It turns out that all those stereotypes about people who wear glasses being clever, clumsy and a bit standoffish have their basis in something solid. During the dark ages, when everyone was blundering around with uncorrected vision, the myopes were rotten at finding their place in the world. Literally, they set off on the wrong path, never noticed when a wolf was waiting to pounce and were apt to lunge their sword at the wrong person. This put them at a distinct disadvantage. Not being able to lead the boar hunt, or failing to bow to a nobleman from the other side of the great hall, marked you out as an oik. The safest place was in the library where you could spend your days effortlessly scanning pages of monkish swirl and even having a go at adding some of your own. From then on, swottery and short-sightedness were soldered together in the cultural imagination.
Even once myopes started acquiring glasses during the late medieval period, many of these functional deficits remained. As soon becomes apparent in Travis Elborough’s brilliantly enjoyable survey on eyewear, short-sighted people didn’t suddenly acquire glasses and start morphing into party people and hawk-eyed hunters. Early glasses were beta-ish in the extreme, nothing more than a couple of bottle-thick lenses haphazardly tacked together with leather string or, if you were feeling fancy, gold wire. No one had yet noticed how useful ears could be and so, instead of having side arms, lenses were more likely to be attached to a band around the head or stuck on a stick and held up as a lorgnette. The first made you look like a doctor from a Leo Cullum New Yorker cartoon, the second like an effete French aristo about to have their head chopped off.
What’s more, glasses were ridiculously expensive: only cardinals and kings could afford the luxury of being able to see properly. So useful did Henry VIII find them that he had a pair bolted on to his visor in order to know exactly who was charging towards him as he entered the lists. It would take craftsman such as John Dollond in 18th-century London and John Bausch and Henry Lomb in 19th-century America to produce eyewear that could be guaranteed to stick securely to the face, leaving hands free to get on with something more productive. Yet such was the early imbrication of social status in wearable tech that glasses quickly became associated with busy-fingered tradespeople, and therefore something to be avoided if you wanted to identify yourself as a member of the non-working classes.
Elborough spends less time on those with hypermetropia, or long-sightedness, perhaps because it’s mostly a matter of tipping the stigmas on their head. The long-sighted were the extrovert ones who could fix an enemy across the courtroom with an icy stare, but had problems when it came to absorbing the details of the paperwork. Fascinatingly, though, Elborough shows how by the 17th century, age-related short-sightedness was so common in the over-45s (presbyopia) that you could take your pick from the same kind of standard issue “readers” that you find in any chemist today. Instead of being marked by lens index (+2.5 say) these glasses were delineated by the average age of the customer – 40, 50 or 60.
Whether you needed glasses for long or short sight, though, there were always issues of perception. People worried about being seen in them because it sent a signal that they were lacking, deficient, spoiled. It was a bit like brandishing your wooden leg in public. Hitler kept his out of sight, for fear that someone might spot that he didn’t embody his own superman ideal. Ronald Reagan was the first White House incumbent to wear contact lenses, having learned from his Hollywood cowboy days that to perform masculinity you needed to be able to scan the horizon convincingly, looking for trouble.
Reagan’s glasses-free presidency occurred despite the fact that specs had long been fighting back as the badge not just of the cool intellectual (think Arthur Miller) but the beddable hero. Michael Caine’s turn as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965) made glasses not just sexy but sexy-dangerous. Wearing them gave Caine, playing a sort-of secret agent, a kind of super-power, the ability to see things that naked eyes might miss. So plausible was his performance that from then on the short-sighted actor was allowed to wear his own specs on set. Still, though, heroes were pulling off women’s glasses without permission and telling them that they were, in fact, beautiful. Talk about the male gaze. It was not until glamorous Gloria Steinem wore aviators in the 1970s to fight the good gender fight that Dorothy Parker’s acid-drop “men seldom make passes / at girls who wear glasses” started to seem beside the point.
Elborough’s previous excursions into popular cultural history, which include studies of Routemaster buses and vinyl LPs, have been marked by an infectious personal enthusiasm. And this time too Elborough brings his own experience as a lifelong myope beautifully to bear on his subject. There’s a particularly fascinating excursion into the spring-loaded glasses case which terrorised young spectacle wearers throughout the second half of the 20th century. Made with the ferocity of a man trap, you would swear that these mass-produced cases, doled out by the NHS as a kind of grudging gift, were capable of taking off small fingers with a single snap. Indeed, the case was as fierce as an oyster that did not want to give up its treasure and managed to imply to the vulnerable myope that their glasses were almost certainly too good for them.
• Through the Looking Glasses: The Spectacular Life of Spectacles is published by Little, Brown (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.