- Nov 26, 2016
- central NC
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.
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.