EARLY SPECTACLE MAKERS OF SOUTHBRIDGE
Robert W. McMaster in His Speech to
The Southbridge Historical Society
It all started with a man named William Beecher who was born in Southbury, Connecticut (near Danbury) in 1805. He learned the jewelry business in Providence. He and his brother, Smith Beecher, came to Southbridge in 1826. Smith Beecher was Mrs. Ruth (Beecher) Eaton’s grandfather.
William Beecher was 21 years old in 1826 when he set up his jewelry store at Hartwell’s Corner with a Robert Cole as an apprentice at 14 years of age. We will hear more about him.
1827 William Beecher married Hanna Ammidown, a Southbridge girl, 2-20-1827.
(B. 1-18-06) (D. 3-28-61)
William Ammidown Beecher (B. 7-10-1828) (D. 7-9-1876) - Hannah Jane (B. 5-7-1832)
Nancy Ellen (B. 7-5-1836) (D. 1-14-1871)
Son William married Hester Billings Thacher in Boston, 10-12-1853.
(Died 10-22-1853) A tragedy - no information on it.
Remarried Ester Ann Stridiron 10-7-1869 at St. Croix in Danish West Indies where he was in business (now Virgin Islands).
One daughter, Jane Elizabeth (B. 1-14-1871).
Daughter, Hannah Jane married Reverend Oakman Stearns who later became Dr. Stearns, Professor of Biblical Literature at Newton Theological School from which he graduated.
1831 William Beecher was Town Clerk 1831-32. He built the house at 185 Main Street which was torn down by Credit Union a few years ago and was known to most of us as the Robert H. Cole residence.
1833 Started making spectacles. [Cited as the start of the American Optical Company.]
1853 Member of Board of Selectmen.
1860 Member of State Legislature from the Dudley-Southbridge District.
1861 His wife, Hanna, died 3-28-1861.
1862 Retired from spectacle manufacturing. Moved to Boston and Newton, Mass. Retained his suffrage in Southbridge and visited often.
1892 Died in Newton at age of 87. Buried in Oakridge.
[William Beecher] brought a new trade and skill to town in 1826. He started to make silver spectacles [Figure 76], because the imports were scarce and expensive. He apparently was a skillful mechanic and inventor as he developed means of producing thin steel spectacles which were immediately in big demand.
From [Beecher’s] small beginning at Hartwell’s Corner, the manufacturing of spectacles in this town grew on and on. At the time of his death in 1892, Southbridge was producing approximately two million pairs of spectacles and eyeglasses and approximately one million pairs of lenses per year.
I will now review the early optical companies of Southbridge. The main figures were William Beecher, Robert Cole, Holdridge Ammidown, and [Ammidown’s] son Lucius.
Beecher married Holdridge’s sister.
Cole married Holdridge’s daughter.
So Beecher and Holdridge Ammidown were brothers-in-law.
Cole and Lucius Ammidown were brothers-in-law.
So there were close family ties in the early companies.
A list of the early spectacle makers follows:
Co. Name Location Owners
1833 William Beecher Hartwell’s Corner William Beecher was the sole owner, Age 28.
1840 Ammidown & Putney Lower Main St. H. Ammidown & J. Putney
1842 Ammidown & Son Lower Main St. H. Ammidown & his son [see Appendix 3] Lucius
1850 Ammidown & Co. Lower Main St. Lucius & his brother-in- [Figures 77 & 78] law Robert H. Cole. Lucius died 1853.
1860 Beecher & Cole Lower Main St. William Beecher married
[Figures 78, 79 & 80] H. Ammidown’s sister,
Robert Cole married
H. Ammidown’s daughter.
1862 Robert H Cole & Co. Lower Main St. Robert H. Cole* & his
brother E. Merritt Cole.
1865 E. Edmonds & Son Mechanic & Main E. Edmonds & his son
C. S. Edmonds.
1868 H. C. Ammidown & Co. Mechanic & Main Henry C. Ammidown &
C. S. Edmonds.
1869 H. C. Ammidown & Co. Mechanic & Main G. W. Wells* & H. C. Wells
* Cole & Wells merged to form American Optical Company [AO]. The
original 1869 stockholder of the AO were:
President Robert H. Cole (Age 61) 150 shares Robert H. Cole was probably the first employee Treasurer E. M. Cole (Brother of 80 shares of William Beecher in Robert) 1826. When William
A. M. Cheney 50 shares Beecher decided to give up Clerk G. W. Wells (Age 23) 40 shares the jewelry shop in 1833 Hiram Wells (Brother 50 shares and devote his efforts to
of G. W. W.) making spectacles, Robert C. S. Edmonds 30 shares H. Cole bought the jewelry 400 shares store and operated it until 1850. When he became a partner in Ammidown & Co., due to hiss brother-in- law’s (Lucius) poor health, he participated in the merger of 1869 & became the first president of American Optical Company, a position that he held until 1891, when he resigned.
[Cole’s] daughter Ella gave the town the area known as Cole Forest, which is adjacent to the Oak Ridge Cemetery. She also gave funds for the Cole Trade School, which is now part of the high school.
Through his association with William Beecher, [Cole] was involved in spectacle making from 1833 to 1892 (59 years). G. W. Wells became treasurer in 1879 and president in 1891. His sons Channing, Albert, and Cheney all started to work in the 1890’s. Then the third generation took part in the AO business, which included George B. Wells [son of Albert B. Wells], John, Turner, and McGregrory [sons of Channing McGregory Wells]. Peak employment in Southbridge was reached in 1942 with 5,486 employees. There were also manufacturing facilities in Canada; Keene, New Hampshire; Brattleboro, Vermont; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Frederick, Maryland; Buffalo, New York; England, Germany, and Brazil and about 250 branch shops in the United States.
AO was sold to Warner-Lambert in 1967. It, in turn, sold most of the Southbridge facility to M&R Industries in 1982.
Through the years, AO has provided wages for countless numbers of people in this general area. American Optical Company and the Wells families have given funds to many local groups, including churches, the YMCA, and the Harrington Memorial Hospital. The G. W. Wells Foundation continues to give large amounts to area groups.
Albert Wells was a collector of artifacts, and in his lifetime, he accumulated thousands of items. Albert, his brother Cheney, and his son George, conceived the idea of a living museum to house all the items. Hence, Old Sturbridge Village was built, and it stands today as one of the greatest living museums in the United States.
Let’s return now to Lensdale, where I spent 40 years as an engineer, to give you a brief picture of the company.
In the late 1800’s, Lensdale made double convex and concave items and flat cylinders. Then it made periscopic lenses (first step towards deeper curves inside for better vision). By 1910, it was making the center series - spheres and toric lenses with much deeper inside curves. The following documents Lensdale’s further activity:
1910 The Kryptok bifocal, the first fused bifocal.
1915 The one-piece bifocal.
1925 The Tillyer “D” bifocal, a fused bifocal, color corrected.
About 1925 Tillyer Series, spheres and toric lenses corrected for marginal vision.
1935 The Tillyer, a curved top bifocal.
1940 The Tillyer Flat Top.
1960 The Trifocal Executive, a one-piece with a wide field.
Other Southbridge Spectacle Makers
Between 1869 and 1900, five other groups were organized to make spectacles in Southbridge. Most of these spectacle makers gained their experience at American Optical Company and started out on their own.
1. 1878 Vinton & Jacobs Spectacle Shop - very little information on this venture.
2. 1882 Southbridge Optical Company - sold to AO in 1901.
3. 1887 Dupaul Young Optical Company - sold to Shuron in 1924.
4. 1895 Blanchard Optical Company - very little information.
5. 1900 Central Optical Company - in business until 1951.
Southbridge Optical Company
This company was founded in 1882 and 1883. William C. Barnes was listed as president and treasurer. They started business in the old Spec Shop on lower Main Street. In 1885, Benajah V. Bugbee was president and general manager. In 1888, the company erected the wooden building on Marcy Street. Harrington Cutlery occupied the building for many years. Several additions were made to it, and in 1898, it was three stories x 25’ x 150’.
After the death of B. V. Bugbee in 1898, the officers were his sons:
L. W. Bugbee, President
B. L. Bugbee, Treasurer and General Manager
C. B. McKinstry, Director
A. W. Wheeler, Director
The company manufactured spectacles and eyeglasses in gold, gold-filled, and steel and employed over 100 people in 1898. It was sold to American Optical Company in 1901.
L. W. Bugbee worked for AO as head of product development until 1918, when he moved to Indianapolis to manage Continental Optical Company, which later became Shuron Continental. He was an inventor and through the years had 86 patents granted to him.
B. L. Bugbee drowned in a canoe accident on the Quinebaug River in Sturbridge in 1907.
Much of the preceding information came from L. W. Bugbee’s son, Willis Bugbee, who was born here and lived here [Southbridge] before going to MIT and Oxford University in England, where he majored in physics. Later he worked for several optical companies. He is now a patent lawyer in the Detroit area.
DuPaul Young Optical Company
This company was established in 1887 by Jos. M. DuPaul, Leon Young, and J. A. Caron, all experienced spectacle and eyeglass makers. Mr. DuPaul started to work for E. Edmonds and Son in 1866 and was considered one of the veteran spectacle makers of Southbridge.
Both DuPaul and Young married sisters of J. A. Caron, so these men were brothers-in-law. In 1925, George DuPaul joined the company, which became DuPaul Central Optical Company. The company continued operation until 1951.
In 1887, the company started manufacturing in old Stephen Richards’ shop on lower Elm Street. It was incorporated in 1892 with 65 employees. In 1896, it move to the old Spec Shop on lower Main Street.
In 1896, the officers were:
Leon Young, President
J. A. Caron, Treasurer
F. H. Orr, Clerk (died in 1912)
J. M. DuPaul, Superintendent
In 1907, Felix Gatenaux built the brick building on Marcy Street and employed about 200 people in 1915. In 1918, he built a lens plant on DuPaul Street, which was called DuPaul Lockart. In 1924, he sold the business to Shuron Standard of Rochester. He operated the company as a division of Shuron. In 1927, the business moved to Rochester. Leon Caron, son of J. A., was the assistant treasurer from 1915 to 1927. The company made steel and gold-filled spectacles and eyeglasses.
Blanchard Optical Company
This company existed on lower Elm Street in about 1895. I’ve seen several references to it, and an advertisement for it appeared in an 1897 issue of the Optical Journal. Beyond this, I have no information.
Central Optical Company
This company was founded in 1900 with Francois Tetreault, president; Alfred Galipeau, vice president; P. N. LeClaire, treasurer; and E. D. Desroisier, secretary. It started manufacturing in the basement of Blanchard Optical Company on Elm Street and then moved to another building on the same street in 1901.
In 1910, the officers were:
Ronaldo Guilmette, President
Hector M. LeClaire, Treasurer
Edward LeClaire, Secretary
The company made goggles for shopworkers, mechanics, and motorists.
Small Southbridge Optical Manufacturers
The following is a list of small optical manufacturers in Southbridge that existed for short periods after 1900:
Eastern Optical Company, Crane Street, Alfred LaPierre, 1914,
Quality Lens Co., Hartwell Street, Wilfrid Lavoie, 1916, Central Street, M. Ernest Decelles, in a small store of N. E. Putney, 1895.
Southbridge Optical Supply Company, Central Street, M. Zepherin LePage, automobile goggles, 1914.
Southbridge Toric Lens Company, Joseph Ouimet, 1919.
Independent Optical Company.
Southbridge Spectacle Manufacturing Company.
Normar Optical Company.
Eccel Rest Guard Company.
South Toric Lens Company.
Optical Specialty Company.
United States Optical Company.
American Optical Company Activities
Robert McMaster gave us the preceding history of the events that led to the establishment of American Optical Company. The following presents details of the company’s undertakings.
In 1833, American Optical Company began manufacturing its own lenses. Prior to that, all of its lenses were imported. The first production-line type of lens, the Centex, came with the establishment of a system of interchangeability of sizes and a systemic standard of foci for its lenses. Previously, lenses were individually and painstakingly set into frames using hand edging. Uniform density, clarity, and centration were ignored.
The company’s glass-molding operation saved time in “roughing out” for high power lenses, strong base curves, etc. the grinding room (485 feet long and 128 feet wide) held 108 machines. Each machine held 200 to 1,000 spindles, depending on the curvature of the lenses to be ground. Total grinding capacity was said to be 10,000 spindles. In this same building, lenses were cut and edged to the desired shape.
In addition to supplying white glass, American Optical Company supplied blue, smoked, amber, pink, amethyst, euphos (yellow-green) glass, and roentgen.
The following excerpt regarding American Optical Company was taken from an article by G. W. Wells in the Quinebaug Historical Society Leaflets:
Until the year 1884, all spectacle lenses excepting a few manufactured by hand to fit special cases, were imported, and the growing demand upon the American Optical Company was such that it was practically impossible to get a proper and adequate supply, owing to the indifference of the foreign manufacturers to increase their factories as they could not believe that the demand from the United States was legitimate. It was also impossible to get goods of the proper quality and sure of focus. The orders were often a year in being filled, and in some cases, it was impossible for our company to fill orders for frames set with lenses, which was the usual way in which goods were then purchased, for the want of lenses to go into the frames.
Under the date of February 15, 1871, the following is a report of the examination of imported lenses by George W. Wells (clerk of the American Optical Company at this time).
“This unreliability of the focus numbers in the packages as they were imported was an important feature in determining the American Optical Co. to enter the manufacture of lenses, so as to get something more reliable not only in quality but in focus.”
In 1883, the first steps were taken toward producing lenses in Southbridge. It was a mighty task; there were very few in this country who knew anything about
the practical problems involved, and importers were prophesying failure.
April 1, 1883, work was commenced in earnest in building machinery ad getting in position to manufacture spherical lenses. In the fall of the same year, machinery was placed in the Mechanic Building, size 60 ft. by 30 ft., two stories and basement; and on January 18, 1884, the first finished lenses were produced. Much time, labor and money were spent on this venture with some failures and discouragements. All of the machinery produced was condemned in the fall of 1884 at which time there were 80 spindles running. At this time, an entirely new system of machinery was built to supplant the old wooden machinery. The first iron machinery in the world with the old English motion was installed in 1885.
The manufacture of cylinder and compound lenses was commenced in 1893 and the dioptric system of measurement adopted.
The company purchased and operated the Hardy-Delaney patents for grinding cylinder lenses which was a decided improvement over the old methods.3
The following is from an article in The Southbridge Journal, dated February 15, 1884:
It is well known that the American Optical Company has only made the frames of eyeglasses and spectacles, importing the lenses. For some time, they have been contemplating and preparing for the grinding of lenses themselves, and have finally got this department in running order, although not on a scale to supply the entire establishment with all the glass required.
A brief description of the process will prove to be an interesting contribution to local reading. The business is carried on in a building near the “Spec Shop” which the company purchased from the Central Mills Company for this purpose. The glass used is the finest quality of plate glass, but for convenience and other reasons, it is imported in small squares rather than the large sheets seen in store windows. When the glass is unpacked, it is taken by girls who break off the corners leaving it in oblong shaped pieces. Then boys place the pieces in rows, one deep on large concave shaped iron disks, and fill the interstices with fine sawdust. These disks are then heated by steam and partly filled with hot melted pitch.
A convex disk of similar size and curve is then placed inside the concave disk in the hot pitch. When cool, the disks are separated and the pieces of glass are all stuck by the pitch in the convex one, the spaces which were filled with sawdust being left vacant. This convex disk is placed on a standard so that it can be revolved. Upon this is placed a concave disk of smaller size; the smaller disk riding on one side of the larger like a boy with his cap on the side of his head, but being stationary.
The large glass-covered disk is slowly revolved and coarse emery powder sprinkled between the disks to grind down the edges of the glass. When this process is completed, the glass has the milky appearance known as a ground glass. The process is repeated a great many times, each time a finer emery being used till at last only a very fine rouge is needed to polish the lenses. When the disks are taken from the last grinders or polishers, the glass is ground on one side and perfectly clear and spotless. The whole process is then repeated so that the lenses may have the same convexity on both sides. The lenses are then focused, packed, and labeled and sent to the main shop. 4
New Lens Machinery
The following is from an article in The Southbridge Journal, dated August 15, 1884:
The new machinery can be best understood by saying that it reverses the operation. The under disc is concave and the glass is stuck to a convex disc which turns about, by an eccentric motion in the concave disc. By this process, the emery powder is retained on the concave disc and as none has to be applied after starting, the machine does not require such close attention as the old one, causing a savings in labor. The process of grinding by the new machines not only grinds the curve but reduces the fineness of the emery so that the discs do not have to be moved from one machine to another but receive all the needed grinding where they are first placed, again saving considerable time.5
Bausch and Lomb
In 1896, the Bausch and Lomb plant in New York began manufacturing meniscus lenses, followed by the toric form in 1898. 6
Dr. Moritz von Rohr of Jena (Germany) introduced the Punktal lens in 1911. This optically correct lens for compound lenses gave the required powers in the two meridians while still allowing equally distinct vision from center to margin. Bausch and Lomb Optical Company began producing these lenses for the American market in 1915, making the center thickness less and adding Kryptok and Ultex bifocals. Its Orthogon series of lenses followed. World War I unfortunately disrupted this cooperation on lens production. Therefore, Bausch and Lomb opened its own glass plant.
The following is from an article from Bausch and Lomb Optical Company, Rochester, N.Y., written in 1915:
Glass is an amorphous, transparent or translucent mixture of silicates by definite chemical formulas. The essential materials for glass working are silica, an alkali and lime or lead. Part of the lime or lead may be replaced by oxides of other metals, also by certain borates and phosphates to replace a part of the silica especially in glass manufactured for optical purposes.
Various colors used to moderate light entering the eye are found in spectacles. Blue is produced by adding cobalt oxide to melted glass; green by adding chrome oxide; ruby - gold oxide; yellow - silver oxide; violet - manganese oxide; smoke - by using several of the above oxides. 8
Despite a “glass house” being established in Jamestown in the 1500s, the Bausch and Lomb glass plant was the only plant producing optical glass during World War I. The plant finally came out with the Nokrome lens - made of a dense, barium glass. Subsequently, Bausch and Lomb produced the Orthogon “D” bifocal - a color-free corrected lens. In 1930, the Panoptic lens emerged from the Hammon patent.
As late as 1938, individual production of lenses was so popular that a 231-page book by Orford and Lockett went through at least five editions, describing in detail how these products could be made. 9 The book covered grinding, finishing, setting, testing, and computing of lenses with tools that could be made at home. Making lenses was an interesting but time-consuming hobby, with the intended result being self-satisfaction.
Obviously, optical manufacturing as come a very long way since the first individuals began tinkering at the trade. It is now a flourishing industry answering the needs of a demanding public.
Overview of American Optical Company Development
1833-1840 William Beecher (sole owner)
1840-1842 Ammidown & Putney (Holdridge Ammidown & Jairus Putney)
1842-1849 Ammidown & Son (Lucius Ammidown & Holdridge Ammidown)
1850-1851 Ammidown & Company (Lucius Ammidown & Robert H. Cole)
1851-1854 Ammidown & Company (Lucius Ammidown, Robert H. Cole & William Beecher)
1854-1859 Ammidown & Company (Holdridge Ammidown, Robert H. Cole & William Beecher)
1860-1862 Beecher & Cole (William Beecher, Robert H. Cole & E. Merritt Cole)
1862-1866 Robert H. Cole & Company (Robert H. Cole & E. Merritt Cole)
1866-1869 Robert H. Cole & Company (Robert H. Cole & E. Merritt Cole & A. M. Cheney)
1869 American Optical Company (Robert H. Cole, president; George W. Wells, clerk;
E. Merritt Cole, treasurer)
Source: American Optical Catalog #4258, 1912, p. II.
1. Deborah Jean Warner, OHS Proceedings, Southbridge, 1984.
2. Robert McMaster, speech prepared from articles found:
Old Sturbridge Village Library; Sturbridge American Optical Company Research Library; Southbridge Essex Institute, Salem, Massachusetts; Fashions in Eyeglasses, Richard Corson; London Ammidown History; Jacob Edwards Library; Southbridge American Optical Company History, QHS Leaflets.
3. G. W. Wells, Quinebaug Historical Society Leaflets, American Optical Co., Part 3, 191-92.
6. Bausch & Lomb Optical Company, Ophthalmic Lenses (Rochester, NY, 1935).
7. D. J. Bryden and D. L. Simms, “Spectacles Improved to Perfection and Approved of by the Royal Society,” Annals of Science 50 (1993): I-31.
8. Bausch & Lomb Optical Company, op. cit.
9. H. Orford and A. Lockett, Lens-Work for Amateurs (London: Pitman, 1938).
Other Sources Consulted in Chapter 6
1. American Optical Company, Spectacles, Eyeglasses, Lenses (Southbridge, MA, circa 1933).
2. R. B. Carter, Good and Bad Eyesight (Philadelphia: P. Blakiston & Co., 1882).
3. G. Hartridge, The Refraction of the Eye (Chicago: W. P. Deim & Co., 1895).
4. Stanley Newbold, The Optician 141 (3655) (April, 1961).
5. Theo E. Obrig, Modern Ophthalmic Lenses and Optical Glass (New York, 1935).
6. Ruth Dyer Wells, The Wells Family (Southbridge, MA: Privately printed, 1979).
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