News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 5, 2012

HISTORICAL TREASURE: Spectacles: The gift of sight

Patrick Newsham
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — A pair of spectacles, more often known today as glasses, is a wonderful thing for those of us who have difficulty seeing. The unfocused tiny script of a book or blurry faraway terrain of the horizon can be made crystal clear by simply putting on a pair of glasses. Before their invention,  people simply had to accept the loss of their eyesight.

The history of spectacles dates back to 13th century Italy where the first true eyeglasses were invented. These early glasses aided the wearer in focusing on things that were near and were often worn by monks and scholars. The first frames had to be either held or balanced precariously on the wearer’s nose.

In the following centuries many improvements were made to both the lenses and frame design with the 18th century seeing many significant advances. In the early part of the century the use of rigid side pieces that held the glasses by the temples and behind the ears was perfected, possibly by the English optician Edward Scarlett in 1730. Another major advancement was to the lenses, the most famous being the development of bifocals in the 1780s by Benjamin Franklin.

Most of the spectacles at the Vigo County Historical Museum probably date from the 18th and 19th centuries judging from the frame designs and lenses. The museum has an interesting variety on display including my favorite — a pair of pince-nez sunglasses. Also on display is a pair of glasses and a case with the inscription of Dr. H. Binzer, eyesight specialist of Terre Haute, and the name of the dry goods store that the glasses were probably purchased from. No fewer than six rooms in the museum contain at least one pair of spectacles. I challenge you to visit and find them all.