was the actual inventor and not who patented the idea. Historians suggest that spectacles were invented in 1268 by Richard Bacon in Europe, but there is evidence that this may not be true as reportedly there is a tombstone located in Italy with the inscription ‘Here lies Salvino d’Armato degli Armati of Florence, the inventor of spectacles. May God forgive his sins. He died anno Domino 1317.[4]

By the nineteenth century, spectacles were seen as a fashion trend across the middle and upper classes, with different types of spectacles being invented including lorgnettes. These were invented in 1825 by Robert Bretel Bate, an optician in the City of London who was later made Master of the Spectacle Makers in 1828. Lorgnettes had a similar design to spectacles, with the metal frame and lenses but with an addition of a short handle for accessibility. Lorgnettes were seen as a fashionable and a sign of class/wealth rather than an instrument to help with sight, as both females and males were not to be seen in everyday spectacles.[5]

Photograph one – examples of nineteenth century spectacles, currently on show at the Science Museum, London. Image credit –  Gemma Almond

Until the mid-twentieth century, glasses were not accessible to the lower and working classes so they were limited to the middle and upper classes but that did not mean the poor were excluded from wearing glasses altogether. Spectacle and artificial eye makers were part of the street trading industry in this period so the working class and the poor did have an opportunity to see.

‘Seeing’ the Slum

In 1849 social explorer Henry Mayhew took an interest in the conditions of the labouring population in the East End of London and planned to interview labourers in specialist trades. Mayhew interviewed two dolls-eye makers, who informed him about the manufacturing process and contributing factors to how the trade operated, particularly that the trade was more successful during the summer season and included international exports, as well as domestic.

The dolls-eye maker also had another business venture: artificial human eyes and the maker showed Mayhew the two cases of the human eyes containing three hundred and eighty eyes in total. Seeing the eyes in the cases made Mayhew feel uneasy; Mayhew was known for his direct narrative so he recorded his feelings about the experience to give readers an image in their minds of what he saw and the lingering feeling afterwards.

‘Here the man took the lids off a couple of boxes, as big as binnacles, that stood on the table: they each contained a hundred and ninety different eyes, and so like nature, that the effect produced upon a person unaccustomed to the sight was most peculiar, and far from pleasant. The whole of the three hundred and eighty optics all seemed to be staring at the spectator, and occasioned a feeling somewhat similar to the bewilderment one experiences on suddenly becoming an object of general notice: as if the eyes, indeed, of a whole lecture-room were crammed into a few square inches, all turned upon you. The eyes of the whole world, as we say, literally appeared to be fixed upon one, and it was almost impossible at first to look at them without instinctively averting the head. The hundred eyes of Argus were positively insignificant in comparison to the three hundred and eight belonging to the human eye-maker.’[6]

Kate Flint, in The Victorians and the Visual Imagination, discusses Mayhew’s interview and his feelings of uneasiness about seeing the eyes in the two cases. Her interpretation was that Mayhew realised his power of having the ability to see without having to rely on spectacles or artificial eyes, producing a ‘near-hallucinatory realisation on his part of the power of the specular society.’[7]

The dolls-eye maker also made the point that the artificial eyes worked as a charity for the servants and poor. We might see this as a form of ‘othering’, suggesting that their real eyes were not functional, as seeing was believed to be a respectable notion. Gender ideals were also alluded to in this interview, as ‘the eyes suitable for females were small and had added sparkle for elegance.’[8]


The introduction of The London Illustrated News and other regional newspapers also meant spectacle and artificial eye manufacturers were able to advertise their businesses for a small cost. On 3 January 1863, an advertisement about spectacles and an opticians was published, it read:

SPECTACLES: The patented TINTED SPECTACLES are patronised by the majority of the nobility, including Viscount Palmerston. They give extraordinary relief by day and night to weak, dim and defective vision. The adaption of spectacles to imperfect by experienced persons is, indeed, of vital importance. One of the firm who had had great experience and practise attend to this branch only. S & B SOLOMANS, 39 Albemarle Street, Piccadilly. Observe, opposite the York Hotel.’[9]

To conclude, sight and vision became an important part of British culture in the nineteenth century with the advancement of medical technology and knowledge about how spectacles helped with conditions such as eye fatigue and defects of the eye. Journalism and advertisements also contributed to seeing the slums with the likes of Henry Mayhew and the London Illustrated News. Those who lived in the slums were not excluded from the ability to see and among the street traders who were those who either manufactured spectacles or artificial human eyes.

Lauren Dobson



[1] Almond, G ‘What did the Victorians make of spectacles?’ (04 August 2016). Available online: date accessed 29 November 2016.

[2] Briggs, A. Victorian Things. (B. T. Batsford Ltd, London, 1988), p. 105.

[3] Hibbert, C. The Illustrated London News: Social History of Victorian Britain. (Angus & Robertson, London, 1975), p. 11.

[4] Davidson, D.C. Spectacles, Lorgnettes and Monocles. (C. I. Thomas & Sons Ltd, Haverfordwest, 1989) p. 3.

[5] Davidson, Spectacles, p. 19.

[6] Mayhew, H. London Labour and the London Poor. (Penguin Group, London, 1985) p. 345.

[7] Flint, K. The Victorians and the Visual Imagination. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000) p. 2.

[8] Thomas, B. ‘Bill Thomas Mayhew’s London 1996’ (13 July 2010) available online: date accessed: 29 November 2016.

[9] Lee Jackson ‘Victorian London – Professions and Trades – Service Industry – Opticians’ (2005) available online: date accessed: 06 December 2016.

Illustrations and photographs

Illustration one: Almond, G ‘What did the Victorians make of spectacles?’ (04 August 2016). Available online: date accessed 06 December 2016.

Photograph one: Almond, G ‘What did the Victorians make of spectacles?’ (04 August 2016). Available online: date accessed 06 December 2016.