Sunday, November 15, 2015

Making A Spectacle of Specs

November 15, 2015
 There is nothing more dangerous than having half the facts. I'm referring, of course, to the war on ISIS and also to the specs on spectacles as it relates to Theo van Gogh. When I first read the quote about Theo wearing "sunglasses," in the outstanding biography of Vincent van Gogh by Steven Naifeh and the late Gregory White Smith, I knew I had to illustrate it. There was a problem, however. In my experience there are three stages of scholarship:

1. Knowing nothing

2. Knowing just enough to get in trouble

3. Knowing too much

   In this case I knew a little bit about the history of sunglasses (#2) and so I stumbled semi-blindly into a cliched vision of 1880s sunglasses that landed somewhere between Ben Franklin and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds.

Roger McGuinn of The Byrds

Fortunately I posted the image here and got a link from Gay Mathis to the entire letter and discovered that there is no mention of the word "sunglasses" on the quote on the van Gogh letters site. Then I ran into Tom Valenza of Historic Eyewear who told me two startling things: a "pince nez" has no temple bars that run to the ears and, two, that the term "sunglasses" was not used until after the 1900s.

Lost In Translation
   So, I took the quote from the book on face value: "I cannot help seeing you in my mind's eye wearing a pince-nez with sunglasses." That is the quote from the book. However, here is the quote as it appears on the site Gay Mathis found: ""Since this summer I can’t help always visualizing you with your lorgnette with dark lenses. This doesn’t change a person very much, you’ll say. Maybe so — but my impression is that you have perhaps, in a sense other than the literal one, acquired dark glasses in what you think and do. Suspicion, for instance."

   Nowhere is the term "sunglasses." Apparently, the authors of the van Gogh biography trusted a translation that used the term "sunglasses" and apparently the translator didn't know the history of the term. It just shows the layers of history that can trip up the casual history buff (and that would include me). So, after five false starts, I did this version of Theo and his Pince-Nez spectacles this morning:

Daily Whip Out: "Theo van Gogh in Pince-Nez spectacles"

   And here is a photo of an actual pair of "pinched nose" spectacles like the ones Vincent was referring to in his letter. Except these are clear and evidently Theo had dark lenses. I chose green because, well, Theo died from complications from syphilis, and green is associated with the disease.

 A pair of Pince-nex spectacles courtesy of
Tom Valenza of Historic Eyewear.

   Oh, and here's an example of number 3: when I did the Wyatt Earp standing off the mob in Tombstone myth (October issue of True West), I quoted a Tombstone newspaper that said Ben Sippy and his men did the lion's share of the work to protect prisoner Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce. Wyatt Earp is not even mentioned in the report. I sited this to make the point that Wyatt did not stand off the mob all by his lonesome, as he claimed late in life to his biographers. After the article came out, both Allen Barra and Casey Teffertiller sent me evidence of politics in the news reporting (the newspaper had supported Sippy and wanted to make him look good) and that the Tucson newspapers gave more credit to the Earps and especially Wyatt. I personally don't think it changes the story all that much: Wyatt took credit for something that several lawmen accomplished, but it does speak to the layers of history that confound finding the truth and it's my experience that the deeper you go, the more confusing it gets. It never gets clearer.

"History would be a wonderful thing—if it were only true."
—Leo Tolstoy


  1. Without these "false starts," we would not have gained all the extra knowledge we learned about the glasses & etc....A "win win" in my book..

  2. Now you made me think. As a kid, we called them "dark glasses," not "sun glasses." As in "whose dark glasses are these?" Time for a new study. I guess I better take off "my shades" and get busy.

  3. It's great to see some interest in period eyeglasses and spectacles! Primary source information is limited and difficult to find, so people often rely on legend and word-of-mouth. Hence, "knowing just enough to get in trouble."
    You have nailed it with your illustration of Theo van Gogh in pince-nez spectacles. Quite appropriate for the time period. Green glass has long been associated with syphilis and was very popular from the late 1700s through the American Civil War to present day. Wear a pair of green-glass specs to any Civil War reenactment and nine out of ten people will comment, "syphilis glasses."
    Alan McBrayer, researcher and author has spent 20 years seeking a primary source reference to this legend. In our article:
    History on Your Face - Common Spectacle Styles Before,
    During and After the Civil War, 1835 - 1870
    by Alan R. McBrayer and Thomas F. Valenza
    © 2012 Alan R. McBrayer & Thomas F. Valenza. All Rights Reserved
    which can be seen in full at this link:
    we have reached this conclusion:
    "We have read and heard claims that wearing certain
    colors of spectacle glasses treated particular diseases. It is true
    that persons with damaged eyesight often used colored glasses,
    but the use of specific colors to treat specific diseases was not
    done to any great extent. Going further, we have seen lists of
    different colored glasses and their uses in specific occupations.
    We have found nothing to support this claim, except in certain
    circumstances (i.e. very dark glasses used by metal smelters). It
    is a nice story, but primary sources of the 18th and 19th
    centuries do not back this claim. Colored glasses were used
    mainly as they are used today - for protection against the sun,
    although the term “sun glasses” had not come into use. (To be
    clear, occasionally the term “sun glasses” referred to lenses
    used to start fires; i.e. burning glasses).

    Was it not Thos. Jefferson who said "The future's so bright, I got to wear colored lens spectacles?"


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