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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Everything EXCEPT Rose-Colored Glasses

These days, tinted glasses are associated with glitz and glamour or mystery and intrigue. Tom Cruise made one style of sunglasses the rage when he wore them in Top Gun. Movie stars wear them when they walk down the red carpet at awards shows and athletes wear them during post-game interviews; they're as much a fashion statement as eye protection from the bright lights of the paparazzi. Eyewear has long been available in tints to protect light-sensitive eyes, but in the 19th century the color of the tint promised to see people through all kinds of problems under the sun:
  • LIGHT GREEN spectacles were believed to have a soothing influence on the stomach and therefore soothe a tummy suffering from heartburn or ulcers.
  • DARK GREEN had a far different purpose from its lighter cousin - it was often used by people suffering from syphilis under the belief that their abnormally contracted pupils could relax and dilate more if less light hit them; BROWN lenses might also have been used for the same purpose.
  • DARK BLUE was sometimes used by those who had been bled, having a calming effect on the eyes and equilibrium that had become dizzy and faint from the loss of blood.

  • LIGHT BLUE spectacles were used by women when they sewed on linen. Linen has a sheen and the light blue tinted lenses helped remove the glare, making it easier for them to do their needlework on the reflective fabric.

  • AMBER glasses were used to sharpen vision, especially outside in the sunlight. Sharpshooters used them during the Civil War; they were also used by hunters and bicycle riders and others trying to enjoy the scenery, as well as those whose vision had dimmed.
The origins and use of ROSE-COLORED glasses are just as hard to pin down as literature on the other colors I've listed above - in fact, I believe it falls into the realm of being the unicorn of tinted eyewear, existing only as an idiom on ancient tongues but not as spectacles on ancient noses. Some believe that rose-colored spectacles refers to those used by ancient mapmakers. Required to work with a map's minute details, it is believed that they cleaned their spectacles with soft, gentle rose petals to keep their spectacles crystal clear, but the roses accreted a rose-colored residue. The mapmaker connection also hints at the idiomatic meaning, since the mapmakers were focused on a miniature world, oblivious to the real world around them. It also may be that seeing through rose-colored glasses refer not eyewear at all, but to the bottom of a glass of wine or claret. Somebody who has looked through a few of those glasses in succession often sees a "rosier" world than is actually out there.

We still dabble in different color tints in our eyewear today. Over thirty years ago, the big buzz was BluBlocker sunglasses, which are orangey-amber. Dark green glasses are still the most popular and, although all the shades I've reviewed are still available and used, most people think of them simply as sunglasses or as a means of making themselves look cool. And as for rose-colored glasses, well, many of us still look through them from time to time, but even those seem to get scratches in the lenses before too long.
I want to express my appreciation to Ed & Marilyn Welch of for their support and information about the health connotations of tinted spectacles. They are a treasury of knowledge and operate a treasury of wonderful antique eyewear. I have added their website address,, to my sidebar, "More Fascinating Quackery."


  1. BluBlockers are great!

  2. My wife and I both loved them,too. Thanks for pointing out they still exist. I didn't realize!

  3. Yes, the BluBlockers were great. I don't remember why I don't still have my pair. Perhaps they got lost?
    Great information about colored glasses!

  4. This was, as all your entries have been for me thus far, TRULY enlightening! I had no idea the shade and color of sunglasses were used to treat symptoms! Great information. Thank you very much for writing this.


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