Lincoln’s Spectacles at Gettysburg

By Alan McBrayer

“The use of Burt & Willard patent spectacles by Abraham Lincoln while giving the Gettysburg address is controversial – but I believe the balance of evidence supports this conclusion.

An article that first appeared in the New York Sun quoted ex-Congressman Edward McPherson describing the scene at Gettysburg on the day of Lincoln’s address. He stated, according to this article (reprinted in many newspapers), that “…he arose, put on his spectacles, and drew these sheets from his pocket.” (New Hampshire Sentinel, May 4, 1887). An unidentified writer, who claimed to have been “guard of honor” that accompanied the Presidential party, disputed many of McPherson’s recollections; indeed, he claimed that McPherson had disclaimed responsibly for the New York Sun article. This writer stated that “he did not have on his glasses.” (Kansas City Times, July 8, 1887; originally published in the Manchester Mirror).

In an 1891 article, journalist John Russell Young wrote of his memories of the event, stating that “From an ancient case he drew a pair of steel-framed spectacles, with bows clasping upon the temples in front of the ears, and adjusted them with deliberation.” (reprinted in the Idaho Register, September 15, 1893). Young later wrote his memoir, which quoted from a letter written to Young by former Kansas Senator John J. Ingalls. Ingalls wrote,” When I was at Gettysburg last year I talked with McPherson about the dedication ceremony and he mentioned many of the incidents you describe; notably, his putting on a pair of spectacles with short bows, clasping on the temples just behind the eyes”. (Young, John Russell. Men and Memories. New York: F. Tennyson Neely, 1901, p. 72).

In his book, Henry Ester Jacobs wrote of his experiences at the Gettysburg event. He wrote of Lincoln: “He drew from his pocket a metallic spectacle case and adjusted a pair of steel glasses near the tip of his nose.” (Jacobs, Henry Ester. Lincoln’s Gettysburg World Message. Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publication House, 1919, pp. 70-71).

The combined descriptions above (except for the one exception) describe Lincoln’s spectacles as having a metallic case and short temple bows, made of steel. The Burt & Willard patent spectacles owned by Lincoln fit these description, except they are made of gold. It appears to me to be strong evidence he used a pair of Burt & Willard spectacles, either the pair at the Library of Congress, or another pair now lost and unknown to researchers. Burt & Willard spectacles were also made in steel, although the correspondents quoted here could have been mistaken about the frame material.”

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