Monday, September 27, 2010

Consider the Pince-Nez

Reggie has reached a stage in his life--well, perhaps a state in his life--where he requires the wearing of spectacles to be able to comfortably read the printed word.  It all started shortly after he turned forty, when he first noticed it was increasingly challenging to read menus in dimly lit restaurants, particularly if the font was small and the ink was anything but black.  Over time, Reggie found it more and more difficult to read print in newspapers, on food cartons, and in instruction manuals without some form of magnification.  And then there was the phone book.  It eventually became impossible for him to read its maddeningly tiny print without wearing spectacles or, good heavens, clutching a magnifying glass.

A pince-nez-wearing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
(note stylish cigarette holder, too)

As a child I thought that a magnifying glass was a mere curiosity, most well employed in the focusing of the sun's rays on a combustible object so that it would eventually burst into flames.  It didn't occur to me that one would ever require such a thing to read fine print.

A selection of our magnification tools at Darlington House

Growing up, Reggie's grandparent Darlings had beautiful magnifying glasses on many of the tables in their house, made with handles of ivory, bone, silver, and brass.  Reggie also recalls one that had a pale lavender shagreen handle.  As a boy I thought they were merely decorative (my grandparents had lots of wonderful things), but I have since come to appreciate that my grandparents owned as many magnifying glasses as they did not only for their beauty, but also because they were useful.  I haven't a clue as to what became of their collection of magnifying glasses, but I wish that I had it today.  Since I don't, I have collected a number of my own over the years.  And I use them . . . because I need to.

But one cannot, or should not, exclusively use magnifying glasses to read in one's office or at one's computer, so one must also employ the use of spectacles designed for such activity.  But as many of my middle-aged readers well know, if one doesn't require the wearing of glasses at all times it is devilishly easy to misplace them.  Or, in Reggie's case, lose them.

The first pair of reading glasses I bought were foolishly acquired from the very carriage trade optometrist Friedrich's Optik on Park Avenue in New York.  No, I was not foolish for frequenting such a purveyor, but rather I was foolish to think that I wouldn't soon lose such a purchase, given my propensity to losing umbrellas, keys, and gloves.  To give those unfamiliar with Friedrich's an idea of exactly how carriage trade it is, their only other store in the U.S. (they are based in Hamburg, Germany) is on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach.  I think I paid over $700 for mine, and that was over ten years ago.  They were a thing of great beauty, and beautifully made . . . and I lost them within a week of acquiring them.

The sad, empty case that once held Reggie's reading glasses

Fortunately, I still have the sunglasses that I bought at Friedrich's several years ago.

I dread the day I shall lose these, too

But getting back to the subject at hand . . . I realized that it would be punishing financially and demoralizing emotionally if I continued to buy my (fast disappearing) reading glasses at the likes of Friedrich's, so I looked into what other alternatives were available.  And I learned that--at the time--the only choice I had was between spectacles custom-made by optometrists, running in to the hundreds of dollars a pair, and what was available off the rack in drug and discount stores for around ten bucks a pop.  The problem with the former was the price and the inconvenience of waiting for them to be made, and the problem with the latter was how they looked.  Cheap glasses look, well--cheap.  But practicality in this case trumped vanity, and Reggie became a devoted customer of cheap reading glasses.  And he bought them with abandon, to the point that he littered his world with them.  To this day I find them scattered about me everywhere I hang my hat: in drawers and under seat cushions in our apartment, in the glove compartments and seat pockets of our cars, and in every nook and cranny at Darlington House.  I also have half a dozen squirreled about my office, and I can always rely on finding a pair by searching through the pockets of my jackets or coats.  In addition to the places where one would expect to find them, my reading glasses also turn up where one wouldn't: I recently came across a pair sitting atop a wood pile in our barn that I had inexplicably left there last winter.

Woodrow Wilson, President and pince-nez wearer

Which reminds me of a story.  Once upon a time, long, long ago, when Reggie was a little boy, no more than six or seven years old, he accompanied his mother, MD, to the drug store, where she was picking up a prescription from the pharmacist.  Both of his parents, and each of his older siblings, wore spectacles at the time, all of which were procured from traditional, independent optometrists.  Reggie did not yet then require wearing glasses, but he did have his eyes checked regularly, as it was assumed to be only a matter of time before he would require spectacles himself.  While standing in the drug store with his mother, waiting in line for the pharmacist, Reggie noticed what appeared to him to be an old man looking through a rack of spectacles.  It had never occurred to Reggie that spectacles could be bought from anywhere but an optometrist, and he found it fascinating that this man was considering buying ready made ones at the drugstore.  "Mummy," Reggie said, "why is that man looking at those glasses?"  MD replied that he likely needed them to read.  "But why is he buying them here instead of going to the Eye Doctor like we do?"  She said that the glasses we bought were expensive, and maybe this man didn't want to pay so much for his.  This astonished Reggie.  "Then he must be very poor, isn't he, Mummy, because he can't afford to buy them from an Eye Doctor?"  Reggie felt intensely sorry for this man who was reduced to such base poverty that he couldn't afford "real" glasses like Reggie's family could.  MD responded that Reggie shouldn't speak so loudly in public and that she would explain it to him after they left the store.

It was with amusement that I recalled this exchange many years later when I found myself in a drugstore, searching through a rack of cheap reading glasses for my prescription.  I had, in fact, become the very man that Reggie had felt so sorry for, all those years ago.

A favorite pair of eyebobs reading glasses

But one needn't be reduced to buying one's reading glasses at drug or discount stores any longer.  A number of years ago I came across a purveyor of ready-made reading glasses that bridge the gap between expensive optometrist ones and flimsy cheap ones.  They are made by a company called eyebobs, which was started by a graphic designer who--like Reggie--was frustrated that there were no reasonably priced, good looking reading glass options available.  eyebobs designs and markets numerous lines of reading glasses that are terrific looking and well made, and that sell for around $65 a pair.  They are available at specialty retailers (Reggie bought his first pair at Neiman Marcus) and also online at  So now, thanks to eyebobs, Reggie sports a collection of handsome reading glasses instead of nasty cheap ones (although he hasn't thrown the cheap ones away, he just doesn't wear them in public anymore).

eyebobs spectacles are cleverly named

But Reggie doesn't only wear reading spectacles, for he also has a pince-nez.  That's right, a pince-nez.  In fact, I am wearing mine as I sit writing this essay.  Here's how that came about.  Half a dozen or so years ago Boy and I attended a benefit for the local historical society in the county where Darlington House sits.  The benefit was held in conjunction with an antiques show where there were dozens of dealers in "smalls."  One of the dealers had a display of antique spectacles, including a dozen or so pince-nez.   Boy zeroed in on and bought a pair of dashing spectacles made with silver frames and green glass lenses, probably dating from the first half of the nineteenth century.

Boy's rather swell antique green spectacles

I, on a lark, tried on several pince-nez.  And much to my surprise, one of them was in my prescription!  With but a moment's hesitation, I bought it on the spot.  And I have worn my pince-nez regularly since then.  Not only does it aid my vision when reading print, but it is quite comfortable lightly pinched on the bridge of my nose.

Reggie's steel-framed pince-nez

Reggie does admit that he rarely wears his pince-nez outside the confines of Darlington House, for even he recognizes that most people would likely stare and point at him if he did, and that those of the basest sort would likely burst into derisive laughter once they realized what Reggie had perched on his nose.

President Theodore Roosevelt,
arguably the most famous pince-nez wearer of all time

But that doesn't dissuade Reggie from wearing his pince-nez, at least at Darlington House.  Not only is his pince-nez a wizard at doing the job it was designed for--allowing Reggie to read the printed word--but wearing one also puts Reggie in good company: at least three of our presidents--both Roosevelts and Woodrow Wilson--wore them.  While researching this post Reggie came across a number of other, like-minded afficionados of said spectacle, including one by the name of LeDandy, who has devoted an entire blog to the subject: Pince-Nez Renaissance.

I encourage those of you who require reading glasses to consider buying an antique pince-nez to wear from time to time.  Almost every antiques mall or show has several dealers with antique or vintage spectacles and pince-nez for sale, and if you try enough of them on you will likely eventually come across one with your prescription.  Reggie isn't suggesting that you should make a pince-nez your primary reading spectacle, but he does like having one to wear every now and then, and he thinks you might, too.

All color photographs by Boy Fenwick.  Black and white images of our pince-nez wearing U.S. presidents courtesy of the Library of Congress 


  1. How very timely. A month ago, I found a lovely pair of '20's gold frames at the flea market and had them made into bifocals. I adore them. They are lighter than the titanium ones I brought two years ago. Now you have me looking for Pinz-nez!

    And thank you for the Eyebob link. They are just the ticket for when I wear my contacts.

  2. Last month, my optometrist informed me my arms were becoming too short for my body and offered bifocals as a solution.

    How impertinent!

  3. brilliant post! what a sensational blog you have here! j

  4. You, sir, are a man of style. I buy mine at Whole Foods. They cost even less than $60. I do not deserve an antique pince-nez. However, as you can imagine, my mother for a time used a lorgnette:).

  5. I am also a fan of eyebobs and have several rather swell pairs. The pince nez look charming; who knows -- perhaps you will start sporting a monocle, a la Lord Peter Wimsey, next .

  6. I, like you have been through the same exercise starting at Morgenthal Fredericks and spending a fortune in glasses throughout the years and now in despair finally hitting the local drugstore for a cheaper alternative. Problem is i need 3.25 and those are hard to find. About 15 years ago I started collecting lorgnettes which I carried with me when I went to restaurants and wanted to be different. As Im writing this Im going through my memory archives trying to figure out where the heck they are to bring to our dinner! thanks for the tip on eyebobs. had heard about them but promptly forgot!

  7. As I hurtled toward fifty, I found myself in the same menu reading dilemna as Reggie...and as a world class loser of expensive sunglasses and reading glasses and prescription glasses, I followed the lead of friends far richer and more fashion conscious than I, who bought their reading glasses at Marden's Surplus & Salvage of Maine, and by sheer combination of style, irony, and will, MADE them fashionable (reverse chic does work).

    Had I learned that lesson sooner, and not been so silly for so many years about drugstore sunglasses and reading glasses, I might have saved enough for early retirement. Constant attention to clothes and status eyewear truly do not make the man.

    Interestingly, as I hurtle now toward sixty, my eyes have actually improved, and I no longer require reading glasses....go figure.

  8. I finally purchased my very first pair of reading specs (extremely cute, not expensive) about a year ago, at a favorite local floral/gift shop no less...and I haven't lost them yet! I must admit though, I've never worn them out of the house, needless to say...I squint a lot in public.

    Pinze-nez is my new word for the it French for pinch-nose? They might become quite popular again after this enlightening post...let's hope so! Thank you for another wonderful read.
    Oh yes...and I love the green glass spectacles and the beautiful magnifying glasses, what a nice item to collect.
    xo J~

  9. Dear Reggie, Oh dear, how dismally familiar all of this is to my own experience. I really do not know how it comes about but, at a certain age, suddenly one can never focus properly on whatever is the task in hand. Either one needs to be further away or closer in, whatever one rapidly gets to the point that only a shelf full of spectacles will do all the reading jobs adequately. Varifocals as the answer to everything I can testify as useless and just contribute to one falling up or down stairs!

    I am sure, dear Reggie, you look positively distinguished in pince-nez, and clearly they work for reading the computer screen, but I have never tried them. Wonderfully reminiscent of a by-gone age, perhaps I need to give them a try. Although, like you, I am certain that they would not go outside the house. Whatever, I do so hope, dear Reggie that you will not be tempted to dangle your spectacles from a chain around your neck. That, for me at least, would definitely be a step too far!

  10. Reggie --

    I see an obvious opportunity to integrate this post with one down below.

    There once was a man who dined out on two continents on his dinner table impression of Queen Victoria. Cheeks were puffed out and a dinner napkin was placed on his head just so. He became the spitting image of the Widow of Windsor. (Even her great-grandchildren were said to have laughed.)

    It will take a little practice, I'm sure, but with Boy's coaching I think there's every reason to believe that you could do a drop-dead Franklin Roosevelt.

    (FDR is preferable to TeeDee in that you wouldn't have to get out of your chair, or raise your voice. The whole thing would be an exercise in exquisite langour. All you'd need to go with the pince-nez is a killer grin, an ivory cigarette holder, and some improvised bit of cleverness done in that peculiar upriver accent of his.)

    ((After all, you can't always depend on someone to show up late with a bag of blow.))

  11. Are they uncomfortable to wear? They certainly are a novelty and I do enjoy that! The only pair of 'expensive' sunglasses I ever bought I lost within a week as well, so since then I've just been buying the under $30 types which for whatever reason tend to last me a few years before getting lost or broken. Now why is THAT?!

  12. Thank you for this, Reggie. My husband wears reading glasses, and his last pair (very expensive) are now broken. I looked around for an alternative and found myself disliking all the ones I found at the drugstore. I'm thrilled to find this link.

  13. Thank you so much for listing the Pince-Nez Renaissance. I've worn pince-nez full-time (except workouts) for over two years and I love them. The fingerpiece style, succeeding the type worn by TR and FDR, is much more modern and does not look out of place today. It has springs in the nose guards. Here is a photo of this minimalist look:

    As for comfort, I highly recommend wearing silicone nose pads that are easily available. I find them more comfortable than ordinary specs. Of course you must get the right size mounting for your nose.

    I invite readers to check out the Pince-Nez Renaissance. You have a wonderful blog and I'm pleased to add my name as a follower.

  14. I have bifoc, er, progressive lenses to wear all the time, but I don't, since they tend to make me trip on my own damn feet. "Task" glasses, which is optometrist code for "Expensive Readers" to work on the computer and tacky Christmas Tree Shop readers for everthing else.

    I'm not sure I could carry off pince-nez with a Reggie-like elan, so I will stay with the readers. But now, I may have stylish eyebobs!

  15. Beautiful photographs and equally good story-telling. I'm sorry that you lost an expensive pair of spectacles, but my own life has confirmed a corollary to Murphy's Law, which is that the more expensive the item, the more susceptible it is to loss or damage.

  16. Dear Reggie,

    Since your blog portrait shows you holding glasses, I assumed you wore them all the time. I've been envisioning you with simple wire frames that you only took off for portraits and even then you want to hold them close just in case.

    Funny how you picture some one you only know through written or spoken words. Since I do a lot of my work on the phone or through email, this happens whether I want it to or not!

    Any way, spectacles, spectacleless, pince-nez, sans pince-nez, you are wonderful.

  17. With all your petit meubles at Darlington House, it must be important to have good eyewear, (and stylish to boot)!

    As aside, many people think that FDR suffered from Polio, but it was probably the AIDP variant of Guillain-Barré syndrome.


  18. oh poor Reggie Darling-it seems you have lots of old eye sore readers! pgt

  19. Reggie, you are our target market! It has always been our goal to provide optical quality, fashion forward specs at an affordable price to those of us with short arms. We love it when people spread the word so thank you for sharing your eyebobs story.

    eyebobs eyewear

  20. Such a beautiful collection of magnifying glasses! You'll wear those spectacles well, so Reggie shouldn't worry his darling head at all!

    E + J

  21. Dearest Reggie,
    I am most greatful that you recommended Eyebobs to me. I love the two pairs I have and get many compliments on them. While not a lorgnette, these Butterfly Spybobs come a close second.

  22. Hi Reggie. I need to email Le Dandy about a pince nez question but I can't for some reason get his email (blocked by server). Is there any chance you'd post his email? Or send it to me? Thanks.

  23. This is awesome! I love vintage, authentic collectors items like these spectacles. Thank you for sharing this! I will look for more of this brand of eyeglasses.
    Jensen |


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