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A Small Girl Puts on Her Grandmother's Spectacles and Pretends to Read a Newspaper Giclee Print

A Small Girl Puts on Her Grandmother’s Spectacles and Pretends to Read a Newspaper

I had my annual optometrist appointment today. With all the advance technology they were using on me, I thought it might be interesting visit the history of the field up to the 20th century. Most information provided is shamelessly ascertained from the American Optometry Association.

By the 19th century glasses have been used to correct visual impairment for over the past 500 years! I was wholly unaware of this, did anyone else realize this?! Also the different types of visual weakness from myopia (near sightedness and far sightedness) were established soon after; as were the correct curvature of the lens solutions. The 18th century saw the first “designer” or lasting spectacles business by way of John McAlister & Sons. Although, something tells me people did not flash their specs, flippantly commenting on their McAlisters, as a Modern A-Lister would of her Channel frames. In the late 1700s, Benjamin Franklin, forever tinkering, developed the first recorded bifocals.

During the 1800s more nuanced advances were made in the field. The normal visual field was laid down and trial lens were made to test “prescriptions.” This is the grandfather of the common machine found in every optometrist office. I am unfamiliar with the name of the device, but it is the testing of lens of which the doctor will ask a patient “Do the letters look better here . . . or here? At one or two? Two or three? Better, worse, or about the same?”–You know what I speak of. The eye chart that accompanies this little diagnostic trial was conceived roughly twenty years later. Around 1880s, optometrists were experimenting with blown-glass contact lens that sit on the eye. I shudder violently at the thought of these early contacts. I suppose science has to start somewhere, but how dangerous and uncomfortable they must have been! On the other hand, could you imagine your poor, poor grandparents millimeters in front of the looking glass trying to get those suckers in their eyes? It brings a whole new level of scary when someone proclaims to “STOP! No body move! I have lost my contact!”

Contacts or spectacles; many people who would have thrived with corrective vision refused to purchase the necessary items. While, yes, they were expensive, they were not exorbitant, the main reason was fear of drawing attention to themselves. By this, I mean they were perceived as flawed human beings; disabled and at disadvantaged. Spectacle-wearers became targets for pickpockets and other thievery. The “flawed” notion was also deeply tied to vanity. Some things never change.-As it was, there are not many old photographs of younger men with glasses and even more rare, are photographs of bespectacled young women. I did dredge up a view of the braver souls for your viewing pleasure:

Above: William Butler Yeats

Our Edwardian President: Theodore Roosevelt