19th Century Lorgnettes Raised a Few Eyebrows

Eleanor Rose

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Lorgnette of Gold and Glass, mid-19th century. (Courtesy of The Smithsonian Design Museum.)

A lorgnette is a pair of spectacles mounted on a handle. Lorgnettes were a common sight during the 19th century at the theater and the opera. The name lorgnette derives from the French word lorgner – meaning “to ogle” or “to eye furtively” – so one can only imagine the many uses our Victorian ladies in the balcony likely found for them. I can easily imagine them spying on a rival belle across the way or checking out a handsome gentleman. Either way it seems a lorgnette was an indispensable accessory for the fashionable 19th century lady.

Early lorgnettes were made with an unjointed handle. Later versions had a jointed handle and, by the 19th century, a spring had been added which allowed the lenses to fold together within the handle, which also served as a case. This design led to the lorgnette becoming a daily accessory for practical use. Many 19th century figures kept a lorgnette permanently about their person just as many of us keep our reading glasses on a chain around our neck or extended from a brooch.

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Lady with a Lorgnette by Jozsef Borsos, 1856.

Our Victorians were fashion conscious so lorgnettes were made of a variety of materials including tortoiseshell, horn, bone, ivory, metal, enamel, mother-of-pearl, silver, gold, and jewel encrusted. Many 19th century lorgnette cases were quite beautiful. They often contained a “silver cartouche” and some of the tortoiseshell cases were “protected on the edges with a band of silver.” Many were embellished with lovely scenes or heavily encrusted with precious stones.

The era of the lorgnette certainly has not come to an end. When attending the symphony, I still see fashionable ladies utilizing lorgnettes in their neighboring boxes. I love how the remnants of 19th century life still survive!



Source: Rosenthal, J. William. Spectacles and Other Vision Aids: A History and Guide to Collecting. Jeremy Norman, 1994.
 

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Eleanor Rose

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Brisé lorgnette fan, French, late 18th/early 19th century. (Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)

Female interest in the lorgnette inspired the “jealousy lorgnette.” Author Kerry Segrave describes the jealousy lorgnette in her book entitled, Vision Aids in America: A Social History of Eyewear and Sight Correction this way:

"Like all the early lorgnettes, it was constructed for one eye only and resembled one half of a fair-sized modern opera glass. Besides having a lens at each end, the jealousy lorgnette contained an oblique mirror through which, when looking into it from a hole hidden in a decorative part in the side of the device, one could see who was behind or to one side of the viewer.”

In truth, the jealousy lorgnette was not only an accessory of the rich and possibly paranoid, but also a polite necessity. It was not considered good manners for a lady to turn around in her theater box to see who was arriving with whom. The jealousy lorgnette enabled her to see what was going on behind her without ever turning her head.

The lorgnette was at its most controversial during the 18th century. Marie Antoinette is credited with inventing the “fan lorgnette,” wherein the hidden lorgnette was placed within the fan itself. Soon women were flirting through these hidden lorgnettes much as they did with their fans. By the 19th century, the lorgnette was considered practical and fashionable rather than scandalous. What a shame!

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Tortoiseshell Lorgnette with long handle, 19th century. (Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

 

RobertP

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Hi Ellie. Those are beautiful. Not to belabor my g-grandmother but I do also have her foldable eyeglasses. They are not as fancy as those, but still gold, and spring loaded so that they neatly fold up and could have been worn on a chain. My great aunt identified them as her mother’s when I found them in a desk in their house.

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