Volume 1, Issue 1, Article 2 - 2018

Ogling, Quizzing, and Spying:
The Eyeglass


BY susan vincent



The eyeglass was a distinctive accessory of the long eighteenth century. Contrary to contemporary conduct advice, which enjoined a self-disciplined gaze and a polite use of the eyes, this accessory made a fashionable virtue out of staring. Using textual sources and the more abundant visual evidence of portraiture and satirical prints, this paper opens by exploring the origins, appearance, and naming of the object. It then turns to examine the different ways of looking enacted with the eyeglass: lascivious and voyeuristic, connoisseurial, and dandiacal. The distinct but intersecting contexts in which it appeared are considered, as well as its passage from male to female fashion in the nineteenth century. Finally, the paper situates the quizzing glass within the broader pattern of eighteenth-century developments: rapid urbanization, commercial expansion, the rise of the middle and aspirant classes, and an Enlightenment epistemology that grounded knowledge in empirically tested observation. In the midst of such developments, the eyeglass became a tool with which to enact visual criticality, the small piece of glass both arming the viewer and providing a way of deflecting the critical looks of others. In graphic satire however, its presence references a satirical gaze being directed from outside the frame of the print. In a small but significant way, the eyeglass came to stand for both the discerning eye, and its absence.



  • eyeglass

  • quizzing glass
  • accessory
  • long eighteenth century

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I came to the quizzing glass via the novels of Georgette Heyer (1902–74), the writer who could be said to have invented the Regency romance. In the “Heyerverse,” Georgette’s version of history, this now all-but-forgotten object appears frequently, employed by her characters according to their role in the narrative. In one novel, The Talisman Ring (1936), it even forms the crux of the plot, the heirloom of the title hidden in plain sight in an eyeglass handle. But what of the non-fictional world? How and when was the quizzing glass used by real historical actors? Researching this intriguing device turned out to be a surprising challenge. Secondary sources revealed only that the quizzing glass was a fashionable accessory in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and primary written evidence was fleeting and scarce. Instead, what I found were images, numerous pictorial sources in which an eyeglass featured sometimes centrally, more often peripherally. Using this visual evidence, and the hints and assumptions gleaned from textual sources, this article explores the phenomenon of the eyeglass over the long eighteenth century, asking why it was worn, how it was wielded, and by whom.1


The Eyeglass


The eyeglass appeared around the middle years of the eighteenth century — though its exact origins are unknown — reaching its height of popularity in the decades before and after the century’s turn. Thereafter it entered the sluggish current of fashion’s backwaters, its purchase on the cultural imagination more or less dislodged by the related forms of the monocle and lorgnette. Although the eyeglass persisted into the twentieth century, insofar as it was still possible to purchase one from new, it represented a niche market at best. Its period of ascendancy was late Georgian.     

       In form, it consisted simply of a monocular lens set in a frame to which a small handle was attached. Sometimes, especially in earlier varieties, this was housed within a hinged carrying case from which it folded out, rather in the manner of a pocket knife. Because round lenses were easier and cheaper to grind the glass was generally circular, however fashion is seldom constrained by ease of production, and oval and rectangular varieties were also common. (The twentieth century even saw novelty triangular lenses.) The rim and handle of the eyeglass were made from a variety of materials, including solid silver, gold, or polished steel. Most generally, however, surviving examples are gilded metal or pinchbeck, an imitation gold. Often these frames, particularly in the later years of its popularity, were highly ornamented, being cut into facets, set with real or imitation gemstones, or designed to display other decorative fancies. At times, decoration became drollery — as in quizzing glasses set into the handles of fans, or with spaces for carrying locks of hair, or incorporating compartments for scent or vinaigrette. In all instances, the loop that formed the handle was used for attaching to a ribbon or chain, which was then hung from the wearer’s neck.


The lens itself corrected for short sight. This meant that although it looked like a magnifier it was not held close to an object to bring up its detail, but rather was held to the eye to increase the clarity of the view in the distance. 

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In pictorial representations, this positioning of the eyeglass in use is often its only identifying clue, enabling us to differentiate between it and a magnifying glass. Along with other visual aids, it was generally bought readymade from opticians or optical instrument makers, although a jeweller might be involved in the production and decoration of the frame and handle. The lens was therefore not ground to a personalized optical prescription; rather, a customer would choose from the selection on offer, picking a lens and frame whose corrective strength and decoration bested suited their individual eyesight and taste.

       The appearance of the eyeglass is well attested by the many surviving examples — indeed, in the British Optical Association Museum, full display drawers and packed storage boxes indicate their once popular nature (see fig. 1). 



Drawer full of quizzing glasses, 18th–19th century. British Optical Association Museum, London. The College of Optometrists. Photo: author.


They are difficult to date, however — their design and materials changing only little and slowly — and the examples in most collections are generally only attributed to a broad and approximate time span. Even what they were called proves contentious. Intriguingly, for most of the eighteenth century they were referred to by a variety of names, not only as “eyeglass,” but also as “looking glass,” “spy glass,” and “perspective glass.” As these names were also applied to entirely different objects like mirrors and telescopes, it can be very hard to establish from the written sources alone what the intended referent actually is. This ambiguity was apparently resolved after the appearance in the lexicon of “quiz” and its cognates. From around 1780, a host of related words popped into being — such as “quizzable,” “quizzish,” “quizzee,” “quizzity,” and, of course, the variation that we still used today, “quizzical.” The cluster of meanings that these words served — to do with mockery, eccentricity, or visual appraisal — settled also onto the eyeglass, and the already-existing accessory was reconfigured into the newly named area of social practice (see fig. 2). From this point onwards — the Oxford English Dictionary gives its first attested use as 1802 — the monocular hand-held lens also became known as the “quizzing glass” or “quizzer,” which it has remained ever since, even when describing its use in a period before the term was coined. In the following, I use quizzing glass/quizzer and eyeglass interchangeably.



Thomas Rowlandson, Caleb Quizem, Esqr., 1809, hand-coloured etching, published in London by Thomas Tegg. Lewis Walpole Library, Farmington.