Research Ramblings: 19th Century Eyeglasses and the Museum of Vision, Part 2

As mentioned in Part 1, the search for the specifics of mid-19th century eyewear brought me to the Museum of Vision. As to my questions, I first wanted to know where my working class heroine could purchase her first glasses and how much of a dent they would they make in her post-Civil War budget.

This was Jenny’s response:

Regarding who sold eyeglasses, this is a question that has many answers. According to Joseph Bruneni, author of “Looking Back: An Illustrated History of the American Ophthalmic Industry,” everyone in America who was concerned with eyesight was an “oculist” until the 1800s. This is when American medicine became organized (the AMA was founded in 1847) and people grew concerned about the lack of adequate medical training and licensure in the U.S.  Over the next 50 years oculists then moved into two camps- ophthalmologists (trained physicians) and opticians. Amongst opticians, there were two more subcategories: “refracting opticians” and “dispensing opticians.” Refracting opticians were the newer group – they applied the newest methods to test eyesight and prescribe eyeglasses. Dispensing opticians simply had a stock of eyeglasses that the customer tried on until they found a pair that more or less worked.

Ophthalmologists, as physicians, usually opened a practice or clinic from which they could prescribe glasses but also perform surgery. Ethics barred them from advertising and it was generally considered to be a poor reflection if a practice was on the ground floor of a building. Refracting opticians did not have these constraints. They advertised freely and generally set up retail stores off the street. Dispensing opticians could have been anyone, the jewelry store and pharmacy being two popular places to shop for glasses.

The jewelry store and pharmacy! That was a surprise. I’d thought prescription glasses at the drug store was a relatively new development, and glasses are definitely not part of the modern jewelry store’s lineup.

As for the cost, Jenny emailed me this:

Cover of an eyewear catalog from 1895

Cover of an eyewear catalog from 1895

Pretty cool! This catalog was printed 25 years after the period I’m interested in, but Jenny informed me that the styles wouldn’t have changed much.

More in my next post!

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One response to “Research Ramblings: 19th Century Eyeglasses and the Museum of Vision, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Research Ramblings: 19th Century Eyeglasses and the Museum of Vision, Part 3 | Keeping It In Canon ...mostly

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