Category Archives: American history

Research Ramblings: 19th Century Eyeglasses and the Museum of Vision, Part 3

As mentioned in my previous post, Jenny Benjamin of the Museum of Vision responded to my question about the eyewear options for a post-Civil War working class girl by sending pages from an eyewear catalog.

A page from the 1895 eyewear catalog

A page from the 1895 eyewear catalog

Not surprisingly, the selection isn’t very broad. After all, spectacles were not considered a fashion accessory back then. They are, however, considered a fashion accessory now, and Jenny mentioned she owns a pair of replica glasses. Apparently, If you want old fashioned glasses, you can go to Tom Valenza at www.historiceyewearcompany.com. His most recent claim to fame is outfitting the cast for the musical Hamilton. He also works with Civil War reenactors, and Jenny says his replicas are so good “they can fool the best of us.”

That piqued my interest. I’m old enough to remember opticians offering both glass and plastic lenses. As heavy as my hiqh prescription lenses are now, the glass ones were worse. So I posed this follow up to Jenny:

Quick question since you own a pair of Tom’s historic styled glasses. How comfortable are they? Any particular quirks associated with wearing them? (Even though my lenses are the lightest material, my ears and temples get fatigued from the weight after half a day of wear.)

Her response:

Ah, yes, comfort was not a high priority in the mid-1800s! Lenses were made of glass so they would be heavier than what the average person is used to. Because of that, I believe Tom doesn’t use authentic lenses, but the colors his lenses come in are true to the time period.

There are two key areas for comfort with eyeglasses: the bridge and the temples (ear pieces).

Bridges for eyeglasses in this time period did not have nose-pads. (This is different than pince-nez type specs). The metal of bridges for eyeglasses was thin so they could be bent to keep them tight. Otherwise, they were liable to slip down the nose. They were known to leave red marks on the face and cause headaches if worn too long.

Temple pieces were generally also made of thin metal and bent to keep them tight to the head. For those doing work that required them to hunch over, the riding bow or curved temples were best because they clung to the ears. However, most spectacles had the cheaper straight temples. All of these temples had a tendency to get caught in long hair – not pleasant. It probably wasn’t practical for a girl to take her glasses on and off if her hair was up.

Her reply makes me grateful for all the advances in material science since the 1800s. I am also grateful for all the details Jenny mentioned, like the red face marks and temples getting stuck in hair.

And so this researching effort has successfully concluded. Though if I have more eyewear history questions, I know where to go. Thanks, Jenny!

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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!

Research Ramblings: 19th Century Eyeglasses and the Museum of Vision, Part 1

It’s been a while since I’ve rambled about research. Mainly because my current WIP is a myth retelling that doesn’t require the historical accuracy that Cynisca and the Olive Crown did. However, the WIP’s first draft is completed, and I’m looking ahead to my next project: a historical middle grade set in the U.S. North right after the Civil War.

This is not an era I’m well acquainted or enamored with. Ancient Greece and Japan have been my preferred settings. However, I discovered a historical figure whose life resonated with me, and because she lived in the mid-1800’s, that’s where I’m going. As such, my Goodreads list now includes a bunch of American history non-fiction.

The thing about this time and place is that the historical record is larger and much more complete than my ancient settings. That translates into more details I need to get right, and one of those details is glasses.

My main character wore glasses. A contemporary mentions it in a description of her. It’s a detail that could work as a plot point, but using it requires knowledge of the state of eyewear at the time. However, while I found pages and pages about the clothes of the era, there’s not much about glasses. Finally, in frustration, I did a Google search for “eyeglasses museum.”

And the Museum of Vision popped up.

Yes, folks, the American Academy of Ophthalmology has a museum dedicated to ophthalmologic history. In addition to online resources, it has galleries at the academy’s national headquarters in San Francisco, which is within driving distance of my home. But while it is open to the public, appointments are required. So I called the listed number, which put me in touch with museum director Jenny Benjamin.

As it turns out, I am not the first writer to call Jenny regarding eyeglasses history. Once I explained what I was after, she offered to email me the information I was looking for and spare me a two-hour trip into the city. And she did! Plus she answered a string of follow up questions and was super nice about it!

So if you’re looking for information on old-time glasses, go to museumofvision.org. If you can’t find what you’re after on the website, give them a call. I’m sure they can help you out.

As for the questions I posed to Jenny, I’ll share them and her answers in Part 2.