Quinabaug Historical Society

Leaflet #17

Read by George W. Wells at

Meeting of Society, April 26, 1909

In writing the history of the optical business in Southbridge, I find it more difficult to get necessary data from the time the business was commenced, in 1833, until the year I came to Southbridge, 1864, than I had anticipated, although I find a mass of information through the old books, and from records and clippings that have been preserved. I regret that I did not avail myself of the opportunity to procure first hand information from the man who established the business, William Beecher, as I spent many interesting hours talking over the olden times with him, but did not take memoranda as I ought. the same would apply to Mr. Putney, and, of course, in the many years in which I was so pleasantly associated with Mr. Robert H. Cole as a fellow worker, I should have gathered very much more information than I did.

I decided several years ago that I should undertake to write the history of the business at some time, but the time did not seem to arrive when it was convenient. When requested by the officers of the Historical Society to take up the matter, I could not refuse, and have endeavored to get accurate information, as far as possible, feeling that it was unsafe to wait longer before making records of everything pertaining to the business that it was possible to obtain.

As far as the business is concerned from 1833 until 1864, I have to gather from what others have done. From 1864 to the present time, I encounter one serious difficulty, and that is, matters of a personal nature of my own connection with the business will enter into the sketch too largely, but, under the circumstances, I hardly know how this can be prevented.

I thought that not only the history of the business in Southbridge should enter into the sketch, but that of all the various companies that have been formed by men once associated with the parent company. In making investigations, I find a large number of these, and regarding many of them, it is difficult to get accurate information. In endeavoring to gather this information, naturally, the broader field of the business throughout the country, as far as it related to spectacles, eyeglasses, spectacle lenses, etc., seemed to be brought prominently forward and I finally decided that I must endeavor to cover the entire field. It is not necessary, however, that this should be made part of the history as it should be present to the Historical Society. It will be understood that it is impossible that this sketch can be brought into one paper, even if it is confined to the parent company from its beginning, so that this present paper will treat only of the business from its inception in 1833 until 1869, the year the American Optical Company was incorporated.

Many of our people have understood that the spectacle business in this country had its origin in Southbridge. This is not the case, however. Spectacles in small quantities were made in several other places before they were made in Southbridge, so that Southbridge cannot claim priority as far as the first manufacture of spectacles is concerned, but it can claim that there is no concern dating back of 1833 that is in existence today excepting our own. The small beginning of William Beecher in 1833 has never ceased to exist, and while the business was small for many years, it has always been active, and a factor in the manufacturing interests of the town, especially after the sixties.

The invention of glass is credited to the Phoenician merchants, and a lens, evidently used for optical purposes, has been found below the ruins of old Ninevah. After the Romans conquered Egypt, they introduced the art of making glass into Italy. Nero used a large jewel in the shape of a lens in order to enjoy a better sight of the fights of the gladiators. Roger Bacon in England was the first to produce or describe a convex lens, but it is not stated that he ever combined these lenses into spectacles.

Spectacles proper, that is, glasses mounted so as to retain themselves upon the face, were invented, probably, in Florence between 1280-1300. A tombstone there states, “Here lies Salvino de Armati, inventor of spectacles. May God pardon his sins.” However, tombstone testimony is not infallible. This man kept his process of manufacture a secret but a clever monk, Allesandro di Spina, made spectacles by using Armati’s as a model, and made public their use. An old painting of the date of 1480 shows a pince-nez. In the Campo Santo, Pisa, is a large painting representing the twelfth century. In it, the Queen of Sheba in all her glory, is carrying a lorgnette attached to a gold chain, in the fashion of today.

Charles II of England was the first to use eyeglasses for the improvement of sight. He was born with myopic astigmatism and accidentally looking through a small lens, found his imperfect vision aided. He was living in exile in France, and after making six thousand lenses, the artisan found one that gave the Prince practically perfect vision. After his return to England, glasses were worn as ornaments.

Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals in 1789. Thomas Young discovered the use of cylindrical lenses in 1801, and Airy, the astronomer, applied them to correct astigmatism in 1827. The frames of bone, horn and shell were clumsy, until the use of metal in the nineteenth century.

The center part of the two of Southbridge, including the water power and land now covered by the Center Village, was held by Moses Marcy; that above, now Globe Village, by William Plimpton; above him by John Plimpton, covering Westville. The land below Mr. Marcy was occupied by Col. Thomas Cheney, on both sides of the river as far as Sandersdale, thence on the south side to the land bought by John Vinton of Stoneham in 1738.

Woodstock was settled in 1686 and Oxford in 1713. The easterly part, or what is now Southbridge, was not practically settled until about 1733.

One hundred years later, the first spectacles were made in Southbridge.

Dates of Commencement and Continuation of the Optical Business Now American Optical Company

1833-1840 William Beecher (In Jewelry store Hartwell’s Corner)

1840-1842 Ammidown & Putney (Business located at the old Spectacle Shop, near railroad bridge, now Hyde Mfg. Co.)

1842-1849 Ammidown & Son (Holdridge & L. H. Ammidown)

1850-1851 Ammidown & Co. (L. H. Ammidown & Robert H. Cole)

1851-1854 Ammidown & Co. (L. H. Ammidown, Robert H. Cole & Wm. Beecher. L. H. Ammidown died in 1853)

1860 Beecher & Cole (William Beecher, Robert H. Cole &

E. Merritt Cole)

1862-1866 Robert H. Cole & Co. (Robert H. Cole & E. Merritt Cole)

1866-1869 Robert H. Cole & Co. (Robert H. Cole & E. Merritt Cole &

A. M. Cheney)

1869 American Optical Co. (Robert H. Cole, President; George W. Wells, Clerk; E. M. Cole, Treasurer)

William Beecher was the pioneer in the spectacle industry in Southbridge. He was a native of Southbury, Conn., the son of a farmer. When a young man, he located in Providence, R.I., and learned the trade of jeweler. He came to Southbridge in 1826 and engaged in business for himself in a shop where Hartwell’s drug store now stands. The first floor was devoted to the jewelry and watch business. R. H. Cole, Liberty Phelps, Billings Farrington and others learned the trade in this shop. Mr. Beecher was a skillful mechanic and developed a rare genius as an inventor. Beginning in 1833, he made silver spectacles at times, using the second floor for this purpose. He invented tools and devices for their manufacture, which lessened the cost of production materially. The business increased to such an extent that a new location was sought in 1839, on lower Main Street, the site now occupied by the Hyde Manufacturing Co.

This land was a part of the 500 acres granted to Rev. Caleb Rice as the first settled minister in Sturbridge in 1736. His salary at that time was $160 and fifty cords of wood annually. He died on September 2, 1759, and October 24, 1769, his executors deeded a portion to Benjamin Freeman, who built a blacksmith shop and trip-hammer on this privilege. It afterwards passed into the possession of John Waite, May 26, 1801.

The deed defines the boundaries of the tract of land containing three acres and thirteen rods and, grants the privilege of building a dam above on the land of the grantor for the purpose of flowing a pond to save water for his benefit at any time, provided the dam be so constructed as not to injure the mowing above. The fences are to be maintained. Other owners have been:

October 11, 1806, James B. Mason.

March 24, 1811, Edward Morris and L. Morris.

1815, William Foster.

April 14, 1818, Calvin Ammidown.

April 11, 1821, J. K. Smith (The water privilege and blacksmith hop are named).

August 10, 1824, Otis Richardson (A grindstone is mentioned).

November 9, 1828, Chester Cummings.

March 16, 1836, Royal Smith.

August 22, 1839, William Beecher.

The same land is mentioned, but the starting point is given “at the corner of the town pound, with a wheelwright shop, water privilege, together with the dam, ditch and trench.”

March 15, 1841, Holdridge Ammidown.

January 1, 1852, L. H. Ammidown and R. H. Cole.

January 1, 1860, R. H. Cole.

March 16, 1869, American Optical Company.

Mr. Beecher tried to buy steel spectacles of American manufacture, but was told by Palmer & Batchelder that they could not be made in this country. He obtained one pair as a sample, paying three dollars, the importer’s price, and experimented until he manufactured them in this new shop prior to 1843, undoubtedly, the first steel spectacles made in America.

Mr. Beecher sold the business to Ammidown & Putney, but was hired by Mr. Ammidown for one year to teach his son.

In 1851, he acquired an interest again in the concern, which then embraced L. H. Ammidown and R. H. Cole, besides Mr. Beecher, known as Ammidown & Co. He retired in 1862.

One of the valued helpers was Jairus Putney, who became the chief mechanic and was a partner of Mr. Beecher from 1840-1842. He originated new ways of doing the work and furnished many new ideas. After remaining several years, he retired.

The man connected with the business the longest was Robert H. Cole. He was born in Worcester, Mass., May 18, 1818, the son of Elisha and Mary McKinley Cole. His father moved to Southbridge the same year. At the age of fourteen - 1832 - he was apprenticed to Wm. Beecher, to learn the trade of jeweler. As Mr. Beecher introduced the manufacture of silver spectacles during this time - 1833 - Mr. Cole was identified with the industry from its very inception. He bought the jewelry and book business of Mr. Beecher and conducted it for some years. Finding that his health did not permit constant bench work, Mr. Cole sold out his jewelry store and associated himself, in 1850, with L. H. Ammidown, the successor of Wm. Beecher in the manufacture of spectacles.

Mr. Cole held a constantly growing interest in the firm under the varied changes, becoming its head in 1862, and when the American Optical Company was organized in 1869, he became the President and held that office until his retirement in 1890. He died in 1900.

From a memoir of George N. Briggs, Governor of Commonwealth from 1844 to 1851, we quote a letter:

“Southbridge, December 1, 1845

Governor Briggs:

Will your Excellency please accept the accompanying present as a small tribute of respect for your principles in favor of mechanics. Though not a voter should I live to the age of manhood I hope to be correct in principle, and be governed by those for which you have so ably contended. My present is small, but I have exercised my best ingenuity in workmanship, the whole having been done by my own hands. Hoping that you will find the spectacles useful, and that you will live a long and happy life, is the sincere wish of

Yours truly,

Wm. E. Foster”

The Governor sent a fitting reply.

A vivid idea of life in the old shop is given by Mr. H. C. Wells in the following account:

October 20, 1851, I arrived in Southbridge. The next morning I presented myself at the “Works” of Ammidown & Co., composed of Lucius Ammidown, William Beecher and Robert H. Cole, and commenced to “learn the trade” of making specs.

Alfred E. Holmes, being the youngest apprentice, gave me my first lessons in sweeping out the shop, bringing water for the help, wood for the stove, and charcoal for the forge. Mr. Ammidown melted some bars of silver and I was told to roll them to a certain gauge. They were rather unruly in my hands and thinking to hold them in place my hands were badly cut. The “boys” said it was a part of the “trade.” At night when the “Company” left I was entrusted with the valuables of said “Company,” which consisted of several watches, chains, the gold stock in process, etc.

They were put into a small leather trunk with trays, and I carried it to my boarding place, and put it under my bed for safety from burglars. It also contained the key to the safe. Said “safe” was about two feet square, made of wood and covered with sheet iron, fastened on with nails with very large heads. It was not fire proof, but burglar proof (?) as the keyhole did not show, it being covered by sliding one of said nails over the keyhole. We boys used to ask visitors to find the keyhole to our safe, thinking it a great joke. The “Company” kept their books, and silver not in process in this safe. The help were not required to put up their work at night, each one leaving it on his bench. We all had a key and the last one out locked up the “Works” for the night. We could commence as early and work as late at night as we chose. Each one had a small oil lamp to work by, and the youngest apprentice had to collect, fill, and trim them for the help, which consisted of twelve or fourteen, except the “Company.” I can recall most of them, Francis M. Vinton, Harrison Vinton, Elon Greene, Abiel Coombs, Samuel Hammond, Edwin Marble, Alfred E. Holmes, E. M. Cole, Ebenezer Edmonds, and in March ‘52 Alpha M. Cheney came and took my place as “boy,” and I gave him his first lessons in “learning the trade,” then I became a “bench hand” making specs.

Apprentices’ salaries ran very small in those days, mine the first year being $30.00 cash, the second year $40.00, and the third year $50.00 and board, but Mr. Ammidown was very kind to us “boys” giving us “overwork.” The Company made many goggles and eye protectors, and he gave us 2 cents apiece to cut them out of large sheets and solder them, etc., which we did evenings, working as late as 12 o’clock on Saturday evenings sometimes.

The season of ‘52 was very dry, and of course, Cohasse Brook gave out, and the Company put in power in the basement. A large wheel belting on to the small pulley at the polishing wheels, and a large crank turned by a large colored man by the name of Jenkin, was the power. He received 10 cents per hour. The next season polishing wheels were fitted up at the Central Mills, and when we had work to polish, we took it in our little basket and went there to do it. As business was increasing, the Company put in a steam plant in 1853, and Abiel Coombs ran it, and sometimes Mr. Cole.

Mr. Beecher was a hard working man, and when we had stock to roll out by hand, he was always on one of the cranks. It took four of us “to man the rolls,” and it was no boy’s play, I can tell you. Some of us would remark about it being hard work, but Mr. Beecher would say, “It will be all right when you get used to it.” Tapering steel temple stock was the worst job of all, rolling it in and then back to get the taper. The Boss took a pinch of snuff often, and we all took a sweat. Eccentric rolls were made later and it was fun to see the stock go through.

The specs were all made “by the piece.” Each one wound the eyes, made the nose pieces, sawed off the end pieces, and joints, and tied them on to fronts. The first dozen or two made us “tired” as they would not stay tight and true. Then we cut our own glass, marking around the pattern with an old three cornered file ground on the end, and then ground them into frames at the stone, using one foot for power. The price was 37 1/2 cents per pair for straight temples - $4.50 per dozen. We would make six pairs per day, and more if we worked extra. When I came into the works there was but one gold hand, Francis M. Vinton; the others were on silver. We boys worked on the cheaper grade of work, called burnished work. We made many round temples drawing them out and making them round by striking on the top of a rounder with a hammer. I will say that before my three years of apprenticeship expired, there were quite a number added to the working force - Willard Bowen, Samuel Wadsworth, Charles Edmunds, and others later.

When I came to town I went to board with Mr. Beecher.

I was with Mr. Ammidown the last year of his life. He was like a brother to me. His son, Deacon Lucius E. Ammidown, was perhaps a year and a half old, and often crept to my place at the table and sat on my knee and ate crumbs from my plate. The Company was not strict as to work hours. We often went down the river in the winter to hook suckers up through a hole in the ice, to have a short game of ball on the grounds now occupied by Clemence Box Shop, or to fly a kite which was some 14 feet long, let loose and drawn in by a windlass, or to pitch a game of quoits. But if the company had an order they were in a hurry for, we gave it our undivided attention, working extra and getting it out as soon as possible. When I arrived in town, the Pierce campaign was on and we marched many miles to the music of the band - Thompson, bass; Abiel Coombs, snare drum; Ebenezer Clark, fife. Uncle Abiel could beat any of the boys of today with his double roll on that drum of his.

Several items are gleaned from two letter books containing letters of Ammidown & Son to their customers and others, covering the time from May 27, 1843 to April 10, 1848.

It is of interest to note that copies in these books are made with carbon paper. Some of the old carbons are still in the books and make fair copies. It is a popular impression that carbon copying is of rather recent date, but these books show it to be more than sixty-five years old.

The following extract from letter of July 16, 1845, will indicate that the men at the head of the business did not hesitate to be outspoken when their opinion was asked:

“Southbridge, July 16, 1845

Messrs. E. & E. S. Brigham:

Gent: -

As to our “unfavorable opinion,” “Malice,” breaking down your business, etc.” We would say, when asked, as we frequently are, what we think of Mr. Paine’s glass, which we suppose you sold, we reply that in our opinion it is a humbug, that it is made of the common glass and bent into the shape it is by heat, that all the grinding he does to it is done around the edge, that it is not so perfect nor so good as it was before it was so bent, and that it is sold at a most exorbitant price. Of this we have more proofs than one, and if this is the business of your choice we say “Go ahead,” but when a man honestly asks our opinion we shall give it free of expense. We do not, however, consider it an opposition to our opinion, but rather an advantage, and that too without the “1000 to 1500 dollar business” which we had rather see before we reckon the profits. We understand that it has been your intention to come a “Grab Game” on us,, for a lot of spectacles on credit, and your real success may account for the letter we have received. However, we feel we have not lost anything yet, and we do not intend to in the future.

Yours respectfully,

Ammidown & Son

October 24, 1845

Mr. Benj. Pike, Jr.

Dear Sir:

We send you 3 dozen steel spectacles to your order. The octagon ones are the first ever made by any of our present workmen, as also will be the eyeglasses you order, but which we shall not be able to send under three or four weeks, as we wish to make up a few before we commence on an order for anyone.

Yours respectfully,

Ammidown & Son

List of Good Manufactured in 1850

Gold, coin silver, steel and steel hand spectacles.

Steel spring eyeglasses.

Quizzing glasses, plated and wire goggles.

Gold and silver vest fob chains, etc.

Eye protectors.

Gold and silver case watches were carried in stock.

Spectacles made to order in any size and shape.

Split glass spectacles, made to order only. Bifocal.

Steel eyeglasses and spectacles were made in 1843 or earlier. Four weeks were needed for filling orders for eyeglasses and two weeks for spectacles.

1846, April. Samuel L. Morse made all the steel. Ebenezer Edmonds later worked with him and they had a room by themselves.

In 1851 there were only two workmen on steel:

1 on quality 1 and 2 1 doz. pr. per week

1 on quality 3 and 4 2 doz. pr. per week

The gold work was started under L. H. Ammidown, about 1848. The gold wire was hard to find in market and some of it came from New York. It was still harder to work, for each time it was annealed, it cracked. By melting several times, using sal ammoniac, and reducing the alloy, it would finally take shape. There were no dies for cutting out anything and all the work had to be filed. A fiddle-bow drill was used fro drilling the end pieces.

Materials Used

The gold and silver was mostly coin.

California $50 gold pieces are mentioned once, if obtainable at par French crowns were specified in one order, but Portuguese dollars had to be substituted; only 15 crowns could be bought.

Mexican silver was used as late as 1868.

Crucible cleanings, stonings, polishings, sweeps, etc., were sent to a refiner and the gold returned in 17k wire ready for drawing; the silver in press silver. German silver came in bars 5 inches wide, and plated metal is recorded once.

1851 - Plated brass or brass plated with 16k or 18k gold, rolled down or in wire, was sought. Was this a suggestion for gold filled work?

In the inventory of 1849 we find steel wire entered at 75 cents per lb., iron wire 25 cents and 33 centers per lb.

A steam engine was installed in summer of 1853. This engine was of the oscillating type and would be quite a curiosity today. Mr. Robert H. Cole often attended to the running of this engine when the water power gave out.

In the inventory of 1846 we find:

No. 3 English convex spectacle glass $6.50 per gross

No. 1 Convex spectacle glass $12.00 per gross

Concave spectacle glass $24.00 & $42.00 per gross

Convex Perifocal $30.00 per gross

Colored glass $7.50 per gross

The perifocal lenses were produced by taking the convex lenses, placing them upon a ring or circular metal piece that would support the edges, placing the same in a furnace, heating it to a certain degree of heat that would cause the lens to fall in the center into the form of a periscopic lens, or meniscus. These, they gave the name of “Perifocal.”

About 1851 the firm discontinued the manufacture of these perifocal lenses and wrote to their customers that they had disposed of their furnaces and in place of this style of lens used the French periscopic or meniscus, as being a much better lens and at a less price. This style of a lens reformed in this way by heat, was very objectionable, as it distorted the lens, and it was not fit for use as a spectacle lens.

There is an item in this inventory of a press at $15.00. This was, no doubt, the hand press used in punching the temples or straight sides for the spectacles, and the first press of this style ever used in the manufacture of spectacles.

The first mention of a patent is dated October 31, 1850. It was for an improvement in temples. Five cents for every pair of silver spectacles and twenty cents for every pair of gold spectacles made was to be paid to the person securing the patent, John P. Paine, Esq.

No “Peddlers” were employed, but men took goods to sell at their own risk, making from $25.00 to $50.00 per month, besides expenses. Later an offer was made for a supply at $11.50 per dozen providing the buyer would pay 12 1/2 per cent interest for shop wear, etc., annually. Most of the goods went to wholesale dealers in Boston and New York.

Delays in filling orders were caused by failure of water power due to exceeding dry weather, and inability to secure competent workmen.

1843 - “We feel thankful you do not want your spectacles this fall, for we have orders for 70 dozen of different kinds already” (1 hour’s work for AO Co. today).

Sept. 18, 1843 - “We should have sent the whole order had it not been for the circumstances that the receipt of your order found all our workmen attending a Camp Meeting about a half mile distant, which continued throughout the week. This, although not as we expected, we hope you will consider an excuse for not sending the whole at this time.”

1852 - A customer who asked for a lower price was refused it, because spectacles were a kind of staple article upon which small profits could be made with much competition.

Oct. 30, 1849 - $500.00 worth of goods were sent to California on commission, the profits to be shared.

Express “bundles” were sent by way of the Western Railway at Charlton Depot, but, on account of excessive charges, an office was asked for at Webster Depot, which was used later.

The Southbridge Bank refused to take paper on New York either in drafts or bills, excepting for collection, for which they charge $1.00 besides postage, interest, etc., making $1.25, but checks upon Boston were taken. The term “New England money” was used.

Money was ordered delivered to J. Haggerty (the stage driver).

Insurance of $1,000.00 upon buildings, etc., and $2,000.00 upon machinery, stock, etc., was placed before 1853.

Personal Items Occur

1852 - L. H. Ammidown. Services as Assessor 30 days $30.00

1853 - Wm. Beecher. Services as Selectman $10.50

One cow bought of Geo. A. Dresser $18.00

22 bushels Coat at 9 cents $ 1.98

1851 - Paid Alpha M. Cheney for cutting wood $ 0.75

Highway Taxes of 5 men at 20 cents $ 1.00

Board 10s 6d per week ($1.75)

Other prices were given in shillings and pence.

Apprentices served a term of three or four years, the youngest beginning at fourteen years. Board was furnished to all, and the younger ones had three to six months’ schooling.

The wages varied from $20.00 for the first year of the youngest to $60.00 the last year of the oldest.

They were given the privilege of working upon stints from one-half to three-quarters of the time after the first year, making a sum nearly equal to the wages.

Apprentices were expected to make a certain quantity per day. They got out temples, soldered joints, rolled and cut them out. Probably the last apprentice was taken in 1866. (Wm. H. Armes).

Owing to piece prices and the variation of the skill and rapidity of the men, as well as changes in the demand for goods, the wages differed varied even with the same men. In November 1860 there is a range from $20.50 for Adonirma Coombs to $40.00 for Ebenezer Edmonds for the month’s earnings. James Freeman received $45.00 in September 1861 and $87.50 in October. Three men averaged $64.00 per month for three good months of ‘63, while May 1865 shows F. M. Vinton had $78.00 and Wm. Freeman $19.00. A salary by the day was paid A. M. Cheney, $1.35 in ‘63, $1.50 in ‘64 and $1.75 in ‘65.

Selling Prices

1843 - Silver Spectacles $ 9.00 - $13.75 per doz.

$ 6.50 - $18.00 “ “

1843 - Steel Single Eyeglass $ 9.00 - “ “

Double “ $15.00 - “ “

1843 - Steel Spectacles $12.00 - “ “

1850 - Gold Spectacles 14-18K $ 3.75 -$ 7.50 per pair

12-14K $ 3.75 -$ 6.00 “ “

1850 - Steel Spectacles 14-18K $ 7.00 -$18.00 per doz.

1853 - Steel Spectacles $ 8.00 -$20.00 “ “

1853 - Silver Spectacles $ 8.00 -$10.00 “ “

10 per cent Alloy $ 6.00 “ “

Plated Goggles $ 2.00 “ “

Wire Eye Protectors $ 3.25 “ “

Goods were sold at 6 months’ credit with 5 per cent discount for cash.

The yearly sales from 1850 to 1869 show a steady increase from $12,750.00 in 1850 to $50,400.00 in 1868, excepting the years 1860 to 1864, with the lowest period in 1861. From that time onward, the rise was gradual until the former figures were resumed in 1865.

Spectacles Made

1852 - Steel 2,035 pairs

Silver 11,378 “

Gold 1,506 “ 14,919 pairs

1853 - Steel 1,376 pairs

Silver 14,111 “

Gold 3,183 “ 18,670 pairs

1855 - Steel 1,473 pairs

Silver 11,273 “

Gold 2,868 “ 15,617 pairs

1857 - Steel 1,774 pairs

Silver 9,546 “

Gold 3,663 “ 14,983 pairs

Gold and Silver melted in 12 months ending May 1, 1852: -

Gold $2,741.11

Silver $3,728.33

The capital invested in the year 1843 was $4,488.40.

Ammidown & Co. was formed on the 2d day of May, 1851, by L. H. Ammidown, Robert H. Cole and Wm. Beecher, each partner agreeing to put into the firm of Ammidown & Co. the sum of $2,000.00, making a capital stock of $6,000.00.

The investment in 1860, according to inventory, was $8,250.00.

On the 1st day of January, 1862, agreement was entered into between Robert H. Cole and E. Merritt Cole for a partnership to be known as R. H. Cole & Co.: Mr. Robert H. Cole to furnished all the stock, materials, tools, etc., purchased by him of Beecher & Cole, and to furnish whatever capital was necessary; profits to be divided as further agreed. Capital $7,200.

On the 1st day of January, 1866, agreement was entered into between Robert H. Cole, E. M. Cole and Alpha M. Cheney, agreeing to carry on the business of manufacturing spectacles at least one year from that date under the name of Robert H. Cole & Co.; division of profits as further agreed. Capital invested $5,204.20.

The account of stock shows a valuation of $6,000.00 in 1847 and an increase to $15,000 in the two years following. After a decrease to $10,000 in 1851, there is a constant rise to $24,000 in 1857.


Entered employ before 1846: - Wallace Cutting, Elon R. Green, Ebenezer Edmonds, D. Putney, Samuel L. Morse, James R. Young, William E. Foster.

Entered in 1846: - Francis M. Vinton, Elanson Green.

In 1848: - Willard C. Bowen, Samuel Hammond.

In 1849: - Abial Coombs, C. S. Edmonds, Edwin D. Marble, Ezra Putney, Harrison Vinton.

In 1850: - Moses E. Irwin, David Cotton, Alfred E. Holmes.

In 1851: - E. Merritt Cole, Daniel P. Howard, H. C. Wells.

In 1852: - Caleb Ammidown, A. M. Cheney, E. B. Gibbs, Henry M. Vinton.

In 1853: - J. A. Wadsworth.

In 1854: - William Thompson.

In 1855: - M. C. Brackett, W. L. Ormsby.

In 1856: - J. A. Cadwell.

In 1857: - Adoniram J. Coombs.

In 1858: - Lyman Gibbs, Peter Marcy.

In 1859: - George Edmonds, B. F. Lee.

In 1860-1862: - 0

In 1863: - William Freeman, James W. Bromley.

In 1864: - George W. Wells.

In 1865: - 0

In 1866: - William H. Armes, John C. Bromley, A. E. Cole, H. M. Colton, M. M. Day, Joseph Dupaul, William P. Eddy, Edwin F. Harvey, John F. Hibbard, Charles S. Stewart, E. S. Swift, A. S. Weaver.

In 1867: - Daniel V. Brown, Nelson Blait, H. N. Horton, Lemuel McKinstry, Robert McVey, Charles Potter.

In 1868: - A. E. Baylies, F. G. Blanchard, George W. Cady, Felix Covillion, A. E. Cutting, Charles Douty, E. F. Melony, Orin McIntire, George McKay, H. D. Morse, James B. Ware, James White.

In 1869: - Metcalf Baker, Frank Cady, Newton Cady, Henry C. Cady, Andrew Carey, Daniel Clemence, Fielder Clemence, John Clark, H. A. Cook, J. F. Cooper, Ella Corey, Lewis Eccleston, A. O. Horne, C. H. Hager, John Hayes, ? Jacques, H. A. Kimball, Andrew Lee, Alex Martin, Charles Pratt, Monroe Reynolds, Samuel Rice, Felix Ritchie, Joseph Stone, Austin Tiffany, E. P. Tiffany, H. P. Tiffany, Albert Whittemore.

The average number employed from 1848 to 1866 was 13. In 1868 there were 35.

The matter of wages is always interesting, but it is somewhat difficult to get data that will give a fair idea. The wages paid some of the men in the early sixties will be of interest to parties now living who knew the workmen.

In making memorandum in regard to wages paid in the earlier times only those are given that seemed to be based on a reasonable month’s work, that is, when the shop was running practically full time. Owing to piece prices and the variation of the skill and rapidity of the workmen, as well as changes in the demand for goods, the wages were quite varied, ven with the same workmen. We find the following:

In 1860, C. S. Edmonds received in November $36.00

Ebenezer Edmonds “ “ “ $40.00

Henry Vinton “ “ “ $40.00

F. M. Vinton “ “ “ $32.00

A. J. Coombs “ “ “ $20.50

H. C. Wells “ “ “ $25.50

In 1861, Henry Vinton received in March $51.00, April $62.00, May $53.00.

In 1861, James Freeman received in September $45.00, October $87.50.

In 1863, H. C. Wells received in October $63.00.

In 1863, F. M. Vinton received in October $66.50.

In 1863, H. C. Wells received in December $65.00, January, 1864 $61.50.

In 1864, M. C. Brackett received in January $72.00.

In March, 1864, H. C. Wells was paid $2.00 per day.

In December, 1863, A. M. Cheney was paid $1.35 per day.

In December, 1864, A. M. Cheney was paid $1.50 per day, and in February, 1865, $1.75 per day.

In May, 1865, H. C. Wells received $46.50.

F. M. Vinton received $78.00.

Wm. Vinton received $49.00.

Abiel Coombs received $24.25.

A. J. Coombs received $35.00.

In August, 1865, G. W. Wells received $55.50.

In December, 1866, G. W. Wells received $72.00-$75.00.

 Copy of Bill

Southbridge, July 9th, 1842

Mr. Francis P. Pratt,

Bought of Ammidown & Son.

32 pairs Silver Slide Specs at $10.00 $ 32.00

3 “ Silver Split at $14.00 $ 3.50

27 “ Silver Wire Turns at $11.50 $ 27.87 1/2

25 “ Silver Jack Downing at $13.50 $ 28.04

18 “ Silver Ladies’ Specs at $11.50 $ 17.25

5 “ Silver Ladies’ Concave at $13.50 $ 5.62 1/2

17 “ Silver Ladies’ Periscopic at $15.00 $ 21.25

2 “ Double Eyed at $25.00 $ 4.16


2 “ Double Eyed at $21.00 $ 3.50


5 “ Silver Ladies’ at $11.50 $ 4.79

4 “ Silver Ladies’ Concave at $13.50 $ 4.50

6 “ Silver Slide Split at $14.00 $ 7.00


Southbridge, July 21, 1842

Received Payment,

Ammidown & Son

April 2, 1864, George W. Wells commenced work for R. H. Cole & Co., and was one of the first to commence the making of spectacles throughout without first serving three years or more time to learn the trade. He was eighteen years old on the 15th of that month.

The employees at that time, and date they commenced to work, were as follows: Ebenezer Edmonds before 1846, Francis M. Vinton 1846, Charles S. Edmonds 1849, Abial Coombs 1849, Hiram C. Wells 1851, Alpha M. Cheney 1852, E. Merrick Brackett 1855, Adoniram J. Coombs 1857, James Freeman 1860, William Freeman 1860, James W. Bromley 1863, George W. Wells, (April), 1864.

This constituted the whole force of employees at that time with the exception of William Beecher who came in occasionally to make dies.

Mr. Well’s bench was on the westerly side of the shop, beside his brother, Hiram C. Wells, who taught him for the first month how to manufacture silver spectacles complete, also the setting of the lenses. He received for his first month’s work, $15.00.

July 1st, owing to dull business, there was nothing for him to do in the shop, and he entered the employ of Daniel Perry at haying on his farm in Charlton, near Dresser Hill. He received for his sixteen and three-quarters days’ work $35.00 and board.

Mr. Perry kindly procured for him a situation in the machine shop at the Hamilton Woolen Co.’s mills at Globe Village, Mr. White being the foreman. He received $1.00 per day, and worked twelve hours. It was customary at that time to go to the shop before breakfast, having half an hour for breakfast, and for dinner at noon.

April 1, 1865, at the request of Robert H. Cole & Co., he returned to their employ and learned the trade of making steel spectacles, working with William Freeman, who taught him the business. Commencing with May 1st, he worked for himself making steel spectacles complete, including the setting of lenses, and was paid $5.76 per dozen. The goods were called “Fine Steel Ladies,” the best line of steel goods then made. The same quality of frames, or better, are sold today for $1.50 per dozen.

September, 1865, owing to some misunderstanding in regard to quality of work he was promised to make, he left the employ of R. R. Cole & Co. and entered the employ of E. Edmonds & Son in the shop called the “New Spec Shop” situated on the left hand side of Main Street below the iron bridge. Here he was employed in the manufacture of steel spectacle frames, and the price paid for the making of frames only was $4.50 per dozen, average wage $75.00 per month.

At the earnest solicitation of his cousin, Mr. Alpha M. Cheney, in behalf of R. H. Cole & Co., he again returned to the old firm on the basis of day wage of $3.00 per day of ten hours, his work then being largely on tools and dies, and spare time the making of steel spectacle frames.

Why the firm could afford to pay a boy of 19 this wage is yet an open question. About this time, the methods of manufacturing rapidly changed from the old hand work to partial die and machine work, and a very large proportion of his time was devoted to die and machine work, and owing to the fact that the firm had no tools and machines on which this work could be done, quite a little of his time was spent at the machine shops at the Globe and at the Print Works, through the courtesy of the Hamilton Woolen Co. and the overseers at the two shops, Mr. White and Mr. Herron.

At this time, the eccentric rolls, previously referred to, were made by him, which was the first application of this principle in the tapering of this stock for spectacle temples, also the first Craigleith stone was put in use, primarily for edging the so-called split bifocal lenses.

He also built the first Lens Cutting Machine, after the ideas and drawings by E. M. Cole. This machine, with slight modifications, is now in universal use through the world in all optical factories and job shops.

He also built the first machine for jumping and forming spectacle bridges, and many other devices to shorten and improve the method of manufacture.

He invented the first machine for peening or knocking on end pieces. This machine, with slight modifications, is now in use throughout the spectacle world.

He invented the first machine for automatic milling and tapping of spectacle end pieces, which very materially shortened and cheapened the process, as well as making the work more perfect.

January 11, 1867, he sailed for California by way of the Isthmus, and landed in San Francisco February 2nd. He soon entered the employ of the largest machine building shop in the city and received $4.00 per day in silver for his work. Gold and silver were then at a premium of from 33 per cent to 42 per cent. Before leaving for San Francisco, he put the few hundred dollars he had been able to save from his wages into spectacles, taking them to San Francisco and selling them for the same price as he paid, thereby paying the expenses of the trip, on account of the difference in premium on gold. He was then 21 years old.

He again returned to Southbridge and entered the employ of R. H. Cole & Co., August 22, 1867, and remained in their employ until January 1869, when he, with his brother, decided to enter into business for themselves. These years while in the employ of R. H. Cole & Co. were exceedingly pleasant and profitable in every particular. Mr. Alpha M. Cheney was a friend and companion, with all that implies. Mr. Robert H. Cole and his brother were very kind and considerate and never in all these years was there a word or expression of dissatisfaction or criticism by either party.

In the interests of the new venture, G. W. Wells visited New York and points of New Jersey looking up location for the new industry, but returning to Southbridge he purchased the interests of Henry C. Ammidown in the H. C. Ammidown Co. spectacle plant, formerly E. Edmonds Sons. This was the controlling interest, C. S. Edmonds holding the minority interest.

At this time R. H. Cole & Co. offered to take him in as a partner in their firm. This he declined unless arrangements could be made to include his brother Hiram as well. Upon further negotiation it was decided that the two concerns, Robert H. Cole & Co. and the H. C. Ammidown Co., should be merged into one concern, and the same be incorporated under the name of “American Optical Company.” He was not yet twenty-three years old.

These events were the key that led to the forming and locating of the American Optical Co. in Southbridge. There were, at this time, 1869, thirty-five hands employed by R. H. Cole & Co.

The founders of the business were ambitious, yet careful. They learned much in the school of experience and sought information for improvements. The workmen were few in number, but interested in the welfare of the firm and companions at the bench with their employers. The changes that come with growing conditions are seen when it is noted that the first name upon the payroll of other nationality than American occurs in 1866, a period of thirty-five years after the opening of the business.

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