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Society through the Looking Glass

Lorgnettes, 18th to early 20thCenturies
Probably France and United States
Metal, tortoiseshell, lacquer, paint and glass
2000.8.37, .39, .123
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Richard Preston 
“…the inevitable lorgnette, the enemy of other people’s privacy.”
–Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
2000.8.37 in all three stages of unfolding.

Lorgnettes, spectacles held in place by long handles rather than resting on the bridge of one’s nose, were popular accessories amongst members of high society from the late 18th Century until the 1920s.  Though they were designed to refine one’s vision, creative ingenuity and artful designs in the early 19th Century have made them stunning works of art and highly sought after collectors’ pieces. Many famous historical figures and members of the French aristocracy have wielded these accessories while attending sports tournaments, galas, theatrical performances, and of course, dinner parties. Despite their artistry and prolific use, over time they became seen as sordid instruments, likely stemming in no small part to the name being derived from the French word lorgner, meaning to wantonly stare or ogle. With lorgnettes donned, bored elites’ whispers of scandals and suspected infidelities fluttered throughout the era’s societal gatherings.

These leering lenses were originally designed by English inventor George Adams around 1770 to be compactly storable embodiments of sophistication. Unfortunately, they were stigmatized as much as anything because of their use by women. Glasses had previously been used almost exclusively by men, that their introduction to women should make them branded as tools for gossip is not entirely surprising considering the sentiment of the time. In defiance of this, many chose to not readily engage in the stereotype, preferring sophisticated symbolism for their sophisticated lenses. The style of the French lorgnette from the 1830s to the 1920s remained consistent in terms of having small handles often fashioned with classical symbols from ancient Grecian and Roman civilizations, something which can be seen in the smallest of Bowers’ lorgnettes. The handle’s front panel on the lorgnette featured to the right, coated in a russet lacquer with metal embossing, includes two laurel wreaths which represent victory and triumph; two crossed torches representing life and enlightenment; four flowers symbolizing faith and trust; and in keeping with the Greco-Roman theme, a lyre harp representing “divine harmony.” The combination of these symbols insinuates the wearer is a seer of truth and revelation. Ironically, the complexity of this design may have unintentionally contributed to its distasteful reputation in the public sphere.
By the 1890s, lorgnette craftsmen in Great Britain and the United States of America had developed a new design that included a longer handle in comparison to the French-style lorgnette. The gilded lorgnette from the Bowers Museum collection has one such handle which would usually have been identical on both sides of the handle. However, this lorgnette is peculiarly asymmetrical. An enameled bouquet of violet flowers with inlaid diamonds decorates the front and on the back is the engraved name “Abbie”, clearly worn from being handled. The purple violet flower has many meanings but traditionally represents modesty, devotion, intuition, love, and royalty: “thoughts occupied with love.” This lorgnette may have been a gift with respect to the symbolism of the flowers and also the personal engraving. Because certain American designs were standardized, customers were able to personalize their lorgnettes with engravings and other enamel work. This too shows the lorgnette for more than an implement for gossip, and by this period its transition from accessory to predecessor of opera glasses was already well underway.
The inscription reads, "Abbie." Detail of  2000.8.39
Detail of 2000.8.123
In both the United States and Europe the lorgnette never quite carried the same associations it did in France; by the end of the 19th Century, the negative categorization of lorgnettes had practically disappeared and they were seen instead as part of the kit of a “smartly dressed woman.” While this tortoiseshell lorgnette does not possess any overt symbolism, its comparative lack of embellishment speaks to the ever-diminishing need to be gilded, lacquered, or inlaid. What the lorgnette does impress with is an Oriental-inspired floral openwork handle which reflects the unique possibilities of the medium. Though tortoiseshell has in recent years been banned due to the endangered status of many species used to make it, it was incredibly versatile. When heat is applied to tortoiseshell it becomes malleable, allowing it to be formed into almost any shape imaginable. Despite this flexibility, its rarity means that imitation shell was often used instead, as is possibly the case with this pair.
As much due to its name as its use, the lorgnette was commonly implicated as a nefarious tool for the elite of high society. While its intricate design and subtle symbolism indicate prestige and wealth as a cultural item, its reputation spoke volumes as an inciter of scandal and gossip within the upper class’ most coveted and private circles. The degree to which this was the case varied greatly depending on when and where they were used, but for a time lorgnettes caused quite a spectacle.
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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