Today, more than half the US population wears glasses.
But just about everyone, including psychologists, agrees that four-eyed dweebs look smarter and more qualified for jobs than people who don’t wear glasses.
There’s a historical explanation for the stereotype: Glasses signalled that you needed your eyesight more than other people.
For several hundred years after they were invented in 1296, glasses were reviled because they revealed a key weakness in the wearer’s biology, says Neil Handley, curator of the British Optical Association Museum at the College of Optometrists.
Back in the day, if you had glasses it was because you were counted among a select few whose jobs required the ability to see fine details.
If you worked in a field or a factory, glasses did nothing for you. But if you were a doctor, banker, teacher, or worker in one of those new-fangled offices that came on the scene in the 1700s, those fine details likely made up the bulk of your work.
You can see glasses being equated with smarts all the way back in the 17th century.
One piece in particular — a portrait of a Venetian man completed sometime around 1610-1620 — is believed to be one of the earliest commissioned portraits to feature spectacles, Handley explained in a 2012 lecture.
We don’t know who he is, but he “would have been known at the time,” and thus could have decided not to pose with his glasses.
“Gone is the fear of what the eyewear might negatively imply,” Handley says. “His only fear seems to be that the glasses might fall off and his hands are outstretched as if to catch them. To this man the spectacles might perhaps signify intelligence, literacy, and social standing.”
That significance stuck around for the next couple hundred years.
But then things changed.
As Kerry Segrave explains in “Vision Aids in America: A Social History of Eyewear and Sight Correction Since 1900,” eyesight became formally important in 1908, when the first legislation emerged requiring states to offer optometry services. By the mid-1950s, eyeglasses advertisements were no longer selling to “customers,” but “patients.”
Glasses had become a way for the masses to correct their eyesight, rather than a tool to make high-minded work easier.
Not that social norms, moving at the glacial pace they do, ever caught on. People still think glasses make you look smarter because an old truth gradually shed its accuracy and left only the husk — in the form of a favourable stereotype — behind.
Since then, research has found even the kind of glasses matters: Thick, blocky frames make you look smarter than thin ones.
So go hipster, and look smart.
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