Quinabaug Historical Society

Read by George W. Wells at

Meeting of Society, November 29, 1909

London Office

Owing to the increasing demand for goods manufactured by the American Optical Co. it was decided in 1904 to open a London office. The same was established in the spring of 1905, and in 1907 a new building on Hatton Garden, London, was leased for a term of years and ample quarters in the same were fitted up in a manner to add credit to the home concern. This has from its opening been in charge of their London representative, Mr. J. P. Petherick, and thus far has justified the anticipations of the management.

The Chicago office was opened July, 1909, and the New York office in February, 1910. They expect to open an office in San Francisco early in 1911.

In January, 1910, they commenced to issue a trade paper, under the name of “Amoptico,” in the interests of the American Optical Co. The intention is to make known to the trade in general the styles of goods manufactured by the Company and to give such information as will be of interest and value to the trade in general, and to get better acquainted with them, and they with the Company. This publication is gotten up with a great deal of care, is finely illustrated, and has been accepted by the trade as a great assistance to them in keeping in touch with the goods manufactured by the Company.

They plan to issue in 1911, a catalog containing about 335 pages, in which all lines of goods manufactured by the Company will be illustrated and described.

The American Optical Co. has bought the business of several optical firms:

September 8, 1871 - Edmonds Bros., Pawtucket, R.I.

Bromley Bros. Sold to George Birdon, 1874. Sold to American Optical Co. about 1878.

Rhode Island Optical Co., $1500 - About 1897.

January 25, 1901, John F. Brady of Providence, sold to Henry C. Cady and George W. Wells, representing the interests of the American Optical Company, the business of the Stevens Optical Company. July 28, 1901, the above rights were transferred by said Cady and Wells to the American Optical Company.

January, 1901, the American Optical Co. purchased the Southbridge Optical Company’s plant and stock, tools, etc., located on Marcy Street.

March, 1902, the business of the Providence Optical Company was purchased.

December 31, 1891, the Directors voted, subject to the approval of the stockholders, unanimously to subscribe $5,000.00 toward the erection of the building for the Young Men’s Christian Association. The following vote was placed on record:

“Whereas, the American Optical Company considers that it has a direct interest in promoting among the people of this community such social and moral influences as may be helpful to cultivate right personal habits, and practices. And to develop good character and personal worth, especially among the young men in its employ now and hereafter; and

Whereas, the Young Men’s Christina Association of this place has thus far done most excellent work in that direction, and with the facilities likely to be secured by the construction of its contemplated new building adapted to its work, may largely increase its means for such influence and power;

Therefore, to the end that the Association may speedily erect and pay for that building, as a permanent home, and that the young men employed by that Company may always feel that they may justly claim an interest in that institution, to the extent, at least, of the sum hereinafter named, freely and cheerfully purchased for their special benefit;

VOTED. Unanimously that the Treasurer of this corporation be, and he is hereby, authorized, for and in its behalf, to subscribe and pay to the Association aforesaid the sum of Five Thousand Dollars, provided, and upon the express conditions, that the same shall be used for the construction of such building, and that at least Seventy Thousand Dollars, including that raised or expended for the purchase of its building lot, be subscribed or pledged to the fund of the Association devoted to that object.”

April 28, 1906, the sum of $1,000 was subscribed to aid the San Francisco sufferers on account of the earthquake calamity.

Until the year 1884, all spectacle lenses, excepting a very few, manufactured by hand to fit special cases, were imported, and the growing demand upon the 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 to focus. The orders were often a year in being filled, and in some cases, it was impossible to fill orders for frames and lenses, which was the usual way in which goods were then purchased, for the want of the lenses to go with them.

The Following Is A Memorandum

Memorandum under date of February 15, 1871, showing the result of examination of imported lenses by G. W. Wells. This unreliability of the focus numbers in the packages as they were imported was an important feature in determining the Company to enter into the manufacture of lenses, so as to get something more reliable not only in quality but in focus. The first column of figures shows the marking on the package as it was received from the European factory. The figures at the right show the different foci or powers of lenses in the package.

It will be noted that this memorandum covers 15 numbers from 5” to 30”, and that the mis-focus in these numbers was so great as to number 66 powers that were represented in this list of numbers. In some cases, one number contained 11 powers. These conditions were unbearable and led to the absolute necessity of manufacturing their own lenses.

5” 6, 7.

6” 5, 6, 7, 9.

7” 6, 7, 8, 9.

8” I Pcx 7-1/2, 8, 8-1/2.

9” 8, 8-1/2, 9, 9-1/2.

10” 8-1/2, 9, 9-1/2 10, 11.

11” 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.

12” 11, 12, 13, 14.

14, 15, 16” 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18.

17” 15, 16, 18.

18” 15, 16, 17, 18, 19.

28” 26, 28, 30, 32, 34, 36, 38, 40, 44, 46, 48.

30” 18, 26, 28, 30, 36, 38, 40, 48.

In 1883, the first steps were taken toward producing lenses in Southbridge. It was a mighty task; there were very few persons 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 and getting in position to manufacture spherical lenses. In the fall of the same year, machinery was placed in the Mechanics Mill building, size 60 feet by 30 feet, two stories and basement, and on January 18,1884, the first finished lenses were produced. Much time, labor and money were spent in this venture, with some failures and discouragements. All 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 quarters becoming insufficient, the site of the Columbian Mills was bought of George W. Wells March 18, 1887.

The manufacture of Cylinder and Compound Lenses was commenced in 1893 and the dioptric system of measurements adopted.

The Company purchased and operated the Hardy-Delaney patents for grinding cylinder lenses which was a decided improvement over the old methods.

From Holmes Ammidown’s Historical Collection

Vol. 2, 1874

Columbian Cotton Mill

“This mill was erected in the year 1821, and burned December 18, 1844. It was located upon a part of a tract of land known at the time the Town of Southbridge was incorporated in 1816 as the “Morris Farm” then in the possession of Edwin and Lyman Morris. About the year 1815, they made a partial excavation for a canal. This was the first movement for occupying the water power connected with this privilege. The Morris estate, containing 160 acres of land (including the blacksmith shop, which has recently been used as a place for making spectacles by the Southbridge Optical Co., and the dwelling house opposite, then used by the Morrises as a shop for making barrels) became about this time the property of Hon. James B. Mason of Providence, and by his deed of December 7, 1817, he conveyed the whole estate to Col. William Foster, who sold the same entire to Major Calvin Ammidown, April 14, 1818, in consideration of $4,600. Subsequently, the right of water flowage and location for dam on the north side of river was, after some litigation, obtained of Jedediah Marcy.

The business was conducted under a general partnership up to the year 1825. In June 1825, the General Court granted an incorporation of the Company, capital $36,000. The manufacture of cotton was continued from that time until 1844, when the mill was destroyed by fire, and the affairs of the Company went into liquidation for final adjustment, and the entire real estate of the Company became the property of Mr. Ebenezer D. Ammidown, January 22, 1849.”

From other sources, we learn that the persons connected with the firm in the early years (1821-1826) were Calvin Ammidown, Ebenezer D. Ammidown, Moses Plimpton, Samuel Hartwell, Samuel L. Newell, Stillman Plimpton, Sessions Mason and Joseph Congdon, the latter serving as Superintendent and building a brick house which he never occupied. The Mill contained about 3000 spindles and 80 looms, and cost $40,000. A profitable business was carried on most of the time until it was destroyed by fire, which was attributed to an accident, as a boy was working there very early in the morning, but some claimed that it was not accidental. The power was obtained from an upright shaft, around which Nathan Newell was caught and killed. The row of six tenement houses was built the same year as the mill. Great excitement was caused by the murder of Mrs. Milton Streeter by her husband, in the western house of the series, and a newspaper in our museum contains an illustrational account of the same, not unlike the present day, in spirit.

“The Mill site and water power remained unoccupied until 1856, when Ebenezer D. Ammidown, through the aid of his son-in-law, Mr. Barker, of Cincinnati, erected a brick mill on the premises, and by the assistance of Holmes Ammidown, of Boston, filled his mill with machinery in the year 1858, and commenced the manufacture of cotton jeans and flannels. This business was conducted by Malcolm and Henry C., sons of Mr. Ammidown, to whom the property had been conveyed by deed. Later it became the sole property of Henry C. Ammidown, November 19, 1859. On the 5th of October, 1866, the estate was conveyed by deed to Henry T. Grant, of Providence, R.I., in consideration of $37,000. Mr. Grant at once commenced to erect a new mill adjoining the brick mill, which was finished in 1867, and filled with 4,736 spindles and 108 looms, and put in operation with other necessary machinery for making print cloths June, 1867.”

Extracts From A Letter Received From W. A. H. Grant

November 29, 1908

“In the spring of 1867, Henry T. Grant, commenced the manufacture of print cloths and continued in the same business until 1876 or early in 1877.

In July, 1877, W. A. H. Grant and brothers bought the property from Frederick Burgess and continued the manufacture of print cloths until March 11, 1881.

The property was idle for a time and was then bought by Mr. E. P. Chapin for Mrs. Harriet A. Tyler and in April, 1883, was started on the manufacture of cotton yarns, and was so continued until the fire that occurred in the early fall of 1884.

The property remained idle from the time of the fire until purchased by George. W. Wells in 1886, from Mrs. Tyler.”

Mr. Grant goes on to say that Southbridge was blessed in the olden days with an unusual number of steady, self-educated men of strong individualities who had the courage of their convictions, and gave this small town, without railroad connections, an unusual standing for a town of its size, and the seed they planted has borne good fruit and Southbridge is in very many ways an ideal country town.

April 12, 1870, Henry T. Grant sold to the Southbridge Savings Bank the Columbian Property for a consideration of $15,000. (I think that the Bank sold this property to one Burgess, and later sold to W. A. H. Grant and brothers.)

July 1, 1886, George W. Wells purchased this property from Harriet A. Tyler, the business being transacted through E. P. Chapin on behalf of Mrs. Tyler.

March 18, 1887, George W. Wells deeded to the American Optical Co. the land and water power known as the “Columbian Privilege.”

July 18, 1888, Mary M. Grant, Henry T. Grant and Frank P. Grant deeded to George W. Wells, the tract of land lying on the southerly side of the road leading to Sandersdale, and lying between the so-called “Fort Sumter” property and the raceway leading to the Sandersdale Print Works. Also, tract of land on the northerly side and bounded on the north by the Quinebaug River, east by land of Ed Hopwood, west by land of grantee, formerly the Columbian Company, and south by the highway.

January 26, 1889, George W. Wells deeded to American Optical Co. a certain tract of land at Lensdale lying between the main highway and the Railroad, known as the “Coal Dump,” and buildings thereon. This is the property on which is now located the siding and trestle built in 1908.

December 1, 1898, George W. Wells sold to the Town of Southbridge that portion of the Columbian property previously referred to lying on the northerly side of the Quinebaug River, to be used for sewer purposes by the Town of Southbridge for $5,000.

September 19, 1907, the Town of Southbridge deeded to the American Optical Co. the same tract of land that the town purchased from George W. Wells above noted, the consideration of the same being $10,000, comprising about 52 acres.

June 22, 1908, Charles O. Montigny deeded to the American Optical Co. the tract of land on the northerly side of the highway leading from Southbridge to Sandersdale. This property was formerly owned by Mr. Grant and sold to G. W. Wells, and sold by him to Mr. Young.

This new location has been named “Lensdale” and its growth has kept pace with the Main Works.

A brief glance at the statistics shows the gain:

Total Sales:

1877 335,172 pair Spectacles and Eyeglasses.

Produced in:

1886 1,304,280 pair Spectacles and Eyeglasses.

1897 2,281,908 pair Spectacles and Eyeglasses.

1902 3,060,648 pair Spectacles and Eyeglasses. ( ? )

1906 3,698,472 pair Spectacles and Eyeglasses. ( ? )

1902 1,600,000 Spectacle and Eyeglasses Cases.

1906 2,433,620 Spectacle and Eyeglasses Cases.

1902 1,720 Oculists’ Test Cases.

1906 3,076 Oculists’ Test Cases.

1884 121,392 pair Lenses.

1897 2,660,676 pair Lenses.

1902 4,128,780 pair Lenses.

1908 12,000,000 pair Lenses.

1897 90 Tons Lens Stock Used.

1902 140 Tons Lens Stock Used.

1908 413 Tons Lens Stock Used.

1897 1,000 Employees.

1902 1,700 Employees.

1907 2,000 Employees.

1909 2,500 Employees.

1897 $425,000 Pay Roll.

1902 $672,648 Pay Roll.

1907 $1,000,000 Pay Roll.

1909 $1,250,000 Pay Roll.

(This does not include Pay Roll for outside work, buildings, etc.)

1897 Lensdale, 280 Employees.

1907 Lensdale, 600 Employees.

1909 Lensdale, 1,200 Employees.

1897 Gold and Silver Used, $564,000.

1902 Gold and Silver Used, $713,000.

1907 Gold and Silver Used, $875,000.

Number of Spindles in Lens Grinding Machinery

1888 1,143

1894 2,035

1902 2,842

1905 3,544

1908 6,144

1910 7,407

Labor Difficulties

The Labor Unions have seldom attempted to influence the employees. In 1903 there was more activity, and the following notices were posted:

“This factory will be closed tonight, and remain closed until further notice, for purposes reorganization. Wages will be paid at the factory on demand. Any of our employees who are desirous of resuming work upon the reopening of the factory, and who wish for information, will communicate with the Superintendent or their foreman.

Nov. 9, 1903 American Optical Co.”

“We learn that a story is being circulated among our workmen that the Union is going to run our factory and that those who have remained at work and refused to join the Union will be thrown out of employment. We want to say to those who have remained at work that we shall continue to run our business without any outside dictation, and that they need have no fear whatsoever of losing their positions. We shall give steady work and protection to all who desire work in our factory.

Nov. 13, 1903 American Optical Company”

The trouble indicated in the above was practically brought about by the labor agitators coming into Southbridge and endeavoring to influence, by organization, the workmen to act against the interest of the Company, and the threats that were made, which would undoubtedly have been carried out had opportunity offered, were such that the management believed - not only for their own protection, but for the interest of the workmen at large, that it was necessary to take such steps as would terminate this condition of affairs, and enable the Company to run their own business as they had (as they believed) in a satisfactory manner to their employees, in all the years of their existence. From that time on, there has been absolutely no trouble.

Present Officers of the Company

George W. Wells, Henry C. Cady, Channing M. Wells, Albert B. Wells, J. Cheney Wells, Directors. George W. Wells, President. Channing M. Wells, Vice President. Albert B. Wells, Treasurer. J. Cheney Wells, Clerk and Secretary. Henry C. Cady, Superintendent.

American Optical Company Employees 1869

Armes, William H. Baker, Metcalf Baylies, Geo.

Baylies, H. Bachelder, Chester Blanchard, F. G.

Blait, Nelson Bowker, John W. Brown, Daniel V.

Brown, J. R. Cady, Newton Cady, Henry C.

Cady, Geo. Cady, Franklin Cary, Andrew

Clark, John Clemence, Daniel Clemence, Fielder

Colton, Henry M. Coombs, Abial Coombs, Adoniram J.

Cooper, Judson Cook, H. A. Corey, James

Corey, Ella Covillion, Felix Day, M. M.

Duffy, E. Dupaul, Jos. Douty, C. S.

Eccleston, Lewis Eddy, William P. Edmonds, E.

Freeman, James Freeman, William Green, Elon R.

Hager, C. H. Hardenber, William Hays, John

Hibbard, John F. Holmes, Alfred E. Horn, A. O.

Horton, Horatio N. Horton, William E. Howe, Daniel M.

Jacques, L. Kimball, H. A. Lee, Andrew S.

Leland, T. J. Marble, Frank H. Martin, Alec

McFarland, C. M. McIntire, Orin McIntire, L.

McKinstry, Lemuel McVey, Robert Mellony, L. M.

Morse, Henry D. Olds, Linus Pierson, H. E.

Potter, Chas. A. Pratt, Chas. Putney, Ezra A.

Reynolds, Monroe Rice, Samuel Ritchie, Felix

Rose, Chauncy Senecal, Pascal Senecal, Alex

Sherman, Benj. Silk, Bernard Starrett, Henry G.

Stone, Jos. Swift, E. S. Tiffany, Austin

Tiffany, E. P. Tiffany, Harlan P. Turner, H. C.

Tully, M. J. Vinton, F. M. Ware, Jos. B.

Welch, J. White, Jas. Whittemore, Albert

Worthington, Arnold

There were 85 employees in all, 33 of whom are now living.

Men who were in the employ of the American Optical Co. the year it was incorporated, 1869, and are now in the service of the Company:

George W. Wells Entered Employ 1864

F. G. Blanchard, “ “ 1868

H. C. Cady, “ “ 1869

H. P. Tiffany, “ “ 1869

Andrew Carey, “ “ 1869

Alex Martin, “ “ 1869

Pascal Senecal, “ “ 1867


From the early days, the Company has expressed itself in no uncertain tones upon tariff legislation. In 1888, Mr. Cole wrote an article showing the growth of the business. He stated that previous to 1850, the number of employees could not have been over six. All steel spectacles were imported at that time, a fair quality selling from $15.00 to $18.00 per dozen. The importers seemed determined to kill the business, but, under the tariff of 1862-63, it developed quite rapidly, bringing in home competition, reducing the price of goods, even under high wage rate, and the use of imported steel. In 1888, nothing but rough lens stock was imported and a better article was sold for $2.00 a dozen than for $8.00 and $9.00 per dozen fifteen years previously. Since so large a percentage of steel goods was labor, no further reduction of the present rate of 45 per cent could be allowed.

A public meeting was held and resolutions adopted protesting against further proposed reductions in duty in 1894 (?) and signed by over 600 spectacle makers. This was addressed to Congress.

The American Optical Co. forwarded a letter to the Senators and Congressmen from Massachusetts in 1894 protesting against proposed reduction in duty, since the products were so largely the result of labor and the wages ought not to be lowered.

In an interview in 1901, Mr. Wells stated that the Company did not favor a reduction, for, under the present protection, the prices of goods were constantly decreasing, yet the wages paid were in advance of those in foreign countries.

G. W. Wells, always a believer in protective tariff for home industries, has made a very careful study of the same for many years, so that since the eighties, he as represented the Company in Washington before either the Tariff Finance Committee of the Senate or the Ways and Means Committee of the House at the revision of every tariff from that time to the present year, and, for the most part, the industry has had fair protection, as they have never demanded anything unreasonable, but simply endeavored to get a tariff protection that would equal the difference in cost of labor. This has been a great factor in building up the business, as without it the business never could have prospered and it would have been an utter impossibility to have done anything in the lens manufacturing line. It has been impossible, however, to secure the manufacture of lens stock in this country, so that all of this material is imported.

The growth of the business has been steady and great. It shows what hard work, skill and careful planning will do. The founders were men well known in our midst, since their business and home life have been spent here.

They have been identified with the religious, social and civil welfare of the town, aside from the industrial pursuits.

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