Worcester County, A Narrative History
(Vol. III) -1933
Courtesy of Jacob Edwards Library
American Optical Company -
Four out of every ten persons in the United States own glasses, and seven out of every ten need aids to their vision. These significant facts form the background against which the rise and growth of the American Optical Manufacturing Company, of Southbridge, stands out. It is the oldest optical company in the country, and one of the largest in the world. Ingenious and courageous men laid the foundations of the industry, and great men have built well upon these foundations. In 1933 the American Optical Company celebrated a century of progress; during this hundred years three generations of the Wells family have led the company for eighty-two years.
Eyeglasses or spectacles have been in use for many decades. A forerunner of the very modern bifocal was made by Benjamin Franklin in the late 1700's by the simple process of cutting lenses of different powers in halves and mounting them together. Unfortunately spectacles, for which the Americans depended upon foreign countries, were so costly as to be in the luxury class. In 1826 William Beecher, a native of Southbury, Connecticut, born in 1805, came to Southbridge, Massachusetts, to start a jewelry and watch business and, possibly, to give rein to his Yankee ingenuity. He believed that New England workmen could make spectacles fit to compete with the expensive foreign variety and branched out along this line in 1833. Silver was used for frames because it was so readily worked, but it had many obvious disadvantages. No particular progress was made during the first Biblical seven years of what was to be the great American Optical Company. In 1840 Beecher sold his business to Ammidown and Putney, remaining a year in the employ of this firm to teach what he knew. In 1842 the concern was owned by Holdridge, Ammidown and his son, L. H.; Robert H. Cole, in 1849, came in to form Ammidown and Company. In 1851, Mr. Beecher purchased an interest in the business, then controlled by L. H. Ammidown and R. H. Cole. Hiram C. Wells joined the firm in 1852, the first of many members of the Wells family associated continuously with the industry to the present day. William Beecher retired in 1862, and the firm became Robert H. Cole and Company.
Southbridge might well have disappeared from the map as a spectacle making center if an inexpensive method of making steel-rimmed glasses had not been worked out. The layman may not realize that steel-framed spectacles outranked all others in demand for more than sixty years. In 1843, the first steel spectacles were made in America by William Beecher in Southbridge. No great fortune came from this advance, because it was still the policy of Old World countries to discourage any progress at manufacturing in the United States by dumping its competing products in this country, until it had smothered the new-born industry. Not until American learned to use the tariff, was the spectacle business, and many other industries, able to survive sufficiently long to be able to meet all competition. Gold rimmed glasses were made in 1848.
The Southbridge optical industry was still a comparatively puny infant as late as 1864, when George W. Wells, a lad of eighteen, entered the employ of Robert H. Cole and Company. He was a genius in mechanics and in many other fields, an inventor with sound business sense. Instead of having to serve a long apprenticeship he made complete spectacles within a month, a thing no other worker ever did except William Beecher. Like any other young man who learns and does things easily, he had little patience for lack of progress and promotion. He went with another firm in the village and returned again to the Cole Company, and when he reached the mature age of twenty-one, quit the business and went to California where he soon was manager of a large machine-building plant. In August, 1867, he was persuaded to return to Southbridge to work for R. H. Cole and Company, but left it from time to time to find scope for his ideas and energies in other optical shops. Then came a chance to buy the controlling interest in H. C. Ammidown and Company, wherein he became associated with his oldest brother, Hiram C. Wells and C. S. Edmonds. The Cole concern offered him a partnership to include Hiram C. Wells also, and negotiations led to the merging of all interest and incorporation under the name, American Optical Company.
George W. Wells was twenty-three years old at this time, and throughout his long connection with the company he was one of the chief contributors to its growth and success. There seemed to be no manufacturing problem that he could not solve.
Some of the very machines he built at that time are in partial use today. Most of the principles he developed are still the basic principles of certain methods of manufacture throughout the optical industry.
He discovered a new method of edging split bifocal lenses. He made eccentric
rolls, to taper spectacle stock, he built the first lens cutting machine,
even now only slightly modified, he built an apparatus for fitting in endpieces,
another for automatic milling and tapping of spectacle endpieces, another
for jumping and forming spectacle bridges and many other developments to
shorten and improve the method of manufacture.
Certificate above courtest of Paul Coiteux
The American Optical Company was organized on February 26, 1869, "to manufacture and sell spectacles of gold, silver, steel and plated metals, also rings and thimbles, and such other articles as said company may from time to time desire to make." R. H. Cole was made president, an office he held until his retirement in 1891; George W. Wells was clerk (secretary), and E. M. Cole treasurer. The other members of the corporation were, Hiram C. Wells, A. M. Cheney and C. S. Edmonds. George W. Wells was in charge of the manufacturing and distribution departments of the business, and more or less continued in this responsibility until his sons, Channing M., Albert B., and J. Cheney, who came into the business in the early nineties, were able gradually to relieve him of some of his responsibilities.
The expansion of the company from its inception to the present day can only be outlined under the heads, plant, product and personnel. A new site on the Quinebaug was chosen in 1871 and a new factory built in 1872, a three-story wood affair providing 20,700 square feet. It cost $35,000 and George W. Wells was criticized for mortgaging the future by the erection of a plant which would be too large for the company's purposes for many years. The present American Optical Company's plants are thirty-five times as large. In 1882 an ell and a wing had to be added to the building supposed to have been oversized ten years earlier. The first of the present group of modern brick structures was erected in 1900. The "New Lensdale" plant, a huge building entirely of concrete, was completed in 1910, an expansion of the "Lensdale" of 1888. It was designed and built by American Optical Company engineers under the direction of Albert B. Wells. The original "Lensdale" building, since enlarged, is the present day "Casedale." In 1933 the American Optical Company's plants covered seventeen and a half acres of floor space in some thirty-six connected structures, located on the banks of the Quinebaug River, not far from the center of the town where the company owns upwards of fifty acres, providing ideal conditions for its workers and for maintaining the high quality merchandise for which the company is noted.
The increase in products has been marked through the years, and outlines the history of the development of glasses. Not until 1874 were rimless goods made in Southbridge. In 1883, the company began making ophthalmic lenses, which heretofore had been manufactured only abroad. In 1893, the manufacture of cylinder and compound lenses was begun and the dioptric system adopted. At the beginning of the century the American Optical Company brought out the toric lens. Nine years later the research department was established by J. Cheney Wells. In 1913 the Crookes absorption lens was introduced to the American public. Then came the company's contribution to World War requirements, in the quickly invented and manufactured bomb sights, telescope sights, panoramic sights, and thousands of lenses, frames, goggles and the like. It completely equipped eight mobile optical units for the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Other improvements offered by the Southbridge works were the Lensometer, 1921; Tillyer Lens, 1925; Ful-Vue frames, 1930; and the Ful-Vue bifocals, 1931. Only the scientist and the optician can estimate the value of these changes, improvements and inventions to man's priceless faculty - eyesight.
Only the constant increase in the amount of business done made possible the extraordinary increase in the variety and perfection of products and in the number of men employed. The two dozen men who, in 1869, could turn out as much as the American Optical Company could sell, has became a close knitted force of three thousand artisans in Southbridge, and nearly as many more in all parts of the United States and other countries. There are few parts of the globe in which its products cannot be purchased. There are nearly two hundred branches in this country, nineteen in Canada, and agents in all the important nations of the world. Besides the main Southbridge plants there are others in Nicolet, Province of Quebec, and Belleville, Province of Ontario, Canada. In 1923, the national distributing organization was acquired, a group of twenty large wholesale optical houses with branch offices in every center of population. There are, today, 25,000 oculists, optometrists and opticians in the United States and Canada who use the product of the American Optical Company, and 30,000 in the world at large.
Men of ability and leadership have been the principal factors in all this growth. George W. and Hiram C. Wells, R. H. Cole, Henry Cady, Alpha Cheney and Charles Edmonds of early years, and Channing M., Albert B., and J. Cheney Wells and others since the nineties. George W. Wells succeeded to the presidency of the company in 1891, although he had almost complete supervision of the works from the early 1870's. Albert B. Wells spent several years mastering the lens end of the business and finally became treasurer of the company, which office he held for many years. During this time, he directed most of the construction of plants and their equipment. He is now chairman of the board. J. Cheney Wells inherited his father's mechanical and inventive ability and was his father's able assistant in all manufacturing problems. He is still continuing to direct this work. He is now executive vice-president of the company. George W. Wells, like all the executives which followed him, had the wisdom to choose able lieutenants and to retain their loyalty. Channing M. Wells, after experience in nearly all departments of the business, in 1893 was leading the sales force. He has been president of the company since 1912. Among the other executives are Ira Mosher, vice-president and general manager; Francis M. Shields, vice-president in charge of manufacture; Charles O. Cozzens, vice-president in charge of sales; Edward E. Williams, treasurer; John M. Wells, secretary and manager of research; George B. Wells, assistant treasurer; W. W. Crawford, assistant treasurer; Harry C. Ray, advertising manager; Harry W. Hill, general manager of lens plants; Elmer L. Schumacher, general manager of metal plants; Walter G. Buckley, production manager of lens plants; Ercell A. Teeson, production manager of metal plants; Arthur J. Pratt, manager of case plants. American Optical Company has been a voluntary association since 1912 and the trustees are: Albert B. Wells, J. Cheney Wells, Channing M. Wells, John H. Hardin, John M. Wells, George B. Wells, C. McGregory Wells, and A. Turner Wells.
Membership in the following organizations is held by company executives for the primary purpose of keeping constantly in touch with world industrial progress: American Bar Association, American Ceramic Society, American Chemical Society, American Management Association, American Physical Society, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, Better Vision Institute, Boston Credit Men's Association, Boston Patent Law Association, National Chamber of Commerce, Comptrollers Institute of America, Home Market Club, National Safety Council, National Association of Cost Accountants, National Industrial Conference Board, National Association of Manufacturers, National Society for Prevention of Blindness, Inc., New England Purchasing Agents, Optical Society of America, Southbridge Manufacturers and Merchants Association and many other associations through the country.
The one hundredth anniversary of the optical industry in Southbridge
was celebrated fittingly in September, 1933. It was gladly admitted by
speakers that the American Optical Company had been, and was, "the backbone
of life in the community for the greater part of a century" and that "the
accomplishment of such firms contribute to the stability of the Nation."
A fitting climax to a week of congratulations and rejoicing came in the
announcement that the members of the Wells family, directing executives
of the company, would establish a foundation, eventually to amount to half
a million dollars, for the aid of company employees and to assist in charitable,
educational and religious work. It is to be named the George W. Wells Foundation.
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