Abraham Lincoln’s Eyeglasses: A Fresh Look Reveals a World-Class Treasure

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from the Jan 4, 1859 patent #22485

Special credit goes to Mark Dimunation, Chief, Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Clark Evans, Head, Reference and Reader Services Section, Maria Nugent, Head, Book and Paper Treatment, all at the Library of Congress; Alan McBrayer, widely-recognized authority on 19th century American-made eyeglasses; Cindy VanHorn, Lincoln Librarian at the Allen County Public Library; Kara Vetter, Registrar at the Indiana State Museum; Neil Handley, Curator, British Optical Association Museum; and Karen Mafera, Circulation Supervisor at the Sharon Public Library.

Appreciation is also extended to Frank Namisniak, former owner of Franklin & Co; optical historian Dr. Charles Letocha; Jean Heilprin Diehl, great-great granddaughter of Isaac Heilprin; Jennifer King, Manuscripts Librarian, Gelman Library of George Washington University; Mary Beth Corrigan, PNC Bank archivist; Todd Gustavson, Curator of Technology and Mark Osterman, Process Historian at the George Eastman House; Rachel Bohlmann, Director, Public Programs Department, Newberry Library; Olga Tsapina, Manuscripts Department, The Huntington Library (Papers of Ward H. Lamon); Jenny Benjamin, Director, Museum of Vision, American Academy of Ophthalmology; Jim Garrett, Lincoln assassination historian; Lincoln historians Dr. Ralph Riffenburgh and Earl J. Hunt, OD; and webmaster Lee Berkowitz.

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Image source, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs online catalogue, via Wikipedia
two pair of glasses, in his pockets at the time of assassination
Abraham Lincoln was definitely one of American’s greatest presidents. His two pair of eyeglasses are historic vision aids. As artifacts they are considered important national treasures.
smaller, folding, less publicized pair with original case A fresh examination of these relics along with an evaluation of the known Lincoln photographs was undertaken and new vital information has emerged. The smaller less publicized pair and its tiny case deserve greater respect. They are dated and were the only eyeglasses with which Abe was photographed (on three different occasions) leading the writer to conclude these were Lincoln’s most favorite glasses of all.
Inside Ford’s Theater – contemporary sketch by Alfred R. Waud, Harper’s Weekly
Lithograph of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln in the Presidential Box at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, at about 10:15 p.m., Wikipedia
Ford’s Theater in 1865
Ford’s Theater in 2011
President Abraham Lincoln on his death bed, Harper’s Weekly from May 6, 1865
Plaque stating Lincoln died in that house April 15, 1865 at 7:22 AM
Peterson House where Lincoln died – contemporary drawing
Peterson House in 2011
Lincoln was the first American President to be assassinated (Harper's Weekly image) (Currier and Ives image). This occurred in Washington, DC at Ford’s Theater (contemporary image) (modern image) the evening of April 14, 1865. President Lincoln died the following morning at 7:22 AM at the Peterson House (contemporary image) (modern image) directly across the street from the theater.
contents of the Lincoln’s pockets - Wikipedia
Library of Congress, Washington, DC
box given by the family in 1937 to the Library of Congress – photo 10/31/11
In 1937, the family donated all the objects in Lincoln’s possession at the time of the assassination to the Library of Congress. The locked black box was opened in 1974 and an evaluation was performed by several renowned optometrists.
contents of the box – photo 10/31/11
Dr. David analyzing the patent date on the reverse of the nose bridge
On October 30, 2011 the stored contents of Lincoln’s pockets were examined again in the presence of Clark Evans, Maria Nugent and Jim Garrett. This great privilege and opportunity to study the glasses in one of the curatorial offices turned into an especially remarkable experience.
  After the exam an evaluation was initiated of all the Lincoln photographs in the Ostendorf Collection where eyeglasses appear. That study also demonstrates new important conclusions.
  The purpose of this webpage is to share facts and impressions of the eyeglasses and the photographs for everyone to fully understand and appreciate. All the material gathered from this comprehensive review will be presented below.
  I will explain and demonstrate that the folding pair is extraordinary and, contrary to what has previously been thought, this small one was the only pair with which Lincoln was ever photographed. From its little recognized Burt and Willard, patent #22485, Jan 4, 1859 these glasses were “so constructed as to allow the folding together of the glass frame and the short temple bows and cups, forming one of the most convenient and snugly portable spectacles for use and for the pocket ever before invented or used”. Lincoln apparently embraced this concept once these glasses with their original tiny case was in his own possession.
very rare patent-dated pair Little beknownst to anyone previously, Lincoln’s second pair is very very rare. In my opinion, these patent-dated spectacles deserve new ranking and appreciation as one of the world’s most famous and important pairs of eyeglasses, ever created.


1. The History of Lincoln Related to Eyeglasses

We have seen it written numerous times that “Lincoln probably bought his first pair of eyeglasses on May 28, 1856 in Bloomington Illinois, for 37 ½ cents”. At the time he was accompanied by another lawyer friend, Henry Clay Whitney and they both planned to attend a convention called to form a new political party. They had been on their way to the Chicago and Alton Depot Railway Station to meet some arrivals from Chicago. The glasses were purchased in a tiny jewelry shop with the remark by Lincoln that he ‘had got to be forty-seven years old and kinder needed them.’

However, based on the work of Alan McBrayer, we now believe it may have been John Phillips who fit Lincoln as early as 1854, likely in Springfield. Phillips claims to have made and delivered Lincoln's spectacles ("his first pair", in 1854 during the session of the State Legislature (from newspaper article, "Lincoln's Spectacles, Chicago Daily Tribune, July 31, 1883). This appears to trump the claim of Henry Clay Whitney (in the previous paragraph) that he bought his first pair in Bloomington in May, 1856. (Whitney, Henry C., Life on the Circuit with Lincoln. Boston: Estes and Lauiat, 1892, p. 75).

Over the years other reading glasses were worn by Lincoln. However, only two are DEFINITELY known to have survived, those at the Library of Congress. Some have surfaced but do not seem to have the qualifications necessary for solid provenance (see Section 12 below). Others are missing and likely are lost forever.

2. Collected Works of Lincoln (where he mentions his spectacles)

In 1953, the Abraham Lincoln Association published The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, a multi-volume set of Lincoln's correspondence, speeches, and other writings. Roy P. Basler and his editorial staff, with the continued support of the association, spent five years transcribing and annotating Lincoln's papers. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln represented the first major scholarly effort to collect and publish the complete writings of Abraham Lincoln, and the edition has remained an invaluable resource to Lincoln scholars. Through the efforts of the Abraham Lincoln Association, the edition is now available in electronic form.

Lincoln’s first public use of his glasses may have occurred July 10, 1858. While addressing an audience from the balcony of the old Tremont House in Chicago, Illinois, Lincoln replied to remarks that Stephen A. Douglas had made the night before. Regarding Lecompton Constitution, Lincoln stated “Gentlemen, reading from speeches is a very tedious business, particularly for an old man that has to put on spectacles, and the more so if the man be so tall that he has to bend over to the light”.

Then in Ottawa, Illinois on August 21, 1858, Lincoln read a long extract from a speech he had given four years earlier, but he was having difficulty seeing the words. Someone in the crowd apparently called out “Put on your specs”. So Mr. Lincoln replied “Yes, sir, I am obliged to do so. I am no longer a young man.”

3. Ward H. Lamon and a Special Gift to his Very Good Friend and Associate

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Ward Hill Lamon (1827-1893) was a burly and boisterous prosecuting attorney from Danville, Il (Vermillion County) who met Lincoln in the autumn of 1847. He soon became Lincoln’s fully trusted, personal friend and then was his law partner in the Eight Judicial Circuit, first in Danville and later in Bloomington.

Lamon remained the confidential friend of Lincoln also during the time he was president. In 1861he was appointed by Lincoln to be Marshall of the District of Columbia. Lamon was the person who organized the Nov 19, 1863 procession down to the Gettysburg Cemetery. Lamon then introduced the President of the United States to the audience. The Gettysburg Address, given to dedicate that hallowed ground as a National Cemetery, was read by a bespectacled Lincoln, who had some tears in his eyes by the end of that short speech..

Lamon is perhaps best known for his fidelity and for the unwavering loyalty with which he guarded Lincoln during the stormy days of the Civil War. A devoted Lamon was Lincoln’s self-appointed bodyguard; unfortunately he was away on a special mission in Richmond, Virginia at the time of the assassination. Of course, in his Recollections of Abraham Lincoln Lamon reveals that before he left for Richmond, he implored the president not to "go out at night after [he] was gone, particularly to the theatre.”

One pair of eye glasses at the Library of Congress is solid gold with adjustable band-slider sides and a string repair to the left hinge. Along the distal region of the right sidearm it says “A. Lincoln, presented by Ward H. Lamon.” Near the proximal region on the right it says “J. Phillips”. This pair must have been gifted to Lincoln by his close friend Lamon. Phillips was a Chicago optician in the late 1850s. Although we do not know for certain when these glasses were purchased and leter given by Lamon, one might assume these two events occurred in the very late 1850s.

A spectacles cord is readily seen in three different 1860 photos and it may very well have been attached to the same glasses described above. They were probably damaged prior to 1863 (when the other pair appears in photos) and they must have been repaired by Lincoln himself (the string would have been used after the left sidearm became detached from the hinge). Later Lincoln still carried these in his pocket without wearing them, for sentimental reasons.

Lamon in his later years wrote two books about Lincoln. One was titled The Life of Abraham Lincoln from his birth to his Inauguration as President, Boston, 1872. In it Lamon wrote “A few days after Lincoln had delivered his “The House-divided-against-itself-Speech” in the hall of the House of Representatives, June 16, 1858, Lincoln was visited by a Dr. Long “who came to his office, and delivered to him a foretaste of the remarks he was doomed to hear for several months. ‘Well, Lincoln,’ said he ‘that foolish speech of yours will kill you, - will defeat you in this contest, and probably for all offices for all time to come. I am sorry, sorry, - very sorry: I wish it was wiped out of existence. Don’t you wish it, now?’ Mr. Lincoln had been writing during the doctor’s lament; but at the end of it he laid down his pen, raised his head, lifted his spectacles, and with a look half quizzical, half contemptuous, replied, ‘Well, doctor, if I had to draw pen across, and erase my whole life from existence, and if I had one poor gift or choice left, as to what I should save from the wreck, I should choose that speech, and leave it to the world un-erased’

4. Dr. John Phillips, Optician and Oculist

The gold pair described above with the presentation inscription from Ward H. Lamon are also stamped “J. Phillips”. Dr. John Phillips, optician, made these marked spectacles now at the Library of Congress. Other spectacles worn by Lincoln that are either unidentified or destroyed were also probably made by Phillips, a noted optician who has a doctor-client relationship with Lincoln.

Phillips was listed in the Chicago, Illinois city directories in all the years between 1858 and 1867/68. He authored two books related to the following subject - Advice on the Use and Abuse of Spectacles.

The following comments have been kindly supplied by noted researcher and historian Alan McBrayer. Eventually these comments will be expanded in his upcoming book on 19th century American makers of eyeglasses.

(1) An advertisement in a Chicago city guide: “Dr. J. Phillips, practical optician and oculist, 168 S. Clark Street, Chicago. Spectacles suited by the inspection of the eye. ‘There is no such word as fail.’ This saying is verified, and every person can call and see the proof, that Dr. John Phillips will suit you with spectacles by the inspection of the eye. Over 1000 persons can attest to the truth of the statement in this city.”

(2) “We take pleasure in recommending Dr. John Phillips as a superior optician and a safe practical oculist. (Signed) President Abraham Lincoln, Governor Richard Yates." (A Guide to the City of Chicago: its public buildings, places of amusement, commercial, benevolent, and religious institutions, churches, hotels, roads, etc. etc.: with a map of the city: and numerous illustrations of the principal buildings. Chicago: T. Ellwood Zell, 1868).

(3) "Dr. John Phillips, 120 Fourth Ave., Chicago. Optical, microscopic, and mathematical instruments. A very attractive display of the above-named goods, consisting of spectacles, eye glasses, telescopes, barometers, opera glasses, etc. The optical goods shown were all of the exhibitor’s own manufacture; the human eye, of which a large model was displayed, being his specialty and the study of a life-time. Although the display of this exhibitor was attractive, yet two faded testimonials, contained in a glass case, seem to be the center of attention, one being from the lamented late President Lincoln, and the other from Governor Yates, both of which gentleman's letters were highly flattering to the skill of the exhibitor as an oculist of deserving merit." (The Inter-state Exposition Souvenir; containing a historical sketch of Chicago; also a record of the great interstate exposition of 1873, from its inception to its close; names as exhibitors, and description of articles exhibited. Chicago: Van Arsdale & Massie, 1873). Note: The current locations of these letters are unknown.

(4) From the Chicago Daily Tribune, July 31, 1883: Lincoln's Spectacles. A Chat with the Oculist Who Sold in His First Pair. 'Yes, I sold Abraham Lincoln his first pair of spectacles,' said Dr. J. Phillips, the veteran Chicago oculist, 'but it's such a long time ago, my boy, that I can't remember the date exactly. Let me see -- he was elected President in 1860, wasn't he? Well, it was five or six years before that. Yes, it was about the time of the Legislature in Springfield -- that I sold him his first pair of spectacles. He used to wear his pants in his boots then, and nobody thought of him as a future president. Well, some editor down there paid me $15 to make Mr. Lincoln a pair of gold spectacles, and those were the first he ever wore. He had an office on Springfield square, just opposite mine, and I remember that I took the spectacles over to him. When he was elected President I made him three pairs -- one of gold and two of steel. I came to Chicago in 1856, and Dr. Wallace, who was afterword a paymaster in the Army, used to come here every year to get Abe Lincoln’s spectacles changed. I would furnish new ones, and fix up the old ones and sell them to other people. By the way, that reminds me that I afterwards sold the $15 pair of gold spectacles, with Lincoln's name on them, to Lill, the brewer, but the latter is dead now. Yes, I knew the Lincoln family pretty well, and I straightened Bob's eyes for him when he was a little fellow. He was born cross- eyed, you know. Abe Lincoln was a good friend of mine, but I won't tell you the stories he used to tell me, for I wouldn't want you to put them in the paper.' And the reporter left Dr. Phillips chewing the cud of the old jokes and chuckling. Note: William Lill, a noted Chicago brewer, died in 1875. His brewery burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire. Dr. William Wallace was Lincoln’s brother-in-law.

One still must wonder - when did Ward Lamon purchase the gold spectacles he had engraved for presentation to Lincoln. Is that the gold pair that Dr. Phillips made when Lincoln was elected? Where is the gold pair bearing Lincoln’s name that Dr. Phillips sold to William Lill? Did it melt in the Great Chicago Fire? Was Dr. Phillip’s memory of the events accurate? Where are the steel pairs? Many good questions remain unanswered here.

5. Lincoln’s First Inaugural

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper described the new President had put on “steel-rimmed glasses” in order to read his speech on March 4, 1861.

Abraham Lincoln was farsighted and only needed glasses to read. From the March 8, 1861 edition of the “Chicago Tribune” describing the President-elect’s inauguration: “All being seated, Senator Baker, of Oregon, rose and said: ‘Fellow citizens, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, will now proceed to deliver his inaugural address.’ Mr. Lincoln rose, calm, collected and serene in manner, and, with a preliminary glance over his vast and imposing auditory, put on his spectacles and began to read…”

Were the glasses he was adjusting the pair from Ward Lamon? Were these also associated with that spectacles cord, seen in several 1860 photos? Was “steel-rimmed” a correct description of the material (perhaps seen from a distance)? Were they actually gold instead? The correct answer may never be realized.

6. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Jay Monaghan in “Diplomat in Carpet Slippers: Abraham Lincoln Deals with Foreign Affairs” (Indianapolis:Bobbs-Merrill, 1945) wrote that at Gettysburg, before delivering his November 19, 1863 address, once during Edward Everett’s two hour oration, Lincoln stirred in his chair: “He took out his steel-bowed spectacles, put them on his nose, took two pages of manuscript from his pocket, looked them over and put them back.”

Again from a distance was “steel-bowed” accurate in terms of the material? Were these actually gold instead?

Lincoln's Spectacles at Gettysburg

7. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

Lincoln read his March 4th 1865 speech but there was no mention of the use of eyeglasses.

8. Burt and Willard, opticians

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The same pair of gold glasses appears with Lincoln in photos between August 1863 and February 1865. No other eyeglasses appear in any other known images of Abraham Lincoln.

Burt & Willard folding spectacles were made by John Burt of Hartford, Connecticut and William W. Willard of Syracuse, New York. These glasses were sold from 1860 to as late as 1867. The earliest known advertisement for these glasses is March 24, 1860 and very few others have been located. Burt’s shop probably made the lenses since he had advertised as a lens maker for some years prior to the War. Three other gold examples of these glasses are known to exist, each slightly different. Patent date information is present on the back of the nose bridge of them all.

The tiny silver case with patina appears original to Lincoln’s folding gold glasses. There are no marking on this Library of Congress case. Only one other similar case is known and it is held at the BOA Museum in London. The term “Registered” can be seen on one end of that silver case. Interesting here is the fact that the term “registered” does not generally appear on American made products, and it is believed that this case was made after the Lincoln case. BOA Museum blog.

The Burt and Willard patent #22485 is from Jan 4, 1859. Part of it states the following “So constructed as to allow the folding together of the glass frame and the short temple bows and cups, forming one of the most convenient and snugly portable spectacles for use and for the pocket ever before invented or used”

Click to view the
J. Burt and W. Willard spectacles patent #22485

One may assume there were a number of these created in gold in the 1860s. However they were quite fragile so one can also assume many became damaged or were melted later for their gold content. Only four in gold have survived to date. Two others are in a London Museum collection but we believe they were copies from the original American patent. Neither of these has a patent date marked anywhere on the blued-steel frame.

McClure's Magazine, Vol. 32, no. 4, February 1909, has an article "An Audience with Abraham Lincoln." On page 447-448, Lincoln is described wearing the Burt and Willard glasses, due to their unusual appearance. This happened at the White House "about the time when the Army of the Potomac, under McClellan, was lying at Yorktown. (Yorktown fell to Union forces May 4,1862). Author of the article Bancroft states that "a pair of short-shanked gold spectacles sat low down upon his nose, the shanks catching the temples, and he could easily look over them if he so desired."

How many gold examples were made originally is an unknown? How and when did Lincoln acquire his gold pair? How about the slim possibility he had more than one pair? Significant questions remain unanswered. However, the Burt & Willard patented glasses appear to be associated with Lincoln beginning as early as April 1862, a fact now confirmed thanks to the tremendous research efforts of Alan McBrayer.

9. The Library of Congress

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The locked leather box containing the contents of Lincoln’s pockets the night of his assassination was passed down in the family and then was donated to the Library of Congress by Lincoln’s granddaughter Mrs. Charles Isham in October 1937. The box remained unopened until the spring of 1976. At that time the prescription for the first pair of glasses was measured by Dr. William B. Glew and also Dr. Kenneth Meyers, Director of Optometry, Veterans Administration Department of Medicine and Surgery in Washington. The determination was +1.62 each eye (though this was noted as +1.75 in another published article). The other pair was measured at +2.00 each eye. Since both pairs of glasses were in his pockets at the time of the assassination, it was assumed these had at some time been worn by Lincoln.

A very unusual neat glass lens cleaner was also found in Lincoln’s pocket. There are two soft cushion pads for cleaning the optical glass. A similar example has never been seen by this examiner.

The Library does have one wonderful piece of ephemera that is worthy of mention since it appears on their website for anyone who might wish to search for it. Evidently a Springfield, Mass optician by the name of Barnett Lazarus wanted to make some reading glasses for the President. So he wrote a letter which has become part of the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. He stated he “would like to supply the President with a pair of spectacles, and beautifully lenses”. We do not believe he received any reply or conducted any formal business with the President.

One must appreciate the fact that Lazarus was from Massachusetts and the President already had an association with opticians both in Chicago and Washington, DC. Another interesting fact was learned. Barnett Lazarus worked for (Frank) Lazarus and Morris, manufacturers in Hartford; they also had a factory in Sheffield, England in the early 1870s.

The Barnett Lazarus letter on the LOC website can be interpreted as follows:

Springfield, Ma, March 3, 1864

To his Excellency Abraham Lincoln
President of the United States of America

I have very recently succeeded in producing very beautiful and particular lenses, of much service to decayed or failing sight. The lenses are of the periscopic form, and most beautifully tinted, and they can be adapted to almost any eye. Might I have the honor and satisfaction of supplying your Excellency with a pair? I shall have the greatest pleasure in waiting on your Excellency, at any time you might specify after the 26th.
Trusting for a favorable reply.

I am your Excellency’s Humble and obedient Servant
31222 Barnett Lazarus

10. Franklin & Co Opticians, Washington, DC. and Lincoln’s Signed Check

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The original business of Franklin & Co was founded by Morris I. Franklin in Philadelphia in the mid-1850s. Isaac Heilprin (1827-1900) was a co-founder and in 1861 the shop moved to Washington, DC. Abraham Lincoln entered that shop on May 4, 1864 and purchased eyeglasses and a case for himself for only $2.50. Of importance here is the fact that in the 1860s steel glasses could be purchased for $2.50 whereas gold glasses cost much more. The personal check with Lincoln’s signature was never cashed and a photocopy of it was displayed for many years in the window of that Washington, DC business. An article about the check appeared in a prominent optical journal in 1933. Franklin & Co Opticians went out of business in the 1970s and the check itself then seemed to disappear.

Research thru the Riggs Bank which was taken over by the PNC Bank was unsuccessful in discovering its whereabouts. However, archivist Mary Beth Corrigan acknowledged the existence of a poster created in the 1940s-50s titled “Mr. Lincoln Paid for his Glasses by Check” and Jennifer king supplied the image.

Further research located Frank Namisniak, who was the last manager/owner of the shop. He had retired to Utah since the business “just stopped and everything was sold off.” and the building had been torn down.

It was learned the check actually had been handed down thru generations in the family owners. Isaac Heilprin had been cofounder of the original business which moved to Washington, DC. Later, Isaac’s son Giles and grandson William A. Heilprin also became optician/owners. Great-grandson Laurence Heilprin was a professor in the College of Library and Information Services at the University of Maryland from 1967 to 1976. At the time of his death (1936-1992), Laurence was professor emeritus. Laurence’s wife Marilyn explained that their two children John and Jean had come into possession of the check and it was secure in a safely deposit box. In 2009 that check was finally sold in Christie’s Sale #2361 as lot #103 on December 10, 2010. It was believed to be the only personal Lincoln check that was never cashed.

I believe the eyeglass case at the Library of Congress is directly related to that May 4, 1864 Lincoln-signed check. The original glasses which came with that case disappeared. Instead the gold inscribed Lamon pair became (incorrectly) associated with the case. The Lamon glasses obviously carried sentimental value for Lincoln, even after the left hinge was repaired. The case was convenient so it housed those damaged but cherished spectacles. End of story. 

11. Photographs of Lincoln Where an Eyeglasses Cord or Eyeglasses are Present

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From the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, courtesy of the Indiana State Museum and Allen County Public Library.


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It has been determined that Lincoln sat for 31 cameramen on 61 different occasions. There are evidently 119 photographs in all. Alexander Gardner (1821-1882) took thirty while Matthew Brady (1822-1896) took eleven. In those years Brady distinguished himself as the country’s foremost portrait photographer. He brought Gardner, a Scotchman, over to America in 1856. Gardner started in the Brady Studio, in charge of it from 1858-1863. Brady’s Studio was on the corner of Pennsylvania and Seventh Street in Washington, DC. Gardner then established his own studio on Seventh Street. Lincoln then became Gardner’s first client in his new studio. At that time the Lewis camera was the typical studio camera.

The earliest known photograph of Lincoln is a daguerreotype taken in 1846. Several photos in 1860 show him with a black spectacle’s cord going down across the front of his shirt. Only a single close-up image shows him actually wearing spectacles but several do show him holding those same eyeglasses. Most all of the later photos of Lincoln are actually cartes-de-visite. Besides the eyeglasses and the earlier cord, the only other personal ornament worn by Lincoln was a heavy hair-thin braided gold watch chain.

Currently the largest group of photos exists in the Lloyd Ostendorf Collection in Indiana. Currently this is stored at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne under the direction of Cindy VanHorn. The collection, however, is owned by the Indiana State Museum where Kara Vetter is the responsible Registrar. Cindy and Kara were extremely cooperative in this collaborative study of the images.

Our analysis of a specific group of photos now follows:

O-001, Earliest image, Daguerreotype by N H Shepherd, Springfield, Il, 1846. No glasses are apparent since this is about 11 years before Lincoln acquired his first pair.

The observer should easily recognize a black eyeglasses cord in the images below.

O-012: Only original tintype of Lincoln, unknown photographer, 1858
O-017: Photograph by Matthew Brady - Feb 27, 1860.
O-019: Photograph (probably ambrotype) by Edward A Barnwell, Decatur, IL, - May 9, 1860.
O-021: Photograph by William Marsh – Springfield, IL. - May 20, 1860. Both hands are resting on his
lap. Two different poses were taken at the same photograph session. In O-020 (Ambrotype by
Preston Butler) Lincoln's left forearm and hand are resting on a table. Here in O-21, both hands
are resting on his lap. O-022 is very similar.
O-026: Photograph by Alexander Hesler, Springfield, IL. – June 3, 1860.
O-027: Photograph by Alexander Hesler, Springfield, IL. – June 3, 1860.

The observer should recognize the Burt and Willard glasses in the images below.

O-070, Photograph by Alexander Gardner, in his new gallery, Washington DC, August 9, 1863
O-071, Photograph by Alexander Gardner – Washington DC, August 9, 1863
O-072, Photograph by Alexander Gardner – Washington DC, August 9, 1863
O-078, Photograph by Alexander Gardner – Washington DC, November 8, 1863
O-093, Photograph by Anthony Berger, in Matthew Brady's Gallery, Washington, DC, February 9, 1864. Seen with his youngest son Tad (1853-1871), Lincoln is actually wearing the Burt and Willard spectacles. The cupped ending are pressing into the skin of his temple.
O-116, Photograph by Alexander Gardner – Washington DC, Monday, February 5, 1865. Lincoln evidently moved his hands and fingers nervously during the sitting so his little spectacles are blurred, in my opinion. Those very early cameras were not slow but it took time to remove and then replace the lens cap by hand. The photographer used a cast iron stand with a head support to help the subject to hold a pose but this didn't prevent the subject from changing expressions or twitching fingers during the 15-40 second exposure that was common in a skylight studio. The sensitivity of the plates became the key factor that slowed the process and this led to the resulting blurred images.
O-116D VARIANT (RETOUCHED) – one version shows a pencil and glasses while another version shows a pencil and pocket knife. Realize that when any image was blurred an artist could be hired afterwards by the photographer to retouch or add to the scene to make it clear. In the collodion era (1851-1880) negatives were routinely retouched, particularly portrait negatives made in a studio. This was generally to compensate for the fact that red and orange did not photograph well making freckles and wrinkles photograph dark. The hand retouching by the artist would mask these flaws. The most common retouching was with a pencil, which added density to the negative making those retouched areas appear lighter in the final print.

DISCUSSION – The artist who retouched the original of O-116 created/added a vertical pencil and also an eyeglass frame with a curl sidearm pointing downwards. In another retouched version the pencil is described along with a knife.
The architecture of Lincoln’s Burt & Willard spectacles with their short thin side arms and cupped finial endings must be understood in order to determine if the retouched photos make sense. Why would Lincoln hold a pencil during this photographic session - especially if his thick pencil was normally housed in the small slot in the back of his own wallet? Where is this wallet? Why has that pencil NEVER EVER been seen before in any other photo session? That knife also NEVER EVER has been seen in any other photo session.  
I do not believe his pencil or his knife were in his hands during this sitting. Glasses with a curl sidearm DID NOT EXIST at that time, essentially anywhere in the world. Instead, I believe Lincoln was again holding only his favorite little pair with the sidearm directed upwards. To the knowledgeable observer the blurred shadow in all four O-116 images is that of the cupped finial atop the vertically positioned thin sidearm. Those concave holding cups are known to be a prominent part of the Jan 4, 1859 patent #22,485. In the same sitting, I believe O-117 also shows those same glasses, but they appear even more blurred here and with the sides mostly folded closed towards the nose bridge.

CONCLUSION -In my opinion, the retouched images definitely are not justified in the way they have been described up to this time. These glasses and also the pencil here were painted on sometime after 1865 and into the 1870s. The original untouched photographic plates show a blur – therefore the added specs with curl sides and the added pencil are, in my opinion, a painted fraud of the 1870's. Lincoln’s pencil was quite thick and black and would not have created this appearance. Notice that the base of Lincoln’s right thumb can be easily seen and therefore nothing thick and black (like his own pencil) could have rested vertically in his hands. ONLY the very thin sides of the Burt and Willard spectacles could have created this appearance since they are held by Lincoln’s fingers in all the O-116 photos, in my opinion. Also remember these particular patent glasses had the ability to fold in the middle of the bridge, providing even more possibilities for how they might show up in the blurred images.

O-117, Photograph by Alexander Gardner – Washington DC, Monday, February 5, 1865.Most probably the Burt & Willard glasses are held between his hands and the cupped finials.

So in the end what has created the blur in the O-116 and O-117 pictures? It becomes an issue of interpretation and people reading my comments above may agree or disagree with my conclusions. What needs to be done eventually - a new photograph should be taken of a pair of those glasses with very thin sides and cupped endings being moved slightly with a low sensitivity media. I believe that would replicate what is seen in these O-116 photos of Lincoln. I believe this would prove his Burt and Willard glasses are responsible for the blur.

O-118, Photograph by Alexander Gardner – February 5, 1865. This cracked glass portrait is widely considered to be the last photograph taken of the president before his death.

12. Other “Lincoln” Glasses which most assuredly are not his

It has been suggested that several other pairs of eyeglasses were used by Lincoln. In each case, however, questions have arisen either because of the frame architecture or due to the suspicious provenance details. Alan McBrayer and Dr. Charles Letocha are both highly respected authorities on American eyeglasses from the 19th century. Just like me they both have no confidence that any of the claimed Lincoln spectacles in museums or private collections around the country (described below) have solid provenance. Only the examples at the LOC have the best and strongest evidence to support Abraham Lincoln ownership.

At the Chicago Historical Society – (round silver frame, “C” bridge, with double hinge sides and tear-shaped finials). This pair was out of the Oliver Barrett Collection but they have no known provenance. They are from the 1820-30 with an English maker’s name on one sidearm. They are definitely large and have the wrong prescription, about +6.50, which is much too strong for Abe’s eyes when he was in his early 20s. Indisputable proof has never been presented regarding this pair. Two published articles even mention the prescription being +6.75 referring to this pair at the Chicago History Museum. I examined them in 2005 and they are fully UNRELATED to Lincoln.

At the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum – (pince nez with Japanese style “C” spring bridge). These are pince nez which are included because they supposedly were from a time just after Lincoln gave his Cooper Union Address on Feb 27, 1860. However they have an advanced nose bridge, one from the mid-1870s, at the very earliest. This, of course, is after Lincoln’s assassination so they were not his. In addition we must assume the very wide spectacles cord here is also original, yet Lincoln had two photo sessions during 1860 where a very thin spectacles cord is seen. Do we now assume there were numerous spectacle cords also? Likely not.

In the Tabor Collection – (oval frame, white metal, scroll bridge, very thin straight sides) These are a very common last quarter of the 19th century blued-steel style glasses They were “handed down in the family” and eventually were displayed at the Huntington Library in California. Lincoln historian Dr. Earl Hunt agreed that these were likely never worn by Abe, instead were likely associated with Robert Todd Lincoln. Also the Rx measurement of each lens has never been checked although Dr. Riffenburgh estimated the prescription to be about +2.50 in each eye.

In the Lattimer Collection – (rectangular frame, crank bridge, brass alloy, adjustable pin-in-slot sliding sides, tear-shaped finials) These were also a common style with measurements of 2.25 both eyes. The provenance seemed very weak since they had been given to another family (outside the Lincolns) and then were remembered about 40 years later, well after Lincoln had died. How did Mary Harlan obtain these in the first place, having married into the family one year after the Lincoln assassination? My personal opinion - it all just seems too remote. These were never specifically described by anyone during Lincoln’s days.

In the University Archives. – (oval frame, yellow metal, “W” bridge with curl sides) Here we have a pair with two features were not in existence during Lincoln’s day, especially the “w” bridge which first appeared in the late 1880s, well after Lincoln’s assassination. Not possible.

A widely reprinted early 20th century article - She Owns Lincoln's Spectacles. (From the New York World). A cherished treasure of Mrs. Andrew B. Carter of Watertown, New York is a pair of spectacles formerly worn and owned by Abraham Lincoln. They were found in his pocket at the time he was shot by John Wilkes Booth in Ford's Theatre, in Washington, April 14, 1865. Mrs. Carter's father, William H. H. Keyes, was a private in one of the regiments quartered in Washington them, and was on duty at the theater on the night of the tragedy. He was one of the detail that guarded the passage through which the dying president was carried from the theater. As Lincoln was placed in the carriage, the spectacles slipped from his pocket into the gutter, and before Keyes could restore them, the carriage had driven away. Keyes afterward sent them to his wife, Mrs. Carter's mother, and they have since remained in the family. The glasses are of the old-fashioned kind, with heavy gold bows and octagonal oblong glasses." (Kansas City Star, February 6, 1904).

Just How Rare are Lincoln’s Burt & Willard Glasses?

(Move your mouse over any of the pictures below to see a larger image.)

Antique eyeglasses collectors know that some styles are quite historic and important. The ones below are each very rare and therefore very desirable to any advanced serious collector. A single example of any of the styles listed would be considered an optical treasure, the cornerstone of any major eyeglasses collection.

The two gold pair at the Library of Congress are significant because Lincoln wore them. However the engraved Lamon pair is a fairly common style and many dozens in gold have been seen and examined by this observer. Conversely, the Burt and Willard gold pair is exceedingly rare and only four have ever been examined. None are known in white metal. Note below:

1. Rivet Spectacles – 14th – 16th century: 27 known – mostly just fragments.
2. Masterpiece Spectacles - German, early 17th century > early 18th century: about 30 pairs known in a dated simple wooden box.
3. Leather-Framed Spectacles - early 16th century >18th century: about 125 in collections then another 240 from the 1583 Gnalic shipwreck off the coast of Croatia, now in the Biograd Museum.
4. Adam’s Patent Spectacles – English, 1797-99: 9 known.
5. Gondola Glass from Venice – circa 1800: 7 known.
6. Goldoni Spectacles (Venetian) – late 18th century: about a dozen known
7. Hat Spectacles – 1870-1900: about a dozen known
8. Waldstein Spectacles (all glass) - 1830s: over a half dozen known
9. Spina Frontalis (Cap Spectacles) - 17th > 18th century: about a dozen known
10. Scarlett Temple Spectacles (spiral finials) - about 1725 > very early 19th century: about a half dozen known.
11. Slit Bridge Nose Spectacles – 18th century: more than two dozen known.
12. Addison Smith - 4 lens variety – based upon first spectacles patent #1389 in 1783, (the only problem – there is no convincing proof that the actual patent involved flip-up lenses) – perhaps three dozen various styles are known.
13. John McAllister Sr. solid gold, circa 1815-1820 – fewer than five known.
14. Burt and Willard Spectacles – 1859 patent: (only four known in gold including Lincoln’s)

Abe Lincoln’s Burt & Willard glasses are undoubtedly the most important antique eyeglasses in the United States. They should now be ranked alongside the greatest, most famous vision aids in the world (like Thomas Jefferson’s self- devised eyeglasses (1806), George Washington’s four lens spectacles, Napoleon’s telescope, Ben Franklin’s bifocals [if they are ever located], and even Galileo’s telescopes.


1. Lincoln had two pair of eyeglasses with him when he was assassinated, so they were definitely his. No other pair of glasses has been definitely proven to be his.
2. One pair was given to Lincoln by his close friend Ward H. Lamon. The case for that pair is missing.
3. Lamon evidently purchased the gold glasses from Chicago optician J. Phillips who had fit Lincoln on other occasions. Perhaps sometime between 1858 and 1860 these were gifted to Lincoln, a fact supported by the presentation inscription on the right inner sidearm. The Lamon glasses probably remained in Lincoln’s pockets for sentimental reasons. Lincoln himself may have repaired the broken left hinge with a small string. Afterwards these were most likely never worn again. A spectacles cord seen in several of the earlier 1860 photographic sittings might very well be associated with these Lamon glasses. I have no proof of that association, but I would like to suggest it.
4. Lincoln purchased glasses at Franklin & Co Opticians, Washington. His personal check # 78 for $2.50 dated May 4, 1864 from the Riggs Bank was never cashed. The case is present while the original glasses are missing.
5. CONCLUSION: The Lamon glasses are themselves not original to the Franklin & Co Opticians case.
6. The other gold pair is small and folds at the nose bridge. It was created from a relatively obscure but very important (and especially practical) Burt & Willard patent, Jan 4, 1859. These have that extremely tiny date stamped on the reverse of the arched bridge. The glasses are housed in their original unique tiny silver case; only one other similar case has ever been seen.
7. These Burt and Willard spectacles appear in photographic sittings between 1863 - 1865. No other glasses appear in any photographs so these were, in my opinion,  quite likely his favorite.
8. The retouched images of O 116 from the last sitting are INACCURATE in showing a pencil along with another eyeglass frame style that did not even exist in 1865!!
9. CONCLUSION: Contrary to what is seen in many books showing Lincoln’s glasses, only the Burt and Willard pair appears in the photographs. Recall this from the Patent # 22485 dated Jan 4, 1859 - “So constructed as to allow the folding together of the glass frame and the short temple bows and cups, forming one of the most convenient and snugly portable spectacles for use and for the pocket ever before invented or used”.
10. Other “Lincoln” glasses seem to be floating around but they do not live up to this standard and they have either provenance or physical frame issues which keeps them each from being the real thing. This is just my opinion, of course.
11. CONCLUSION: Lincoln’s Burt & Willard glasses have been underappreciated and under-recognized. They have not been understood either since a patent date is present on the back of the nose bridge. This is visible only under high magnification. One of the very rarest of all 19th century American-made glasses, only four gold pair are known to exist. Two are now in museum collections and two others are held in private hands.


Beginning probably in 1854 Abraham Lincoln was associated with a number of different reading glasses. However, we can only be 100% certain of his ownership of the two pair found in his pockets after the tragic April 14, 1865 assassination. These are both now well-preserved at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

The detailed history of these two gold glasses remains incomplete but the smaller ones have now been closely examined and they have a lot going for them. They are rare (only four known in gold), convenient, portable, elegant, and compact. They fold at the nose bridge, are patented with the stamped date “Jan 4 1859”, and fit snugly into their original small almost unique silver case. Finally they were worn by one of the most famous persons in history. It is my opinion that they were Lincoln’s favorite since he can be associated with them beginning in 1862 and was photographed with no other reading glasses during the years he was bespectacled.

Lincoln’s tiny folding patent pair has it all. Congratulations to the Library of Congress because they hold two particular Lincoln treasures – and one could be considered the rarest, greatest, most significant pair of eyeglasses ever created during the past 700 years – truly world-class in all aspects.

David A. Fleishman, MD
Boston, May 2012

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