Steampunk Goggles: History & Origin

Where did steampunk goggles come from, and how did they get their name?

Steampunk may be making a modern-day, aesthetic-inspired return. In fact, the term "steampunk" wasn't actually coined until 1987 by the science-fiction author K.W Jeter, who came up with the name as a means of describing the period's wave of Victorian era-based fantasy novels, many of which were celebrating the era's popular technology—steam power.

However, when considering the history of steampunk-inspired attire, including steampunk goggles, we can trace these fashion pieces actually all the way back to the tail end of the 1400s. In 1497, a Portuguese scientist named Nuno Fernandes imported a pair of spectacles from Italy, designed with colored lenses to protect the human eyes from the sun's harmful UV rays. These spectacles were, at the time, worn in the snow or as a way to improve vision impairments. These vintage steampunk goggles did not originate as a way to be fashionable or make a statement about style.

What were steampunk goggles used for, and who wore them in the Victorian era?

Furthermore, cinder goggles, the product often considered the predecessor of steampunk goggles, were worn for therapeutic purposes, not to be fashionable. These glasses got their name because they were made to shield the eyes from ash and debris, and they functionally served the same purposes as early-day steampunk goggles. These goggles were worn in the early 1800s on trains by both conductors and, eventually, by passengers depending on one's social class. The heavy-duty nature of these shielded glasses means they protected one's eyes from all sorts of machinery and hazardous materials. This made them useful for construction and factory production protection, where workers would be exposed to gas, chemicals, or fire.

For the majority of the poor class of the Victorian era, these goggles were a privilege they were unable to afford, despite their useful functionality as protective gear. Despite the whimsical connotations of steampunk glasses today, there was nothing stylish about them in the Victorian era as they served practical and safety-related needs. 

"Fashion goggles," or what we now know to be sunglasses, were not invented until the mid-to-late 1800s, popularized by vendors like W.H. Carry & Co, W.W. Wesser & Co, and others. These vendors often placed ads in the local paper at the time, causing the trend of sunglasses to catch on for various reasons. Although early sunglasses were advertised partially for their protective nature, people sought fashion goggles for more than just protection from ash and flying cinders when riding early-day train cars. Early-day sunglasses were used for fashion, sports, and driving, as well as their capacity to serve general eye protection. Dubbed by W.W. Wesser & Co as "fancy goods," it is clear that the world's first sunglasses were considered an early luxury available only to exclusive customers and not commonly sold in the general marketplace.

Did aviators wear steampunk goggles?

Many people think aviators used steampunk goggles when flying planes, when in fact, they had their own type of goggles that shared some visual characteristics. Aviators were known to use goggles similar to steampunk goggles but were specifically called "aviator goggles." While these goggles were not exactly the same as steampunk goggles, they served a similar function: to block the eyes from discomfort and damage. 

Aviator goggles were first introduced in the early 20th century, right at the tail end of the Victorian era.  The near-death experience of 1920s airplane pilot Rudolf William Shroeder likely brought on the popularity and, at the time, the necessity of wearing eye protection when flying a plane. Because he lifted his goggles to change his bottle of oxygen while flying to become the first American pilot to ride at the high altitude of 10,000 meters in a powered plane, the negative temperature outside froze his eyes upon exposure. This led the young pilot to pass out on board. Luckily, he awoke when the plane was a few thousand feet from the ground, and he was able to land safely while practically blind from the damage caused.

How were steampunk goggles adopted in fiction?

Hollywood is largely to thank for the popularity of the steampunk aesthetic. Sherlock Holmes and his iconic partner, Doctor Watson, are one of the best dynamic duos to wear these famous goggles on the big screen. While the plot of the film was based in the 1800s, the film A Game of Shadows was not released until 2011 but commemorated this quirky fashion statement of a steampunk hat & goggles that is a signature of the era.

Other examples of steampunk goggles taking hold of the big screen can be found in Tim Burton's Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Timur Bekmambetov's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, just to name a few.

How are steampunk goggles used today?

Of course, nowadays, these steampunk kaleidoscope goggles are used not for eye protection but rather for dressing up. Cosplayers, ravers, and trick-or-treaters in need of a Halloween costume seek steampunk goggles for the same reason: they offer the statement look to anyone who puts them on.

What was once a piece of protective eyewear for conductors, factory workers, aviators, and train passengers alike now serves all modern-day needs for a cool costume piece to wear on holidays, at conventions, or at steamer parties. Steampunk goggles have also become popular in rave culture because of the close relationship between EDM and fantasy subcultures. The goggles have proven to be a creative and convenient accessory to wear at raves while also offering a unique visual experience to whoever is sporting the look.

From the movie screen to costume shops, most of us have encountered steampunk goggles and their quirks at least a handful of times. No matter how you slice it, steampunk goggles have made their mark on history across the ages.