We may not truly appreciate the simple vision tests and access to eye doctors we have today. “I could totally get my vision checked right now” is a thought that probably won’t randomly float through your mind. But it wasn’t even an option in the not-so-distant past.

Maybe these historical fixes for vision problems will give you a new outlook on caring for yours this year.

Nearsightedness Isn’t New

The number of nearsighted people has been steadily increasing. This is largely attributed to the amount of time people spend doing things that cause their eyes to focus on something close up. The rise of, first, reading, and second, digital devices, are both contributing factors to this issue. But just because the rates of myopia are increasing now doesn’t mean it didn’t exist before. So what did our nearsighted ancestors do to help their vision?

The very first instances at human attempts to correct nearsightedness at around the 13th century more closely resembled magnifying glasses than the stylish prescription eyeglasses of today. Wearing magnifying glasses on your face seems like it might be uncomfortable. . . which is why they weren’t usually worn. People used them to see something they were reading at that moment rather than for long-term vision correction.

Because the lens technology wasn’t developed yet, the glasses were actually made of glass (or quartz) which made them heavy and unwieldy. The thick lenses you may have grown up with were an improvement on these magnifying spectacles. They were most popular in Europe where they were manufactured although some made their way along the Silk Road to countries in Asia.

The use of glasses intended to alleviate nearsightedness rose right along with, you guessed it, the literacy rate. The first big jump in glasses-wearers comes after the Reformation at around the 17th century. It is at this period that the arms of the glasses were created, allowing them to be worn full time.

Fashion-wise, it was a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, they were seen as awkward, because they (unintentionally) made a strong statement that proclaimed that the wearer suffered from some condition. On the other, different styles and colors became available when people realized they needed the glasses and might as well incorporate them into their personal fashion statement.

What Vision Exam?

Did you notice what is missing from these historical accounts of glasses? If you guessed “vision exam,” you’d be correct. How we purchase a pair of reading glasses pre-made from a store is how our ancestors chose their entire prescription. They would test out several pairs and choose the one which seemed to improve their vision the best. No vision test, no eye doctor in sight. Just a traveling peddler of goods.

Thankfully, we don’t have to choose the glasses (that we use to see very important things like the road when we drive) through trial and error. Technology has made huge advances in the world of vision correction possible. From fashionable but light frames, thin lenses even for strong prescriptions, and using your smartphone for a vision test; all these are much easier and more accurate than our nearsighted historical friends with quartz lenses could have imagined it might be.