Last updated: February 9, 2016
Whether used for scholarly, fashion or corrective reasons, eyeglasses were indeed one of the world's most important inventions. One of St. Louis's many successful industries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was eyeglass production. This month we highlight from our collection interesting examples of spectacles made by two different St. Louis companies-Erkers Eyecare and Abel&MacDonald.
In ancient times, a technology developed regarding "reading stones" or simple magnifiers. Early records indicate spectacles first appeared in Italy in 1286, with the city of Florence eventually leading in their production and sales. From the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, the production of spectacles spread into northern Europe and England. Early spectacles were considered visually charming and made the wearer appear wise and learned.
After Gutenberg's invention of the printing press and thus wider book availability, the demand for spectacles rose dramatically for reading purposes.In the mid-eighteenth century, spectacles came into more common use in the United States.The first optical shop in America was opened in Philadelphia in 1799. It was Ben Franklin who invented the first bifocal lens.
The term "eyeglass" often referred to any lens that could be put up to the eyes, including things like monocles or lorgnettes. It was during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that English-speaking countries universally called eyeglasses "spectacles". The term "spectacles" specifically refers to eyeglass frames that have side pieces on your temples to hold the glasses to your eyes.
Artifact JEFF 1612 is a pair of steel frame spectacles made by Erkers Eyecare, a family-owned business which started in St. Louis in 1879.Erkers had the first optical lens factory west of the Mississippi and is the oldest optical company in the United States still owned by the founding family.Steel-framed spectacles became extremely popular by the 1860's, widely praised for being light and durable. Oval-shaped lenses and frames were the most popular of all styles of spectacles during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Gold was another common metal used for spectacle frames. The second example of spectacles, JEFF 7636, is a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles with small ear pieces and an adjustable sliding ear piece to adjust the side stem. This pair also has oval lenses. The spectacles came with a leather case with the name of the company, Abel and MacDonald, and address (622 Locust) embossed on the front.