‘Through the Looking Glass’ – A History of Spectacles

It’s always important to make sure that you have everything you require before you leave the house. Spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch.

Lots of people wear glasses, even if they don’t want to admit to it. Regular glasses, reading glasses, bifocals, sunglasses, pince-nez, monocles, quizzing-glasses…where do all these different types of glasses come from? Put on your favourite pair of specs and let’s see if we can’t focus in on this fuzzy little problem.

Focusing on Lenses

Lenses used for correcting vision or for magnifying small objects, have been used since ancient times. Originally they were polished stones or crystals. When early glass-making was perfected, a spherical glass container filled with water was discovered to have magnifying properties. In the Medieval era, people with poor eyesight might use a “reading-stone” to better examine the words on the page in front of them. Reading-stones were spheres of glass sliced in half and polished, so that they could be slid along a page, magnifying the text underneath.

By the late 1200s, the first two-lens eyeglasses of a kind which we might recognise today, were developed, most likely in Italy in the 1280s. By 1301, Venice, the famous center of glass-blowing and glass-making in Europe, had established a guild to regulate the manufacture and sale of spectacles. Once the blowing and grinding of lenses had been perfected, and had been fully taken-over by glass-makers, mankind could then start focusing on mounting these lenses into frames.

Early Spectacles

Early spectacles were very crude. Two lenses in a pair of frames, joined together.

And that was it.

The frames holding the lenses, if they were identical, might be hinged in the middle, to fold up, or they might have a ribbon or chain about them to catch them if they fell, but from the Middle Ages until the 1600s, most spectacles were simple hand-held things. Like if you took a regular pair of glasses and snapped the arms off it. They might have a small handle on the side with which to hold them, or else you just held them by the frames. Useful, but hardly practical. Because spectacles could be expensive, if you managed to buy a pair, you probably wanted them to look nice. Frames of gold, wood, ivory and bone, or actual tortoise-shell were popular. Those ugly ‘tortoise-shell’ glasses you used to have as a kid? Cheap plastic junk. Real tortoise-shell used to be used back in the old days.

As you can imagine, having to hold your glasses to your face with your hand was extremely impractical. The distance between your spectacles and your eyes changed constantly, pulling things in, and out of focus. It made the hand and arm tired, and it used up one hand, which might otherwise be doing something useful.

The Pince-Nez

The first solution to this was the Pince Nez (French, literally, for ‘Pinch-Nose’, pronounced ‘pas-nay‘).

Solid gold pince-nez glasses. The frames could be pushed apart, and the clip in the middle literally pinched the nose to stay on the face. The handle on the side held a ribbon or string, which would attach to the wearer’s clothing to prevent loss, or breakage if dropped

Pince-Nez spectacles came with a spring-loaded clip between the lenses, and underneath the bridge that held the two frames together. The clip quite literally pinched your nose and held the glasses in front of your eyes, allowing both hands to be free for use. This was an advancement, but constantly having the clamp biting down on the top of your nose was uncomfortable in long stretches. Most people kept their pince-nez on a chain and only put them on when it was really necessary to do so, to prevent the constant pressure and pinching from becoming irritable.

The Lorgnette

Although pince-nez allowed people to use their hands, the constant pinching was irritating at best and distracting and painful at the worst of times. One alternative was the lorgnette.

Antique, gold-mounted lorgnette from the late-19th century. It’s held by the handle on the left. The ring on the side would be for a ribbon, string or chain, with which to secure the lorgnette around your neck, or to your clothes, to catch it if dropped

Like the ‘Pince Nez’, the ‘Lorgnette’ did not come with folding arms. It came with a small handle that stuck out the side of the frame, which you gripped in your fingers and held in front of your eyes. The handle might have a cord or ribbon run through it, to catch it if you dropped it. Lorgnettes were common during the 17-1800s. For fairly obvious reasons, they, like all previous designs, were used as sparingly as possible. Some lorgnettes came with a folding bridge, that allowed the entire thing to be folded up to be more compact. Others came with spring-loaded handle-cases. The spectacles were folded into the case. When they were needed, they popped out on a spring, and the case then doubled as the grip and handle.

The Quizzing-Glass

How can you give someone a quizzical expression without a quizzing-glass??

Yours Truly taking a closer look at his blog through his quizzing-glass…Oh dear! A spulling mistake!

Popular during the Georgian and Victorian eras, the quizzing-glass was a handheld pocket magnifying-glass. It was designed to be small, portable, and to be carried around by the owner so that he or she could whip it out at a moment’s notice and take a closer look at something.

Suffering from myopia as I do, my own 5x quizzing-glass is an essential piece of kit. I carry this with me where-ever I go. Vital for reading stuff like labels, menus and price-tags. There’s no reason a disability can’t have some flashy accessories

Although they were supposed to be visual aids, quizzing-glasses were also very fashionable, and it was common for men and women to keep one about their persons. Along with its better-known cousin, the monocle, peering at someone with upper-class disgust through the lens of your quizzing-glass has become a stereotype of aristocracy, nobility, old money families and the Nouveau Riche the world over! The quizzing-glass was born in the 1700s and lasted well into the Edwardian era. You can still buy them today, if you know where to look.

The Monocle

I say! When it comes to showing upper-class disdain, genuine curiosity, attempting to keep up appearances or finishing off that last bit of kit for your steampunk party-outfit, the monocle is considered the king of eyewear!

The monocle is the younger brother of the quizzing-glass. It differs in two ways:

1. It’s held in the eye-socket, and not away from the eye. 
2. It’s custom-cut and ground to fit its owner’s eye-socket. 

From the Georgian era of the 1700s until the mid-20th century, monocles were worn by almost everyone, from upper-class dandies, fops and toffs, to jewellers, gentlemen, ladies, aristocrats, the well-to-do, and German, Prussian and Austrian military officers peering down at maps, while they decided on their next move on the Western or Eastern Fronts during the Franco-Prussian War, WWI and WWII.

A monocle mounted in a gold-filled gallery-frame

The monocle was designed to be worn by people with poor eyesight in only one eye. It seemed silly and a waste of money to buy lenses for BOTH eyes when only one had a vision-issue. So the monocle was invented.

Properly cut and measured for its owner’s eye-socket, the monocle was designed to be held in-place by the cheekbone and the eye-socket and eyebrow. Fitted properly, it wouldn’t (or was less-likely) to drop out of one’s face and shatter on the ground, or land in one’s drink, if you saw something that shocked or surprised you.

Monocles have died out a bit in recent years, mostly due to advances in optometry, but you can still buy them, and wear them. And sometimes they’re still prescribed, due to customer not requiring a full set of glasses for his or her particular eye-condition.

Monocles come in one of three different styles. First is just a plain glass disc with ridges around the edge for grip. This is the simplest and cheapest form. Next is the metal-framed monocle, typically framed in gold or silver.

The last form of monocle is one with a gallery-frame, shown above. Galleried monocles were designed for people whose natural bone-structure or facial-structure did not work well with regular monocles. The lens itself was not held in the eye-socket. Rather, the extended gallery was held in the socket, and the lens was held to the gallery. This allowed a person to wear a monocle even if his personal bone-structure wouldn’t allow him to do so naturally.

Modern Spectacles

Modern spectacles or eyeglasses as we recognise them today, with identical frames, a bridge, nose-pads, and hinged, folding arms on the sides to rest on one’s ears, were invented in the 1700s. Throughout the 19th century, they were in constant competition with the other forms of eyewear previously mentioned in this posting.

Having to wear spectacles all the time was seen as a form of weakness. Physical weakness, because it suggested to others that the wearer did not have sufficient vision to handle regular tasks. But as attitudes changed in the 1800s, the weak stigma of spectacles began to be replaced by one of studious intelligence. And wearing permanent spectacles instead of carrying around occasional eyepieces such as lorgnettes, became more acceptable and stylish as the 1800s progressed.


Famous American inventor, printer, founding-father and general brainiac, Benjamin Franklin is credited with inventing a pair of spectacles with lenses of two different powers. Franklin suffered from both near-and-farsightedness. It was extremely frustrating for him to constantly have to change his spectacles while he worked. One pair for regular use, one pair for close-up use. Imagine having to repair his printing-press with one pair of glasses, then stopping, removing them, and putting on his other pair, to read the type in the print-bed.

Franklin solved these frustrations by cutting the lenses in half. His resulting creation meant that he could simply shift his eyesight up or down, to look through either the top, or bottom of his glasses, depending on what he wanted to read. The term ‘Bifocals’, or spectacles with two different types of focusing lenses, was coined in 1824.


The first sunglasses of a kind were invented by the Chinese in the 12th century, using thin slices of smoky quartz crystal, polished until translucent. Sunglasses again appeared in Italy in the 1700s, made of tinted glass, they were worn by those who wanted to protect their eyes from the strong Mediterranean sun, or from the reflections of the sunlight coming off the sea, and were first made in Venice, the glass-blowing capital of Europe.

However, sunglasses as we would know them today – tinted glass or plastic lenses in a dark plastic, metal, or brass frame, are a relatively recent invention. They became popular in the 1910s and 20s, and were worn by film-stars to protect their eyes from the glare of early studio-lights, and the blinding flash of early flashbulb-cameras.

Ray Ban ‘Aviator’-style sunglasses

Sunglasses became more and more popular during the 1930s and 40s. One group of people who came to rely on sunglasses were early airplane pilots. Due to the un-tinted windows and windshields of early airplanes (or in some cases, due to the complete absence of windshields altogether), they required sunglasses to block the glare from the sun.

Among the most famous types sunglasses out there are ‘Aviators’, developed in 1936, for fighter-pilots in the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), to protect them from the glare of the sun while flying missions. Before, during and after WWII, ‘Aviator’-style sunglasses became popular with American youth, something which has not changed in nearly 80 years. Their sleek, simple, minimal design has ensured their popularity well into the 21st century.

 Want a Closer Look?

The History of Eyeglasses

“What Man Devised that he might See”

Quizzing Glasses

The College of Optometrists – Quizzing Glasses

The College of Optometrists – History of Various Glasses-Styles



Chop-Chop! The History of Asian Name-Seals

Ever been to Japan? Hong Kong? China? Singapore? Ever gone to the local Chinatowns or flea-markets or department-stores? Or those little kiosks that you find inside sprawling shopping-malls?

If you have, then you’ve probably seen those tables selling dozens and dozens of rectangular blocks of soapstone (and other stones), with intricately-carved handles and heads, which are used for the production of Asian name-seals. Also called name-stamps, or ‘chops’.

What are these things, and what are they used for? Why on earth would you buy one, own one, or use one?

It stamps, it seals, it chops!

For ease of understanding, the devices in this posting shall be referred to as name-seals, or chops. Invented in Ancient China, name-seals are common throughout Asia. You can find them in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. But only in the first four of these countries are they really used for their actual purpose.

Chops have existed in China since ancient times. They were first used during the Shang Dynasty, which ruled China starting in 1600B.C. By the Han Dynasty (206B.C. – 220A.D.), they were becoming commonplace and started spreading around Asia, most notably to Korea and Japan. Seals were originally used only by those high in society. Emperors. Lords. Samurai warriors. As the number of warlords and samurai grew during the 15th century, when Japan was experiencing civil war, the number of seals being cut and carved grew, slowly spreading down the social scale.

Seals were eventually used by almost all classes of people. Emperors had enormous, ceremonial seals for marking important government documents, like the Great Seals in Western society. Shopkeepers and merchants might have seals which would be stamped on receipts, bills and notices. Ordinary working people would have seals to sign letters, parcels or to mark important legal documents.

What are Chops Made Of?

Chops or seals are made of many different materials. The most common are soapstone, wood, ivory, gold, jade, and in more recent times, titanium and plastic.

Most of the ones that you buy at those little Chinese shops and stalls are made of soapstone. As far as rocks go, soapstone is soft, and easily carved. This makes it ideal for being used for seals, which must be intricately engraved by hand to create the Chinese, Korean and Japanese characters in reverse on the base of each seal. Soapstone is largely made up of the mineral talc, from which talcum-powder is produced. So you can see why it’s so soft and easily carved!

A traditional Chinese seal with its dish of red, inky paste.

Chop-carving or seal-carving is considered an art in Asia. All throughout China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as in large Asian expat-communities in the western world, there are master carvers who produce seals with intricate designs carved into their tops. This is a process considered just as fiddly and eye-bending as the carving of the Asian characters into the base of the seal, which must be done, not only in a tiny space the size of a postage-stamp, not only in reverse, but also either engraved or carved out. Engraving the characters into the base of the seal means that when it’s stamped onto the paper, the characters appear white. When doing the reverse, the characters will be inked, but the background will be white. Carving out the gullies deep enough either side of the character-strokes to produce this second effect takes great care and precision. It’s all done by hand with sharp carving-knives.

The Names of the Seal

They’re called name-seals, but they don’t ‘seal’ in the way that Western seals (made of brass or gold) do, when they’re pressed into hot wax. Asian seals are more like stamps, used to punch out an inked impression onto paper.

Asian seals are also commonly called ‘chops’. This comes from the Hindi and Malay words ‘Chapa‘, and ‘cap‘, meaning stamp or seal. These words eventually evolved into the word ‘Chop’ today.

In Chinese, seals are called ‘Yin’, and ‘In’ in Japanese.


In the western world, seals are used with sticks of sealing-wax. In Asia, seals are used with a thick, paste ink. In Asia, just like in Europe, red is the most common and popular colour. Mostly because it stands out clearly against white paper, and cannot be mistaken for something else.

Sealing ink is thick and pasty. If it’s too fluid, it won’t stick to the bottom of the seal. It’d just drip off like water. Or it wouldn’t coat the seal sufficiently enough to leave a clear mark on the paper.

Sealing ink, or sealing paste, is typically made of three ingredients: Castor-oil, crushed cinnabar, and either strands of silk, or the ground-up root of the Mugwort plant (called Moxa). If you have kids around, make sure they don’t eat this stuff!…Cinnabar is another name for raw mercury-ore!

Relax. It’s perfectly safe so long as you wash your hands and don’t put the stuff in your mouth…or do something silly like lick the base of your seal before washing it.

What are Seals Used For?

In the Western world, seals are largely ceremonial. They’re used on formal letters and invitations, important documents, or to adorn letters and parcels sent between friends who wish to add a bit of creative flair to their writing. But they’re not often used beyond this.

In Asia, things could not be more different.

While you might buy one as a souvenir, in China and Japan, seals are part of everyday life. It’s taken for granted that almost everyone has one, and that everyone will use it. To the Chinese and Japanese, seals are more important than your signature. Signatures can be forged. But a seal, which is hand-carved, is unique. It cannot be copied except when you either steal the seal, or cut an exact replica.

In Asia, seals are used for everything. Signing a letter? Seal. Marriage-records? Seal. Bank-documents? Seal. Legal documents? Seal. Signing in for work? Seal. Authorising something or giving permission in a form? Seal. Signing a cheque? Seal. Signing for a package or some other form of registered mail? Seal. Birth-certificates? Death certificates? Car-registration? Seal. Seal. Seal.

Seals are used for almost everything. But to prevent tampering, forgery and theft, seals must be registered. They’re not treated as toys in Asia – they’re treated as legally-binding devices. Every seal that you have cut must be registered at a local office which keeps tabs on seals. These offices will keep a record of the seal. Who it belongs to, who they are, details about their personal life, contact-information, as well as an imprint of the seal in their files. Registered seals are issued with seal-certificates. These documents are used to certify that a particular seal can be used to sign legally-binding documents such as contracts, registrations, records, banking-details and so-forth.

Seals in Asia are so important that while most people will only carry one, some people will have three or four of them, depending on their professions. A seal for general correspondence between friends and family. A seal for business transactions, a seal for banking, a seal for filling out forms. In artistic circles, there are even MORE seals. A painter is likely to have his own artistic seal, used to stamp his finished artworks (similar to how a Western painter would sign his name in the corner). Seals are also used by authors to sign books, and other pieces of writing. There are even seals cut by seal-carvers to indicate their craft and profession. Due to the skill needed to carve intricate characters in such a tiny space (about the size of a postage-stamp), seal-carving is a recognised art and profession in Asian countries.

Who here has read the famous memoir, “Mao’s Last Dancer” by Chinese author Li Cunxin? Grab a copy. Any copy. Open it. Turn to the last page. His signature…and his seal, overlapping.

The seal of Li Cunxin, overlapping his signature written in English. Taken from my own copy of ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’

Seals range from small, personal ones, to enormous seals used by governments. The Japanese Emperor has his own seal, which functions much as a Great Seal of State for the United States, or the United Kingdom, to sign and mark important documents of national importance. Called the Privy Seal of Japan, the Emperor’s seal was used to seal the Japanese Surrender in 1945.

Seals in Asian Culture

Seals in Asian culture are very important. In a number of Asian countries, they’re still used in-lieu of signatures, which are more easily-forged. Since seals are carved by hand and great care must be taken in their production, it’s much harder to produce a seal-forgery. On top of that, seals are easily carried around and are compact, strong and long-lasting. They enjoy a history going back thousands of years. In Japan, law actually requires you to own a seal with which to sign documents and other important items.

How to Use a Seal/Chop?

Due to their hard surfaces, Chinese seals are not like conventional rubber stamps. They must be inked and applied in a very specific manner to get the best impression on the paper.

Don’t just JAM the seal into the paste and wriggle it around and hope for the best. All this does is flood the seal with ink and you end up with garbage on the paper.

Instead, the seal is lightly dabbled onto the ink-pad, softly and evenly. This builds up a coating of paste on the surface of the seal-base. The seal is then pressed firmly into the paper. Rock it left to right and back and forth, to evenly distribute the ink, and then lift. Clean the seal afterwards to prevent ink-build-ups. Don’t slam it down on the paper. Again, all this does is flood the seal’s grooves with ink, destroying the impression and not leaving one that is clearly defined. It helps to have some sort of padding (paper, a book, the leather surface of a desk) to absorb the pressure of the seal as it’s pressed and rocked into the paper, to leave a sharp, clear impression.

Closing with a Personal Touch…

My personal seal, with my name in Chinese characters (Zhang Sha Han):

Carved from soapstone, with a traditional ceramic dish of cinnabar sealing-paste. Applied properly, the result is what you see on the left. Pretty, huh?

More Information?

“Begin Japanology” – Episode – ‘Name Seals’.


Making a Meal of it – The History of our Meals and Their Times

Sailors in the Royal Navy received three “square meals” a day, served to them in a wooden, square tray, which wouldn’t slide and roll around on a rocking, creaking sailing ship.

Each morning, we break our evening fast, with the first meal of the day. At night, we dine upon dinner, or sup upon supper. We take dinner in the afternoon and supper at night, or lunch in the afternoon and dinner at night, and supper as a late-night snack. We have elevenses, morning tea, afternoon tea, Bruncheon, Tiffin, coffee-breaks, tea-breaks…Where did all our different meal-names and meal-times come from?

Get yourself something to eat while we sink our teeth into the history of our meals.


“We’ve had breakfast, yes! But what about second breakfast!?” 
“I don’t think he knows about second breakfasts, Pip…”LOTR

Breakfast! That meal that’s so important, hobbits have it twice a day!

In our modern lives, breakfast is our regular morning meal, eaten any time between daybreak and noon. But why do we call it ‘breakfast’? Why not sunmeal or upfeed or dawning snack?

The word ‘Breakfast‘ comes from the Middle Ages, when days often started at sun-up, with hard physical labour, working the land. Or started with morning prayers in a monastery or church. Most people would rise at dawn, and not eat until they had tilled fields, split firewood, fed the animals, prayed and handled the most important of household chores during the limited hours of daylight. It was only after this exertion that one could ‘break one’s fast’. Eventually, it just became known as ‘breakfast’.

Breakfast staples such as pancakes, bacon and eggs, toast, and porridge, developed over the centuries. In the days before Lent, people observed Collop Monday and Shrove Tuesday. The two days before Ash Wednesday.

During these days, people had to use up all their meat and perishable foodstuffs before the period of abstinence called Lent, since none of these things would last and would rot during the period of fasting.

So came about pancakes (which used up extra eggs, flour and dairy), and bacon and eggs, which used up excess eggs, and meat. A ‘collop‘ is a slice of meat, so basically ‘Meat Monday’.

Most countries around the world survived on porridge or pottage for breakfast, and every society has its own variation. Rice congee or porridge in Asia, oat or barley porridge in Europe, cornmeal porridge or gruel in the Americas.

In Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary, the entry of “Oats” is hilariously defined as: “Eaten by people in Scotland, but fit only for horses in England“, to which a reply was typically: “What fine people, and what fine horses!

In England, the ‘Full English’ breakfast was typically the norm for those who could afford it, during the 19th century. Bacon, eggs, sausages, toast, beans, black pudding, and tea. A substantial amount of food to keep the body fueled during hard labour on the farm, or in one of the new manufacturing jobs that was popping up around England during the Victorian era.

Cornflakes and other breakfast cereals started appearing in the late 1800s, in the years after the American Civil War. These were championed as healthfoods by such people as John Harvey Kellogg. J.H. Kellogg, along with his brother William Keith, were vegetarians, and believed strongly in a grain-based diet, without the eggs, meat, bacon, and sausages common on the breakfast tables of the 1800s.

One of the more interesting reasons as to why the Kellogg brothers developed cornflakes was due to their views on sex. As Seventh Day Adventists, they believed in sexual abstinence. Surely, a change in diet would distract people from their morning shag, and make them better, more holy people?

Not if you feed them a rich, healthy, carbohydrate breakfast which gives them lots of energy to enjoy their morning romp even more…

But then, Dr. J. Kellogg was a man who believed in the wholesome benefits of yoghurt enemas.

So much for the dietary views of Dr. Kellogg…

Throughout most of history, breakfast was eaten…whenever. It wasn’t until the 1700s that it started seriously becoming a morning meal. The long working-hours of farmers, industrialists, inventors and the landed gentry…okay maybe not the last one…meant that a meal in the morning before heading off to work was necessary, and it wasn’t practical to go home for a meal halfway through the day, so it was eaten as early as possible before heading off into the humdrum routine of the day. By the Victorian period, Breakfast was well and truly set as the morning meal.


We imagine brunch as a modern thing. Housewives have it with their friends. The rich and idle have it when they wake up late from drowning in their Egyptian cotton sheets. It’s the lazy dude’s meal. Right?


‘Brunch’ as we know it today, first arrived in the Victorian era of the 1890s. It was created as a joke in the popular comic magazine, ‘Punch‘, as a sort of long, Sunday lunch, to be enjoyed after weekend church-services, starting with breakfast foods and slowly morphing into heavier, more substantial luncheon-style foods in the afternoon, all enjoyed in a relaxed, lazy atmosphere.

Brunch has extended its reach and now exists in countries all over the world, from America to China. From enjoying a light meal at a country club, to a casual yumcha in Hong Kong.


Ah, lunch! Not everyone has lunch. Some people think it’s an essential component of life. Others enjoy long, lavish, relaxing luncheons, eaten with friends and colleagues. Some just skip it and survive on two meals a day. But what is it?

‘Lunch’ is the new kid on the block, as far as mealtimes are concerned. Originally, there was breakfast, taken in late morning or midday, and then dinner or supper, taken in the late afternoon. ‘Lunch’ as we know it today did not even exist.

But from the 1700s onwards, with breakfast getting earlier and work-hours forcing dinner further and further back into the evening, it was often several hours between meals. Imagine having breakfast at seven o’clock in the morning, or eight o’clock, and then starving for ten or twelve hours straight until dinnertime?

Something had to be done!

So, people started eating in the middle of the day.

Originally, nobody knew what to call this newfangled meal. ‘Noonings‘ was one suggestion, since it was eaten at midday. Another was ‘Nuncheon‘, a word which had survived from the 14th century, and which meant a light snack or refreshment. Eventually, mankind on a whole, settled on the word as being ‘Luncheon’. Or just ‘lunch’ for short.

Just as working habits had forced the creation of lunch, so had the time to prepare food forced the creation of a new item in the home – the lunchbox.

It was impractical to stop in the middle of the workday to go all the way home and make and eat lunch. And it was expensive to stop in the middle of the workday to go out and buy lunch all the time. It would be far more convenient to cook or make lunch at home, then bring it to work and eat it on the spot. To transport this new meal called ‘lunch’ came the lunchbox!

Lunchboxes were originally just whatever you could find to carry your lunch in – wooden crates, barrels, empty buckets with lids on top…but eventually, dedicated lunchboxes (typically made of cheap, pressed steel) came onto the market. These would hold two sandwiches, some snack-foods, and maybe a flask of hot coffee, tea, soup, or just ordinary drinking-water.


Lunch varies around the world, and the common or garden-variety lunchbox is not suitable for all situations. In Asia, where most people eat rice or noodle dishes instead of bread, it would be difficult to pack fried rice, dumplings or noodles into a conventional western-style lunchbox and take it to work, or school. Let’s introduce the tiffin-carrier:

My three-tier stainless steel tiffin-carrier

Tiffin‘ is an old English word for a light, refreshing luncheon. A relaxing meal taken in the middle of the day. Commonly used by British expats and colonials living in the Empire’s oriental extremities during the 1800s. It comes from the word ‘tiff‘ meaning a light drink or snack. Eventually, it evolved to mean something a lot more than tea and cucumber sandwiches, however.

The ‘Tiffin-carrier’ is a type of food-container invented in the 1800s for transporting the comestibles which typically made up the midday tiffin – curry, rice, noodles or flatbread, vegetables and soup. Tiffins typically came in two, three, four and five-tier arrangements (in some examples, six or more), but three or four was most common. This was to keep each food-component separate and to make access to the food much easier, by simply opening the carrier…

…and unstacking everything, bowl by bowl…

Until everything was neatly laid out in front of you:

Tiffin-carriers remain extremely popular in Asian countries, and they’re as common over there as thermos-flasks are in the Western world. People in western countries are starting to use tiffin-carriers, however. They find them useful for things like sandwiches, sushi, salad, leftover spaghetti, Chinese food and for storing snacks for lunch. You can still buy them brand-new, or you can buy vintage reproductions, or even fancy antique brass and copper ones at fairs and antiques shops.


Of all the meals we eat today, dinner is probably the one which has seen the most change over the centuries.

Dinner gets its name from the word ‘to dine’ or to eat. Since you eat all the time, ‘dinner’ was basically defined as the main meal of the day. First came your breaking of the evening fast, and then after several long hours, dinner, usually in the afternoon, much earlier than we’re used to today. Expensive firewood and candles meant that it was impractical to eat dinner at night.

Dinnertimes changed throughout history, as working-habits shifted and pushed dinner forwards or backwards on the 24-hour time-scale. In some lower-class households in England, or people who made up the servant-class, ‘Dinner’ was the midday meal, and ‘supper’ was had at night. This was because the demands of domestic service prevented servants from eating ‘dinner’ at night, since they had to cook and serve for their employers.

On a whole, though, dinner was pushed back further and further as time advanced. Originally eaten at midday or early afternoon, it moved to the late afternoon or early evening by the late 1500s. With the arrival of ‘Luncheon’ in the 1700s, ‘Dinner’ was forced back even further. It was now steadily in the late-afternoon, evening timeslot, and kept there by the new working-hours of office-clerks, lawyers, bankers, shopkeepers and other people now involved in the professions and trades brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

With candles becoming cheaper, and with new forms of lighting such as oil, gas and eventually, electricity, it was finally practical and comfortable, to eat dinner at night. Most people will typically have dinner between five and seven o’clock at night, depending on their work and time schedules.


When most people think of ‘supper’, they imagine a late-night snack or meal, but, as with ‘Dinner’, ‘Supper time’ differs depending on where you live and your general social background. Some people consider ‘Dinner’ the midday meal, and ‘supper’ to be the evening meal, while others consider ‘luncheon’ the midday meal and ‘dinner’ to be the evening one.

That being the case, where does supper fall?

The origin of the word ‘supper‘ in English comes from French and German, the words ‘Souper‘ and ‘Suppe‘. ‘Supper’ was originally the evening meal, but as workdays got longer, breakfast earlier and dinner later, which was backed up by ‘lunch’ at noon, Supper, like Dinner, was kicked back further and further. Most people now consider it to be an after-dinner meal. Usually something light, before retiring, or something enjoyed with friends and family after a night out. However, in some places, ‘supper’, ‘dinner’ and even ‘tea’ are all synonyms for the same thing – the main evening meal.

Morning Tea, Afternoon Tea & Elevenses

Anyone who grew up on a literary diet of the Famous Five, The Secret Seven, the Adventurous Four, Paddington Bear and The Wind in the Willows will probably have heard of such English meals as Morning Tea, Afternoon Tea and some mysterious snack called ‘Elevenses’.

What are they?

These typically light meals became popular among the English upper-and-middle classes during the Victorian era. Changing social and work-habits meant that mealtimes changed drastically. While their menfolk were out earning, women of the well-to-do classes would go visiting. It was the man’s job to earn a living. It was the woman’s job to make all the social connections to ensure that the wage or salary brought home would grow as time went on.

Morning tea and afternoon tea centered around tea, naturally. This beverage was once so rare and expensive, women kept their tea-caddies locked and had the keys with them at all times. But with the opening of China in the 1850s, the import of Chinese and Indian teas became cheaper and it was now available to a much wider range of people.

Tea was designed to be light. No heavy roast beef or rice and pasta or noodles. Similar to the Chinese custom of Yumcha, tea was meant to be light, refined and relaxed. Enjoyed with close friends and relations, or business-partners and colleagues. Tea consisted of small cakes, biscuits, and sandwiches – stereotypically, the classic cucumber-sandwich. Light snacks not designed to fill you up, but to distract from hunger until the main meals of the day, such as luncheon, or dinner (depending on if it were morning, or afternoon tea). In some places around the world, ‘tea-time’ grew later and later, from its 2 or 3 o’clock position, to four, five, or even six o’clock at night, becoming synonymous with ‘dinner’.

Instead of morning tea, one might have ‘elevenses’, taken, as the name suggests, around ten or eleven o’clock in the morning. Since the Industrial Revolution forced people to wake up earlier and eat breakfast earlier (six or seven or eight in the morning), by midday, they could be especially hungry. Elevenses or morning tea was designed as a light snack, to be enjoyed halfway between breakfast and lunch. Depending on where around the world elevenses may take place, it might have coffee, or tea. But typically also comes with sandwiches or small cakes. But it shouldn’t be confused with ‘Brunch’ which generally concentrates on heavier, stomach-fillers to keep you going into the afternoon.

Time to Eat

Mealtimes and meal-names have changed and evolved over the centuries. Some have remained fashionable, such as the long, lazy, Sunday Brunch, or the exclusive, Friday or Saturday dinner out at a restaurant. Some have changed drastically, such as the time (and speed) at which we eat breakfast. Some names continue to change or evolve, depending on where you live and your social background. Dinner. Supper. Lunch. Tea. Tiffin…It changes and changes all the time. For more information, explore the fascinating documentary series’ below, which provided much of the information for this posting.

Hungry For More?

A lot of the information gleamed here came from episodes of…

The Supersizers“, presented by Giles Corran and Sue Perkins.

If Walls Could Talk“, presented by Dr. Lucy Worsley.

Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner“, presented by Clarissa Dickson-Wright (of ‘Two Fat Ladies‘ fame).