“Last Week I Couldn’t Spell Curator...”
(His recollections of organizing the AO Museum Collection in 1983)

By John Young


The photos (by Dick Whitney) on this page are of John Young in the AO Museum, and were taken in August of 1999. This was prior to the DOD project, and are among the many photos that I archived of the AO Museum as it was in the Main Plant Facility. John has been a long time friend since we both worked together at AO in the late 1970s.

Thanks to Zeiss, the Museum reopened in 2013 and is presently located at 12 Crane St, Southbridge.

http://www.opticalheritiagemuseum.com


John passed away in June of 2017, and will be greatly missed. Read his recollection of the start of the Museum which would not exist today without his perseverance to establish it back in 1983.

John Young wrote the following about the Museum:

The roots of American Optical go back to 1833, as most people in the area are now aware.This means that American Optical has not only been in operation for over 150 years, but has also had 150 years to accumulate all kinds of stuff.Everytime company management would move the treasurer’s office or the gold assaying area, or just plain out grew the current space, the old ‘walk-in safe’ in that area was just abandoned and sat there through time filled with stuff.That stuff eventually became old and valuable.

The museum got its start when a group of us in Marketing began to talk about how to take advantage of the 150th birthday of American Optical.There were, of course, several projects that were completed which would advertise this to our customers but something did happen that started us down another road.Someone said that they had heard that there was a vast storehouse of old frames that we might want to give away to our customers during the celebration.This celebration had just started into the planning stage for the Optical Laboratories Association Convention, which as I recall was about seven or eight months away.That comment struck several of us the wrong way and didn’t get very far before someone suggested that a steering committee be formed to look at all the possibilities for our customers, our employees and our town.

With a little digging and some questions to the folks who had been around for a while in the company, it became apparent that there was, indeed, a collection of antique eyewear scattered around the buildings, who-knows-where!At the first steering committee meeting, there had been suggestions of a parade and an open house.I had suggested the idea of using the antique materials in a display of some sort or a mini-museum.In the Army, you’re taught never to volunteer and I suppose that goes for ideas as well, although I do seem to recall others with a similar concept at that steering committee meeting.Anyway, I was never in the Army and thus, I had the project assigned to me to chair its creation.Whoa!Where to begin?

That is actually when the real fun began.I remember a group of novice volunteers charging excitedly around the main plant after hours with flashlights looking for what we had heard was the true “piece-de-resistance.”This was reported to be one or more frames that had been individually cast and filled with precious jewels; we felt like we might have been in search of King Solomon’s treasures.The members of that volunteer team were Marge Breen, Dave Butler, Priscilla Butler, Cris Waldron, Brad Noble, Addi Perry, John Mikoljaczak, Sandy Neiduski, Connie Borey, Sandy Furioso, Milt Freeman and later on even Ruth Wells herself joined in the project of restoration of frames we had uncovered.

In the dark, we felt like plunderers of the past as we opened the main plant safe in the treasurer’s office, a move which would later, in day light hours, be lightly frowned upon by management.Thankfully, we had Dave Butler with us and he was the Director of Plant Security at the time.He may have taken a bit more ‘heat’ for the endeavor but, if he did, he never admitted it to us.The five jeweled frames that had been reportedly cast for the Madame Schaparielli signature design series were elusive.Then while looking in a small box of what appeared to be a wrapped cleaning rag, we found something that would give the whole museum venture life and push us forward in our endeavor.

As we unwrapped the cloth in that dark, dank safe, we could begin to see the sparkling of a brilliant frame of iridium platinum containing what we would discover was 201 diamonds with a weight of 7.5 carats.This frame became the true leader of what would follow and what followed was a committed group of volunteers, working late at night and weekends after everyone else had gone home, cleaning and polishing the old frames and lenses we had found in our many expeditions through the main plant.During these expeditions, we found a total of 4,3000 antique frames, 2,500 glass negatives of early Wells’ family photos, AO and Southbridge people (later donated to the Southbridge Historical Society); what we believed to be the third AO LensometerÒ commercially manufactured designed by Tillyer, the Todd/AO reel of the movie Oklahoma, and other numerous items.All of it was exciting, like being a pirate of old, except this was legal and for a good cause.

The Schaparielli frames were originally produced to introduce the first ‘signature’ series; the first time a ‘signature design’ series had ever been offered by anyone for any product.The five originals were hand cast, then mounted with jewels.These were then offered to AO’s better practitioner customers to display in their windows for a short time.Of the five frames, the only frame that was duplicated was the diamond inlaid frame and it is the only surviving frame of that original collection of five.It had been reproduced at an unknown price for someone in England.

One night while foraging in one of the old vaults, we began to pull out dusty packages wrapped in brown butcher paper and tied with twine.As we opened these ancient time capsules, it began to appear that they were sarcophagus for spectacles; all new!  Around 1904 to 1908, American Optical found themselves in two situations; they were becoming a global operation, and they were being copied due to their success.George Wells hired a number of attorneys to watch over the possibility of patent infringement which could injure the growth of the company.What better way than to buy any new frame on the market and compare it to the product that the company was producing.So they did.

What we found was probably the foremost collection in the world of what was called “Pince nez” which, according to Ruth Wells, was simply French for ‘Pinch Nose’ and pinch they did, we all tried them.the amazing part of this was that most had no lenses because they were purchased before they had been made up as complete spectacles.Some even had the original tags on them.But all of them were carefully mounted on dark blue padded, velveteen, frame boards.I still remember Ruth Wells taking on the task of removing each frame, carefully cleaning each of these, and each of the many velveteen mounting boards that had been found.

Ruth Wells was always there taking part in her own history, unselfishly working on those dusty old frames, which were part of 114 years of her family’s past.She also gave us the many Wells family photos seen in the current exhibit. While she is no longer with us, we are very fortunate to have the taped interview she and others consented to give to us for our audio history as remembered by those who were there.She is dearly missed by many but she certainly left a legacy of grace for us all to remember.

Meantime, the material was going to need a place to be displayed and the room in the main plant where it now resides was chosen.The room had been used to display current AO products up to that point and what better place to situate the museum; a museum which had by this time taken on a life of its own, dragging all of us along with it.I’m told by my wife, Patti, that she is officially the first ‘museum widow’ and I’m equally sure that other volunteers were in the same situation.What was most amazing was that there was never even a whisper of complaint about the time everyone was putting into this task.We worked a total of nine months this way.I can remember carrying a dictating machine everywhere I traveled.I was mentally moving from one piece to another along the cases in the yet unveiled museum listing the description.Sandy Neiduski then typed up a total of 16 hours of that dictation to complete the small information tag that is found with each item in the museum.There was a very real deadline to meet.That future opening day couldn’t be changed because a very large contingent of Shriners had committed to that date for the gala parade planned to come through town, the appropriate State Representatives were all coming, as well as the families of the entire workforce; not to mention the owners of the corporation.

All of the work in the museum was completed by the inside talent that American Optical had available.These were the true craftsmen, some capable of building the beautiful solid oak cabinetry seen there.Others from the AO machine shop were equally skilled and completely restored the old flat belt driven polishing machine which operates in the corner of the exhibit area.How many kids would never ever see such a device were it not for the skilled hands of those machinists.these men were as proud of the museum as we were.Even the American Optical Patent Attorney, Basil Prince, got involved.In the creation of the old pine jewelers caged bench, we needed some authentic clock works.Basil, an antique clock enthusiast, came to the rescue with a bunch of clocks just perfect for our needs.So many reach out to take part and give a little of themselves during this effort, that it would be hard to list them all.

Not all decisions were necessarily good ones, however.A retired pair of doctors from Springfield had heard about the efforts at AO and donated their entire offices to us.Southbridge Trucking was kind enough to give us a break on cost and sent out their crew and tractor trailer to pick up the goods.In the meantime, I had gotten a call from the Worcester Science Museum.They had one of the doors to a safe from the first building in the complex at American Optical to assay and store the gold for the production of frames.It had apparently been replaced or possibly torn out in an early renovation when the wooden buildings were covered with brick and mortar at the turn of the century or perhaps when the frame operation moved to the new frame plant during World War II.

In any event, here was this huge door and they wanted me to accept it as their donation to our little venture.I did.It was an unfortunate decision as the same crew who was moving the material from Springfield were now going to have to move this thing as well.It was indeed a beautiful door, but I had no idea what to do with it.It seemed a shame to lose such a piece of memorabilia from the past, even though it weighed in at over a ton.Something like being given an elephant, I suppose.Anyway, it was moved into storage in the basement of the main plant where it sat for years.I’m sure that there were many who were looking for good storage space who cursed me and my door.

The material that had been donated by the good doctors was laboriously cleaned and repainted in the dank basement of the main plant by that same relentless volunteer crew who prepared everything else for that opening day.It was then moved into the room opposite the museum exhibit area.It remained there for some time as part of the overall exhibit.Other items were also donated from quite a wide variety of people coming from a number of areas of the country.

Keeping these ancient pieces in good shape was important and no one in the group had ever had curatorial experience.In several contacts I had made with Crawford Lincoln, Director of Old Sturbridge Village, I had found him and his staff always willing to help.They advised us of a seminar on this subject coming up right at the Village.So off we went to learn what we could about the care of our growing collection.As time went by, I found myself going back to OSV many times to discuss issues with their many experts who were always willing to lend a hand to these newcomers.

Once the museum began to take shape, there was a need to get it appraised for the insurance company that insured everything else in the AO complex.This was going to take a specialist in the field and I had been told of such an individual in New Orleans.He was an ophthalmologist who collected spectacles and was also, coincidentally, the Chief Curator the American Academy of Ophthalmology Foundation Museum in San Francisco.As it turned out, Dr. J. William Rosenthal became a true friend of the museum and mine as well.He has donated a number of articles to the collection.He and I also decided that it might be fun to start a group who had similar interests.the outcome was the Optical Heritage Society which meets once a year to spend a few days in different areas of the country giving, and listening to seminars on anything to do with antique eye apparatus and spectacles, of course, were included at the top of the list.It has grown appreciably over the years since the first meeting at the American Optical Museum.Bill was one of the first Directors of the AO Museum and is still interested today in what becomes of the collection.There may be better collections in the world but it’s doubtful that there is a larger one.

As the date approached for the opening, things got fairly hectic.The final items went in place the evening before the official opening.The following morning before the festivities began, Gene Lewis, then President of American Optical, was just coming through the door, coming in directly from the airport.He had just arrived from a two week business trip to China and the first thing he wanted to see was the museum, it was finished.Whew!, that was close!Gene had always been a staunch supporter of the museum from those first estimates I had submitted, to when he found out how much it was really going to cost the company.

The museum opened on weekends for a while manned by the same group of volunteers.There were even photos and brochures at the Sturbridge Tourist Center telling people to come on down to see the museum.This faded in time but Marge Breen gets the award for tenacity.She, situated one floor above the museum, was who everyone called to see the exhibit after it had been closed.

The venture was a learning experience for all of us.I think now that some of the things learned were actually the experiences enjoyed as all of it went together.The team of people who gave freely of their time became close friends and had our own little celebration when it was finally done.Then there are the people who donated family treasures to the museum and those who offered their skills to see the task successfully completed.Even those who cheered the project and rooted us on helped the group immeasurably.For me it was the people I got to share it with, the education in history about spectacles and a spectacle town’s people that I’ll never forget.

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