Optical Treasures: Mistaken

Another group of objects have either been examined in person or noted in photographs from institutions and publications. These items have been mistaken or inaccurately described on their label (perhaps by accident) by those people who came before us. We can review questionable features or statements related to each of the examples in this group. This list does not include all of the known examples out there. Some were even pointed out by curators at their own well-known institutions. Certainly the comments presented do not in any way reflect on these wonderful institutions. Instead we are only speaking of the descriptions or dates presented.

A few publishers have also made some errors (discrepancies) in dating objects. Remarks here are not meant to tarnish their excellent long-standing reputations. In addition to this, a few websites present information which is apparently incorrect. Hopefully the comments below will be taken in a constructive manner by their webmasters. What is presented below can become a catalyst so we all become more accurate in our descriptions and dating. Future catalogues, guides, and websites will then reflect this improved understanding regarding proper terms used in descriptions and probable dates of use.

*Please note that a few of the guides list dollar values. No comments will ever be made about these prices because that is not the focus of our website and it never will be.

We have all made mistakes in the past but now we have the fresh opportunity to become better educated through the process of sharing information. For example, perhaps eyeglasses are described in this manner “worn by Benjamin Franklin”. This “established provenance” must be brought into question (scrutinized) if we know that the style of the frame first appeared AFTER Franklin had already died (in 1790). One can also make credible observations regarding so-called “worn by Abraham Lincoln” spectacles. This is because the strength of the two pair in his vest pockets the evening he was assassinated in April, 1865 have been measured. So, besides descriptions and dating, provenance information of optical objects can also undergo evaluation.

In addition it has been established that Ben Franklin specifically invented the bifocal. So it is amusing to occasionally see photos on EBay of glasses described as “Franklins” and they aren’t even bifocals!

All the comments here are meant to be helpful and I hope you enjoy them. This should be a useful exercise for curators and collectors and other interested people. Write to me if you have information that can be shared (or corrected) regarding any of the examples mentioned below.

Benjamin Franklin bifocals.


June 1960 issue of Spinning Wheel magazine, in an article titled “Old Eyeglasses”

Described as having “rather flimsy frames”.


Adjustable side arms basically appeared after 1800 so Franklin had been dead at least 15 years before these were probably made.

Benjamin Franklin spectacles    


NY Historical Society.

The donor had written, "The spectacles of 'B Franklin 1788' are undoubtedly genuine. I obtained them direct from one of his descendants".  Engraved on the outside of the left temple “B. Franklin 1788”, and on the inside of the right temple” D. B. Hempsted”.   

The silversmith who made these spectacles was born in 1784 so he would have been just 6 years old when Franklin died. Also they are of a style introduced in the 1820-30 time period.

Ben Franklin glasses

Bronson book Early American Specs  

Described as “authentic spectacles with split bifocal”

These are from the 1820-30 time period, well after Franklin had passed away.

Benjamin Franklin spectacles 

Franklin Institute

Notice the “provenance” tag

There is a crank bridge and adjustable narrow pin-in-slot sidearms, certainly from the 1830’s – 40’s at the earliest and well after our famed Franklin had died.

A postage stamp 

Issued by the country of Granada

States “eyeglasses developed in Italy in 1350”

Off by over 60 years regarding the date of the development of eyeglasses because the correct date is 1286-87 with primary source material to support this.

Marco Polo glasses


June 1960 issue of Spinning Wheel magazine in an article titled “Old Eyeglasses”

These were incorrectly described as the “oldest” item in the collection, circa 1270

The error here is by well over 500 years, certainly!!! Note the sidearms!

Chinese eyeglasses 


Bronson book Early American Specs.

Described incorrectly as circa 1400. Notice the Ayscough double hinge which was not invented until 1752

The error is probably about 425 years!!!

Chinese eyeglasses  


Bronson book Early American Specs

Described incorrectly as circa 1600

The dating here is off by at least 150 to 200 years. Some modern reproductions have been noticed on rare occasions.

Mid 16th century Venetian


June 1960 issue of Spinning Wheel magazine in an article titled “Old Eyeglasses”

The frame described as “bent and twisted, not soldered” 

Only off by 300 years or so.  This picture shows pantoscopic frames which were probably made as reading glasses, in the USA.  Remember side arms did not exist before 1730

John Adams spectacles

From the Adams National Historical Park

(Recall that he died July 4, 1826 the same day that Thomas Jefferson died!)

This pair was passed down nearly 100 years ago and had been attributed to John Adams (2nd American President).  Since George Washington’s presumed eyeglasses had been stolen this current pair had been thought to be the earliest proven American Presidential spectacles. They were in fact featured in a 1976 article regarding American Patriots and their spectacles.

This type (nose bridge and sidearm)  was not available until about 10 - 15 years after John Adams had passed away. It is now believed that this pair more likely belonged to his son John Quincy Adams (6th American President)

President John Q. Adams

Engraving.  Copy of an original painting by Alonzo Chappel,

Johnson, Fry & Co. Publishers, New York, 1861

Notice the eyeglasses popping out of the case in his right hand

These eyeglasses appear to have a rectangular frame, just like the pair highlighted above at the Adams National Historical Park

Detail of etching of John Quincy Adams


This appears to be the spectacles in the

Photo from the Adams National Historical Park

Detail reveals rectangular frame

John Quincy Adams spectacles

Old Sturbridge Village  

Spectacles worn by John Quincy Adams President of the US 1797-1801

Although this style was in existence during Adam’s presidency, it is more likely that he would have worn a pair made from more expensive material like silver. In addition John Adams (second president) is who they are probably referring to. John “Quincy” Adams was his son who became president over 25 years later.


Susannah Martin who was hanged as a witch in 1642


The John Greenleaf Whittier Home Museum.

Metal oval frame with turn-pin sides

Clearly these were probably made over 175 years after her trial and hanging.

Daniel Bernoulli

Ramstein Collection Basel

X bridge eyeglasses in a cardboard “pull-off” case of Mathematician Daniel Bernoulli (1700-1782)

This image has been evaluated by several experienced authorities who agree that these may be off perhaps by about 15 - 20 years, because he died in 1782.   Also the case is classically considered to be from the Directore period which was 1795-99 when there were 5 directors who ruled over France.  When the remarkable Ramstein Collection was highlighted in the April 29, 1977 issue of the Optician, this case was described to have writing on it “Bernoulli 1710-1790”. Therefore we must wonder although we would like to believe the stated provenance within this very highly regarded collection. 

Christopher Columbus spectacles

Historical Society of Old Newbury

“History of Relics” carte de visite of John N. Jaques of Newburyport.   On the reverse it describes in detail each of the significant objects pictured with him. Notice the ‘Christopher Columbus spectacles’ on his head and also the ‘Christopher Columbus spectacle’ cases on the table.

Basically these references to Columbus are impossible. Other objects in the photo are apparently considered to be of questionable origin too.  Notice it says “Holder of the Napoleon Button” – doesn’t he mean the Santa Anna Button or the cane made from the desk in Napoleon’s cell. There are at least several major errors present on this CDV.


Franz Schubert eyeglasses


Wien Museum, Vienna, Austria

and on the Art Resource website   

Round frame  X bridge bifocals

are shown

He died at the young age of 31, was nearsighted, and these are Bifocals.  It cannot be correct.

Clergyman Edward Holyoke


Groton Historical Society    

Goggles of the Clergyman who lived 1698-1769.  He became President of Harvard College - 1737-1769

These have been evaluated by several authorities who suggest the most likely date is circa 1840 which is after Holyoke had died. It has therefore been suggested they belonged to a descendant of Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke (who died in 1829), who was the son of President Holyoke.

Aaron Burr glasses          .


June 1960 issue of Spinning Wheel magazine, in the in an article titled “Old Eyeglasses”.

“Removed and handed to his aid just before the duel”

Unable to locate these glasses or confirm the validity of the statement here

18th century sunglasses


June 1960 issue of Spinning Wheel magazine, in an article titled “Old Eyeglasses”  

Very thin sides with turnpin extensions. This was a hinge that was first patented in the mid 1860’s

If the K bridge appeared around 1800 and frames basically became lighter after 1850 (because of mass production), these are certainly no earlier than 1860.   

Abraham Lincoln

Decorative and Industrial Arts Collection, Chicago Historical Society 

Silver frame eyeglasses which allegedly belonged to Lincoln, “but indisputable proof is not available”


These round frame spectacles were in common use around 1810-20, when Abe was about 10 years old  Also he was an emmetrope (not a +4.00 hyperope as stated in the October 1976 issue of the Journal of the AOA).  This pair measured + 6.50 ou. The spectacles in his pockets the evening he was assassinated were + 1.75 and +2.00. Therefore these could never have been his.

Abraham Lincoln Highly doubtful these were ever worn by President Lincoln Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield, Il Pince nez with a C spring variety nose bridge. The Pince Nez Guide by John Salt presents this as the “Japanese” version with dates of use 1880-1940. It is doubtful Pince Nez were even in the circulation in the US in 1865 when Lincoln was assassinated. After his Cooper Union speech (Feb 27, 1860) in NYC, Lincoln had dinner at the home of Connecticut Governor William Buckingham of Connecticut. The story is Lincoln accidentally left these eyeglasses that night. Pince nez first appeared in France about 1840 and ads from the 3rd quarter 19th century still show fairly basic simple nose bridges. The first US patent variation occurred in the year 1868. So it appears that the advanced nose bridge style of our “Lincoln” example here likely did not exist anywhere in the world until about 1870 – 75.
Abraham Lincoln From the Lattimer Collection, very weak provenance in my opinion The Dr. John Lattimer Collection Rectangular frame, crank bridge, pin-in-slot sliding adjustable sides, tear-shaped finials How Mary Harlan obtained these remains the key question since that was the first link in the chain of ownership leading up to the Lattimer Collection. These were” "passed down in a family related to Lincoln". Mary married into the Lincoln family one year after President Lincoln had been assassinated. These would have been seen and described by someone, somewhere over time, prior to 1865.
James Madison James Madison Museum Oval frame, W bridge, thin wire sides, curl sides This style is certainly from the very late 19th century, at the earliest. But our President died in 1836, therefore it is quite impossible that he could have ever worn these

The spectacles of Sir William Pepperell

Maine Historical Society

Pepperell (1696-1757) a British settler and soldier in Colonial Massachusetts is most remembered for organizing, financing, and leading the expedition that captured the French establishment at Fortress Louisbourg during King George’s War.

These tortoiseshell spectacles are circa 1800 -1810 at the earliest because of the oval frame. Note he died in 1759. 

“Since their development in the 15th century”…..


Collectible’s Price Guide 2003.

Judith Miller’s highly regarded Collectible’s Guide is otherwise an excellent source of information regarding all types of collectibles. 

Hopefully this will be corrected to read the “13th century” in the next guide when Optical Devices might be featured.  These comments only apply to obvious dating errors and once corrections are made, the comments here will be deleted.

“…Octagonal and square shapes being used in the late 18th and 19th century”  

Collectible’s Price Guide 2003 

Round frame was the only shape until oval appeared just before 1800

Octagonal shapes first appeared in the second quarter of the 19th century and rectangular shapes were seen initially about the same time period. Square shapes are quite unusual and are also a later style.

French Double D tortoiseshell tinted 4 lens spectacles with “trim pin hinger”

Collectible’s Price Guide 2003 

Given the wrong date of 1730, these have thin metal turn pin side arms. Remember the Richardson Patent for side-cups was from 1797

These were made about 100 years later, probably around 1830.  This specific example should be examined for a French hallmark which would reveal that time frame.

English tortoiseshell spectacles

Collectible’s Price Guide 2003

Especially the example with thin sides on the left has been given the too early date of 1750

These are both from the second quarter of the 19th century, at the earliest

Silver-framed spectacles with green lenses


Collectible’s Price Guide 2003

Labeled incorrectly with the date 1740s this has narrow adjustable side arms, crank bridge, and octagonal frame

Certainly loop to loop is a later version even and other features also place this example closer to 1850 or one hundred years later. In fact, the maker is unknown to someone who is writing a book about the makers marks on 19th century American-made spectacles.

The spectacles of Napoleon.  



18K yellow gold fitted with 2 ½ sphere lenses of glass thought to be from Venice. Made by the eminent firm of Joliot Freres, circa 1815.  For generations in the possession of the esteemed family of Prince Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law. 

It is possible that these were Napoleon’s eyeglasses but several points can be presented here. I am skeptical regarding their authenticity because there has always been evidence of Napoleon using the long view (telescope) and also the lorgnette. The term lorgnette in France at that time had a broader meaning.  Examples were opera glasses with a handle, also the face-a-main, and finally the decorated field glasses.  One of Napoleon’s telescopes, made by JA Chapman, London and used in the Battle of Pyramides 7/21/1798, was given by his surgeon and is located at the Musee de l’Armee, Paris.  This telescope is currently on display at the museum of the Arch di Triumph.

There are no paintings or prints which portray Napoleon wearing eyeglasses. In addition there was never proof or prior description of Napoleon having ever used eyeglasses (spectacles). Napoleon was nearsighted anyways, but considerably less than his brothers. I am just hard pressed to be 100 % certain these were ever used by Napoleon

Then relative to the case it is known that there are hundreds of objects decorated with the ‘N’ without actually having ever belonged to Napoleon.

Currier and Ives lithograph 


Shown on a commercial eyeglasses website.

Described as “the only known image of President Lincoln wearing eyeglasses”

This is actually reversed and is a copy of the original Brady photograph at the Library of Congress. Currier and Ives took the original Brady photo and combined it with a separate photo of Mrs. Lincoln to form the one which is presented on the other website. Apparently, no photos of Abe and Mary Lincoln together were ever made.

Detail of Currier and Ives lithograph 


Shown on a commercial eyeglasses website

The “detail” shows Lincoln wearing eyeglasses but the magnified image remains fuzzy. 

These are not glasses from a library in California which were shown in the newspaper article from Chicago. Lincoln's spectacles are not owned by the Huntington Library in San Marino. The pair displayed there in the past have not been proven to be Lincoln’s. I wonder in particular if their strength was ever measured.

“The newspaper article on Lincoln's stovepipe hat and eyeglasses. The frames show clearly in this photo”. 

Shown on a commercial eyeglasses website

These are composed of thin steel wire with a scroll bridge and oval lenses.

The problem is these were claimed to have been used by Lincoln but there is no evidence to support this and the specific strength of the lenses remains unknown. An inexpensive style, these were mass-produced during the later part of the 19th century.  I doubt they would have been used by Lincoln.

George Washington Spectacles

Mount Vernon
This pair was actually stolen from the desk in the Mansion study 12/25/42 and the case was stolen seven years later.

Oval frame, pin-in-slot adjustable side arms, cardboard case with damage.


This style was commonly used in the 1820’s – 30’s and are coin silver. Washington died in 1799 so it is not possible that he could have worn these.

Mount Vernon
The donor found an envelope on which was written “These glasses belong to the Father of his Country”.
Thin wire, probably blued steel, oval frame scroll bridge, circa 1870 – 1890. This could not have been worn by the first president.
From the Better Vision Institute Poster “The History of Eyeglasses” Only a label was attached suggesting that perhaps George wore these glasses with “crude” workmanship, This is “slim testimony” and with two friends who were silversmiths, it is doubtful the President would have worn a steel pair. He was an aristocrat.

“Circa 1650 - steel frame with short temples with loops”.

National Heritage Museum

Steel oval frame, C Bridge, temple sides

Oval frame makes it very late 18th century and the temple sides make it after 1730. My estimate is 1790s, therefore off by about 140 years.

Spectacles and case on an otherwise impressive poster with the title “Items which may have been found on a Georgian Gentleman’s Desk”.                        

The case and spectacles were on loan to the Number One Royal Crest Museum, Bath, United Kingdom. They were included on their quite informative poster.   

Pair of 18th century spectacles with silver frames and magnifying glasses in polished steel case engraved “Francis Gibson 1760”                                                                 

The engraved case is wonderful but the spectacles probably did not originate with it. They are more likely circa 1790 - 1800 and it appears they have a mark on the right sidearm which could help identify their maker, his location, and their date.

The eyeglasses of Rachel Jackson (1767- 1828) wife  of President Andrew Jackson

The Hermitage, donated in 1925

Inexpensive thin steel spectacles with modified “W” bridge

These are obviously very late 19th – early 20th  century spectacles.  But Rachel died in 1828!!

Chart displaying eyeglass styles over the last 700 years

The Museum of Applied Art in Budapest Hungary created this wonderful colored and detailed booklet highlighting the developmental history of eyewear

Metal round frame 4 lens spectacles with a C bridge and probably turn-pin sides ending in large circular finials

The Richardson Patent for 4 lens spectacles (side-cups) was granted in 1797

Rare Southern coin silver spectacles by Peter Mood, prior to 1821, accompanied by a tin case.
These were shown in an exhibition catalogue
Page 16 from the catalogue of the McKissick Museum
note the straight sides (not “collapsible”) and there is a letter after Mood.
glasses of this style were definitely not in existence before 1821, this sits in a typical 1860 Parker case
McKissick Museum of the University of South Carolina These in fact are rectangular frame eyeglasses from the 1850s with temple sides in a Parker 1860 case. These were finally sold by an auction gallery, unfortunately because of the original unaltered description.

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