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A monocle is a type of vision aid that is worn on one eye, instead of typical glasses, which cover both eyes with lenses. It was often used from time to time to magnify small print, or to examine small details in items like jewelry. Many men and women in the upper classes sported a monocle as an elaborate fashion statement in the late 19th century.
The monocle might be made only of glass or might have glass with a metal frame. It usually was attached to a cord that was secured to clothing. This way, the device could be used when needed, and left to dangle when it wasn’t required.
It might be hard to imagine how the monocle stayed in place. The early models fitted closely into the eye orbit, just below the brow, and just below the lower lid. This might, however, press on the eyelashes. In the late 19th century, the gallery monocle became popular. These were often custom made, and pushed the lens away from the eye, though the frame still fit around the eye’s orbit.
The least expensive style of monocle was made in the early 20th century. This was frameless, and was cut to fit the person’s eye orbit. Another form, often employed by ladies, was the quizzing glass. Instead of fitting into the eye orbit, this type of monocle was attached to a long handle. The quizzing glass could be held up to the eye when magnification was needed.
The monocle was especially associated with high fashion for men in the early 20th century. However, many fictional and real folk sported them long before they became a fashion trend. Perhaps the most famous depiction of the monocle is that worn by the illustrated gentleman on the first cover of The New Yorker. One can still see the monocle illustrated in iconic characters like Mr. Peanut, and Uncle Pennybags from the game "Monopoly."
As ophthalmology became a more precise science, often detecting that both eyes needed some correction, monocles fell out of fashion. Glasses became more popular, and were less likely to be dropped and smashed. Comic routines were frequently based on the dropping and breaking of a monocle if a person quickly changed their facial expression. There is some truth to the routine.
What is known is that monocles were not only fashionable and practical, but also fairly comfortable. Typically, they only caused discomfort if they were not properly fitted to the eye. The poor man’s monocle, which was not fitted to the wearer, was usually purchased cheaply and thus might fall more frequently, or cause some squinting of the eye in order to keep it in place.
When's the last time anyone actually used a monocle? Not only are they out of fashion, they tend to have a bad reputation due to the people and characters that are associated with them. Monocles have been associated with the likes of the worst people capitalism has to offer, Colonel Klink, the Penguin (from the Batman comics) and Fearless Leader (the ruler of Badlandia from the Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons). The negative people and characters associated with monocles may have, indeed, contributed to their relative scarcity in the 21st century.
Oh, and that bit where a monocle pops out when someone is surprised is darned funny. For that reason alone, the monocle needs to make a comeback in a big way.