It’s believed that sun-protective eyewear originated as far back as 2,000 years ago. But the history of sunglasses is a bit shaded (pun intended) in mystery—we don’t know precisely when the first pair of sunglasses was created.

In this guide, we’ll explore the evolution of sunglasses from their early innovations to the practical and stylish accessories we wear today. Let’s take a look back.

The Invention of Sunglasses: The Who, Where, and When

How you talk about the invention of sunglasses depends a lot on how you’d define “sunglasses.” Does any form of eye protection count? What if the eyewear wasn’t truly intended to be sun protection at all? And what if it wasn’t actually worn over the eyes but was hand-held?

Below, we consider several predecessors of sunglasses, whether or not they were intended as such, that may have contributed to their evolution.

Who Invented Sunglasses?

Some people consider the tinted glasses that 18th-century Venetian gondoliers wore to be the first sunglasses because they’re most like the ones we wear today. But the actual inventor of those sunglasses is unknown.

Long before that, people put different items up to and on their eyes as sun protection. For instance, some might credit the Roman emperor Nero for the concept of sunglasses, as he was known to hold gems up to his eyes.

Where Were Sunglasses Invented?

It’s likely that early forms of protection from the sun were in use simultaneously in different parts of the world.

While Emperor Nero held gems up to his eyes in Rome, people living in the Arctic cut slits into pieces of bone or other hard material and wore them over their eyes as sun protection. People across the globe found multiple solutions for the same problem, given the materials they had on hand.

In What Year Were Sunglasses Invented?

We don’t really know the exact year when sunglasses were invented. But we do know that those Arctic goggles and Nero’s hand-held emeralds—predecessors to the sunglasses we know today—both first occurred approximately 2,000 years ago.

Sunglasses balanced on white geometric shapes

Sunglasses have come a long way

Nowadays, there are seemingly endless shapes and colors to choose from.

The History of Sunglasses: An Evolution

The exact historical timeline of sunglasses is difficult to map. But certain developments count as noteworthy milestones in the evolution of sunglasses—whether they were originally intended for sun protection or not.

An illustrated timeline showing the history of sunglasses

Arctic Snow Goggles: Inuit Sunglasses

Two thousand years ago, Inuit people wore a form of early snow goggles to protect their eyes from harsh sunlight. But they bore little resemblance to the tinted eyewear we know today.

These Arctic eye devices were made of bone, wood, or another hard material and had a slit in them to filter out the sun. The devices helped the wearer see more clearly. How? The slits narrowed the wearer’s field of vision, essentially sharpening what they looked at. It also reduced the amount of sunlight that reached the eyes, including sunlight reflecting off the snow, which could be really bright. This helped prevent snow blindness, a form of photokeratitis.

The Emperor’s Emeralds

As we mentioned earlier, Roman Emperor Nero is thought to have held emeralds up to his eyes while watching outdoor gladiator matches. Though Nero probably used the emeralds to make his vision clearer (and to remind everyone of his elevated status), it’s also thought that the emeralds cut down on glare from the sun.

Chinese Smoky Quartz Glasses

In the 12th century, people in China wore see-through sheets of smoky quartz over their eyes to protect them from the sun. Historians suggest that the wearers must have been on the wealthier side because these “sunglasses” cost the same amount as a horse!

Chinese judges also wore smoky quartz on their eyes. The purpose, however, wasn’t for sun protection. Instead, the judges wore the quartz to help hide their facial expressions at trials. The glasses were also used for therapeutic and ceremonial purposes.

18th-Century Sunglasses

In 1752, English optician James Ayscough invented special tinted eyeglasses that also had tinted side pieces. Some people view these as the first sunglasses.

However, Ayscough’s glasses weren’t truly meant as “sunglasses.” In fact, they were worn in England as therapy for people who were sensitive to light. The blue or green lenses were thought to soothe eye discomfort and fix vision issues.

Goldoni Glasses for Gondoliers

In the late 18th century, gondoliers in Venice, Italy, wore tinted glasses to protect their eyes from sun glare. Because they were specifically made to shield eyes from the sun, these glasses are sometimes thought to be the first sunglasses.

These sunglasses became known as Goldoni glasses after Carlo Goldoni, a famous playwright, wore the glasses and made them popular.

Mass-Produced Sunglasses

In 1929, 20th-century American entrepreneur Sam Foster started selling inexpensive, mass-produced sunglasses on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Demand for the stylish and useful eyewear grew quickly.

Aviator Sunglasses Take Flight

In the 1930s, aviator sunglasses were developed for U.S. Army Air Corps pilots. The sunglasses originally had green-tinted lenses, but a rose-colored tint was found to better protect pilots’ eyes from sun glare.

A Polarizing Technology

Like numerous other inventions (and many rock bands), polarized sunglasses got their start in a garage. In the 1930s, Edwin H. Land invented polarized sunglasses and started the Polaroid Corporation. Land found that putting a special filter over lenses cut down on glare and increased visibility. These polarized lenses made outdoor activities safer.

Sunglasses: A Bright Future

Fast forward to today, and modern sunglasses are better than ever. For example, special lens coatings and technologies not only protect eyes against harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, but they also ward off scratches and cut down on glare.

What does the future look like for sunglasses? We can only imagine, but we know it’ll be bright.

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