Civil War Eye Glasses

Sagebrush

Corporal
Joined
Dec 26, 2010
Location
Morristown, TN
I have heard conflicting opinions as to whether wire-rim frames which curves around the ears were worn or even existed during the Civil War. Some have said that those styles of wire-rim glasses did not come into existence until after the War and that only straight frames which laid across the ears, and did not hook around, were worn. What's the scoop on this? Thanks!
 

johan_steele

Regimental Armorer
Retired Moderator
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
Location
South of the North 40
My own research included talking to a local fella & present day optometrist who collects eye glasses and was rather enlightening. Suprisingly prices are about the same today, when comapred to inflation.

The frame curving around the ear glasses are definetly a post war invention. Most typical had the lenses very small when compared to those of today, the pair I have were originally a set of sample/display glasses. The lenses aren't much larger than my eyes, you are forced to look straight at whoever you are talking to. There is NO peripheral vision w/ these. Some of the others I was shown that dated to the 1860's and prior were square or hex shaped. There was also a set that were designed to be folded up, those were suprisingly beefy.

Construction was from Brass, braided copper as well as steel. He also had a pair of 1860's glasses that had been coated w/ gutta percha.

An Optometrist (sp?) was one of the most highly paid in the medical profession at the time and often traveled quite a bit. He would able to often put together a pair of glasses while you waited from the stock he carried. The collector owned an 1880's Optometrists tool chest which was rather large but still portable. When full he would have been able to both figure out & fill the needed prescription for well over a hundred people. The tools were very similar to a watchmakers or jewlers set and many an eye doctor hand made the frames as well as he could do so more cheaply than sending off for them and it was almost 100% pure profit for him. Needless to say the quality might vary rather dramaticly.

Original eye glass frames didn't usually have screws but were fastened w/ a molten lead plug, which makes it almost impossible to put new lenses in an original set and is a way to date them. As I recall tt was actually during the ACW, in the US, that screws started to be commonly used.
 

M E Wolf

Colonel
Retired Moderator
Joined
Feb 9, 2008
Location
Virginia
In my research and collecting of eye-wear (glasses), there were around the ear wire rim glasses for those who rode horses.

In a photograph of General Grant's daughter, she was dressed up (as a child in costume) as the old woman in the shoe. She (Grant's young daughter approximately 5-7 years old), was wearing rimless eyeglasses similar to the pair I found in a 1812 writing slope that was wedged in a secret drawer.

A Ophthalmologist who collects eye wear where I am, and a Civil War buff -- has identified several characteristics for 1860.

They have no eye pads; they have supporting sides to the glasses that can be -- wrapped wire that can be bent, to include to wrap around the ears when necessary; that slide mid ear-piece that are adjustable to the wearer; weave wire ear piece with a 'tear' drop or 'paddle' end and those that slightly bow but has pressure to keep them on the head at the back of the frame by tension. Lenses can be round, oval, hex-angled, clear or tinted. Rims and side ear supporting pieces can be as thin as the interior of USB wire. Some are slightly wider. I agree with Johan_Steele's description of screw and lead inserted pins where they fold nearest the frame and or lenses.

Having to wear glasses -- the equestrian glasses would make perfect sense, as I do have the other straight ear supports. They wouldn't stay on if I were to take a few fences in a hunt, or jerk my head around if I was in a Cavalry duel.

A few of the eyeglasses I have came with eye-glass cases. They lay very flat and in a case that is as long as the folded pair of glasses, approximately 7 inches long, about a inch and one-half wide. When they are pulled out the pop up a bit with the spring in the metal --silver metal and brass. Rarely are there gold frames.

Some frames are 'stamped' with the brand/maker. Because my 'main source' is a collector they have books to catalog known eye-wear shops and eye-doctors.

The problem is 'availability' and 'serviceability' of these eye-glasses. Sometimes wearing contacts is the solution or, have one pair for non-combat and another less authentic pair for out in the re-enactment field.

I would suggest that more canvasing be done among the re-enactment community and or Ophthalmologist historian. Smithsonian may be of assistance as perhaps the Museum of the Confederacy, as I believe they might have General Lee's eye-wear in the collection.

President Lincoln is to have had eye-glasses and may be on display at Ford's Theater Museum, in Washington.
http://www.americanheritage1.com/presidents/abraham-lincoln.htm

http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?scsmbib:1:./temp/~ammem_4C0b::
The items consist of one pair of gold-rimmed spectacles with sliging temples and with one of the bows mended with string; one pair of folding spectacles in a silver case;[excerpt] 7.) Glass lense cleaner and buffer 8.) Glasses case 9.) Lincoln's eyeglasses with name on inner stem. [end of excerpt]

http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/3253743680/
and...
NOTE: These two sites have famous people's eyeglasses, e.g. Lincoln, Lee, Jeff. Davis, etc.
http://www.antiquespectacles.com/treasures/mistaken.htm
http://www.antiquespectacles.com/people/people_present2.htm

This may be of help for your modern purchase for eye-wear for re-enactments.
http://www.blockaderunner.com/Catalog/catpg28b.html

http://www.focusers.com/mcallister.html

and originals they did have for sale:
http://www.blockaderunner.com/other/eyeglasses.html

http://www.eyeglasseswarehouse.com/pages/civilwar.html
M. E. Wolf
 

Sagebrush

Corporal
Joined
Dec 26, 2010
Location
Morristown, TN
Thank you all for your detailed replies. It was all very informative and helpful and pretty well confirms what my own limited research had indicated. Thanks again!
 

Republican Blues

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Oct 13, 2010
Location
on the Savannah Station..
FWIW, I had a pair of the Focusers McAllister frames and loved them, need to get another pair, as i had to wear mine to work, and well, you can only snag em so many times on dust masks/spray hoods, before they go......but they are inexpensive (about $40) so at least I have the lenses still, LOL. But seriously they are nice frames
 

Jon G.

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 26, 2010
Location
Anderson, IN
I found a period set of glasses at a sutler tent with straight shafts that just lay on the ears. I was truly lucky in that the prescription was very close to what I wore to see at a distance. I don't remember the cost but they had to have been reasonable. What's the odds of that ever happening?

I wore them to all of the 125th major battles and they served me well.

If you need some and see some for sale, try them out, they might just work for you.
 

DanB

Corporal
Joined
Nov 3, 2011
Location
St. Augustine, FL
This is an old thread, but I wanted to revive it for just a quick question related to this-- were eye glasses common during the CW? I've heard that people preferred not to wear them, even if they needed them, because they were something that people typically associated with the elderly or feeble. Any one have any info in this?
 

ole

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Retired Moderator
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
Location
Near Kankakee
One doesn't see them often in CDVs. I suspect they were rather common, but worn rarely.
 

carson_reb

Sergeant Major
Joined
Dec 14, 2010
Location
Carson City, Nevada
If anyone has a picture of what eye glasses circa 1861 looked like, I'd appreciate it. My eyesight is beginning to fade, and I wouldn't be surprised if eventually I may need to wear spectacles constantly...even when reenacting. I'd like a visual of what to look for, if you all don't mind. I promise, I will be able to see it. :wink:
 
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