Dating as far back as the 16th century, and probably far older, the eye bath or eye wash cup was the standard object used to clean the eye until the eyedropper was invented.
Most commonly made of inexpensive glass, eye bath cups were also fashioned from porcelain, silver, and later in aluminum. The shape remained the same, the oval bowl small with curved ends designed to fit over the eye socket completely. The shape of the stem varied, although not too drastically as it was required to be sturdy for gripping.
Below are the first trio of extant examples. The eye bath cup set as the Featured Image for this blog is German, made by Meissen of porcelain in the mid-18th century, the floral decoration called “deutsche Blumen” with purple highlighting and gilt rim.
This was an at-home device kept handy and used frequently. Whether using plain water or a medicated solution, such as weak boric acid, an eye bath cup provided a better method of cleaning the eye than splashing. One might use such a device to remove dust or an object from the eye, to treat an irritated or infected eye, or simply as a refreshment for strained or tired eyes.
To use, the bowl would first be filled with the solution, then the patient would bend forward until one eye was covered securely. With the eye open, the patient threw their head back, ensuring lavage (washing) of the eye by blinking several times. This could, of course, be repeated as often as necessary.
Eyedroppers date to sometime in the late 1840s, the rise in popularity attributed to Louis Pasteur who used them frequently in his laboratory. In fact, they were known as “Pasteur pipettes” but it is certain that Pasteur did not invent them. Who did is unknown. Used for a long while as transfer pipettes in scientific settings, it gradually came to be applied to instilling medicated drops as such medicines for the eye were perfected. Again, it isn’t a particular date or specific patent, as the device already existed in a wide assortment of types, but eyedroppers did not replace eye baths until well into the 20th century. Even to this day, eye baths are still used when a few drops into the eye just doesn’t do the job!