Like any modern open stadium, glare was a problem for spectators in Rome’s Coliseum back in the day of the Emperor Nero. History tells us that to reduce the sun’s glare Nero watched the gladiator spectacles through “glasses” made of a polished green gem. According to Roman historian Pliny, the gem was emerald, known then as smaragdus and emperor Nero viewed the games by means of a polished smaragdus lens. The word ‘emerald’ comes to us through a corruption of the Latin smaragdus.
Spectacles resembling modern sunglasses were used in China prior to the fifteenth century, kept in place with weights that hung down behind the ears. The quartz lenses in these early glasses were not intended to reduce glare, but rather smoke-tinted especially for Chinese magistrates who wore them to conceal their eye expressions during court proceedings. Later vision-correcting eyeglasses were imported into China from Italy and they too were darkened for judicial use.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries yellow-amber and brown-tinted spectacles were prescribed for people with syphilis because sensitivity to light was a symptom of the disease. But the popularity of sunglasses is a phenomenon like so many others, stemming from military research. The Army Air Corp was looking for something to cut high-altitude glare for pilots. Physicists and opticians for Bausch & Lomb developed a dark green tint that absorbed light in the yellow band of the spectrum and not much later the public was able to purchase glasses called Ray-Ban aviator glasses. Foster Grant is the oldest American sunglasses company. Founder Sam Foster sold his first pair of sunglasses at a five-and-dime store on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, but it wasn’t until their 1960s advertising campaign that sunglasses became chic. Foster Grant’s “Sunglasses of the Stars” ad campaign featured Hollywood celebrities like Elke Sommer and Anita Ekberg wearing the glasses, with copy asking, “Isn’t that…behind those Foster Grants?” Well-known fashion designers along with movie stars escalated the craze and by the 1970s Hollywood and the fashion industry were having a huge impact on the sunglasses market.