On Collecting Ophthalmic Antiques

chatelaines, 1880 - 1920
chatelaines, 1880 - 1920
short handled lorgnettes, 1850 - 1900
short handled lorgnettes, 1850 - 1900
Scissors, quizzers, and lorgnettes, mostly 19th century
Scissors, quizzers, and lorgnettes, mostly 19th century
various styles of spectacles 1800 - 1950
various styles of spectacles 1800 - 1950
Chinese, mostly 19th century
Chinese, mostly 19th century
All these images are courtesy of the Stephen Oppenheimer Collection

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Ruth Pollack’s Video from October 15, 2012 created by Narratively “Eskimo Goggles on East 75th”

Written by Frank Barraclough. (This article first appeared in the October 2009 issue of "Ophthalmic Antiques")

Although certainly not confined to ophthalmic and optical professionals, collecting ophthalmic antiques would seem to be a natural, interesting and pleasurable pastime for them. It is a considerable help to know something about the subject as you can better understand the significance of the objects found. For example a 19th century non-luminous, ivory-handled ophthalmoscope can be fully appreciated by someone who understands the practical difficulties in using it with the sole aid of light from a flickering gas or oil lamp.

Fortunately the pleasure need not be proportionate to the expenditure. A child collecting leaves or flowers to press in a book, may in fact obtain more pleasure than a millionaire who buys old-master paintings to lock in a vault. A good rule is to collect what you personally find interesting and will enjoy owning. A sensible attitude is to collect for pleasure while at the same time considering the investment potential of any articles purchased. The collector who knows the history of his subject, who appreciates craftsmanship, who enjoys the beauty of the objects in his collection, is well on the way to being a connoisseur.
The ophthalmic antiques field is wide and it is not practical to collect everything. The Ophthalmic Antiques International Collectors’ Club maintains a list of some 40 special interests which individual members may specialise in if they wish. Obvious subjects include Spectacles, Lorgnettes, Cases, Telescopes & Opera Glasses, Books, Paintings & Prints, Examination & Surgical Instruments, Eye Baths, Tools & Machinery, Stamps, Coins & Tokens, Advertising Materials and many more.
Many people become collectors purely by chance. In my own case in my early days in practice, a patient brought in a pair of old steel spectacles because she “thought they might be of interest to me”. I thanked her and put them carefully away in a box, adding one or two more such gifts over the years. One day I decided to find out more about them and, although most were earlier 20th century models, I discovered the original pair dated back to 1760, this antiquity spurred me on to start collecting properly. Unfortunately this sort of thing rarely happens nowadays with antiques featuring so prominently on television! However, being involved in the optical profession did give me an early introduction to collecting, although I frequently wish I had become involved seriously many years earlier than I eventually did when availability was much greater and prices much lower!.

Try to assemble a balanced collection which has a theme and tells a story. It may contain just 10 items, or 2000 or more. It can be limited by confining it to a single subject, by the price you are prepared to pay for any individual item, or by concentrating on a particular period in history. Too many similar items can be just an accumulation unless you pursue a particular subject by showing its history, development and variations. Studying reference books and visiting established collections are two of the best ways in which to acquire a greater knowledge of your chosen subject. Nowadays there are also online museums so you can study artefacts from all over the world without leaving your home. There is, however, no real substitute for holding an item in your hands and examining it.
The more you know and the more items you have seen the better will be your position when you come to buy. Collectors without extensive knowledge should usually start buying inexpensive items at the bottom end of the market. It is unwise to go for expensive items until you have the experience to appraise them properly. There are many traps lying in wait for the inexperienced in the world of antiques and even experts can make mistakes. Always look twice before buying and, if possible, handle the item. What at first sight seems to be desirable may, upon a closer inspection, turn out to be damaged, repaired, a reproduction or perhaps not even what at first sight you thought it to be.

It might be imagined that the store-rooms and cupboards of old-established optical concerns could yield interesting material. Unfortunately, in many cases, previous refurbishments resulted in antique items being jettisoned amongst the “junk” of a clear-out. Local antique dealers and antiques fairs should be the first places should be the first places to start your collection and them can be very pleasurable even though it is very time consuming. However, great and successful collectors all have persistence and know that if they keep searching for long enough they will eventually find a prize or at least a bargain. Having exhausted your own locality the next step is to look further afield to regional centres which have major antiques auctions and markets. Finally you could consider international centres, perhaps combining your hobby with an enjoyable holiday. Once again the internet can bring you in touch without the trouble and expense of a long or overseas journey as many antiques shops, auction houses and museums nowadays post their catalogues online.
The history of optical devices is extremely interesting and a number of books are available describing it in detail. For this article we will give a short historical time-line of some important developments.

Spectacles were invented in northern Italy around 1286. The earliest type consisted of two small magnifiers riveted together at the ends of the handles called Rivet Spectacles which were clamped or held to the nose. They were later developed as one-piece with the lenses joined by a bow-shaped bridge and called Bow Spectacles, made in wood, horn, bone or leather and clamped or held to the nose. It was four and a half centuries before the first Side-pieces or Temples were invented around 1725. Sides gave much greater stability and gradually replaced Bow Spectacles until the latter made a surprise comeback as Pince-Nez at the end of the 19th century. From the collector’s viewpoint, Rivet Spectacles are extremely rare and you will only see them in museums. Bow Spectacles can occasionally be found but will be expensive as will anything before 1750. From then on, however, collectible spectacles become much more available. Lorgnettes were invented around 1770.

Telescopes were invented around 1609 and small Spyglasses followed later in the century, becoming extremely popular in the 18th century for viewing the opera. Binocular Opera Glasses were invented at the beginning of the 19th century. Both Spyglasses and Opera Glasses can be quite beautiful and make excellent subjects for a collection. Tiny Spyglasses concealed in Fans, Scent Bottles, Snuff Boxes and Charms are also very collectible.

Before 1800 the clearest Lenses were made of quartz, which continued in use even when optical-quality glass became available; its resistance to scratching made it preferable even though more expensive. Bifocal lenses appeared in the 18th century, the invention being usually accredited to Benjamin Franklin. Plastic lenses appeared early in the 20th century and today have almost ousted glass, whilst Contact Lenses have also been around for 100 years or so. Although Lenses are not visually attractive they have much historical appeal to certain collectors.

Instruments and Art offer other different and very varied subjects for collecting. Helmholtz invented the ophthalmoscope in 1851, whilst clinical sight-testing came into being towards the end of the 19th century with much subsequent development of ancillary equipment. The earliest Painting depicting the wearing of spectacles was made in 1351 and numerous Pictures, Prints and Caricatures depicting spectacle wearers have abounded through the centuries offering another area for the collector. Coins, medallions, tokens and stamps have also featured Spectacles. You will see from the above that the scope for collecting ophthalmic or optical antiques is practically endless and allows specialisation into a number of extremely interesting, attractive and potentially valuable channels for the collector. Much of this article has been culled from publications by Ronald MacGregor,

Reading Material

Fashions in Eyeglasses by Richard Corson. Peter Owen Ltd, London, 1980.

Atlas on the History of Spectacles by W.Poulet. Wayenborg, Germany, 1978. Three volumes with German text but “Volume 1 – Spectacles”, was also available in English.

Spectacles and Other Vision Aids by J. William Rosenthal. Norman Publishing, San Francisco, 1996.

Spectacles, Lorgnettes and Monocles by D.C.Davidson & R.J.S.MacGregor. Shire Publications, Princes Risborough, UK, 2002.

Restoring Ophthalmic Antiques by R.J.S. MacGregor. A new publication from the OAICC and available from September 2008 from the author, Ronald MacGregor, OAICC, 17 Corsehill Drive, West Kilbride, Ayrshire KA23 9HU, Scotland at £7.50p plus postage (surface mail to Canada & US is £1.50p).


British Optical Association Museum. Housed at the College of Optometrists in London. Also online as the MusEYEum at http://www.college-optometrists.org/index.aspx/pcms/site.college

Antique Spectacles and Other Visual Aids. (http://www.antiquespectacles.com) . A major Online Museum, established by Dr. David Fleishman, covering many topics in considerable detail and profusely illustrated. Contains a list of most major Optical Museums around the world.

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