The story of eyeglasses is a rich and varied one, woven not only of threads of technical advance and materials technology, but also human attitudes and cultures, and fascinating glimpses of the lives and thoughts of uniquely quirky individuals –as is the case with the history of John Lennon glasses. One of the main firms that supplied the vintage eyewear favored by this renowned Beatle is Algha, which began long before their products became associated with the famous man.
Max Wiseman was the founder of Algha, the name of which means “alpha and omega”, the ancient phrase signifying the first and the last, first used in print in the Bible’s Book of Revelations. The Englishman started his career long before the era of John Lennon glasses, as far back as 1898. He manufactured many of the antique eyeglasses and spectacles cases in his own factory, but his most popular items were high quality gold-filled frames from Germany, which served him so well that he was soon a wealthy man.
The catalyst that prompted him to start the Algha company – and ultimately lead to the creation of the iconic John Lennon glasses it produced – was the worsening situation in Germany during the early 1930s. The Weimar Republic was hamstrung by early Nazi obstructionism in the Reichstag, preventing the government from taking almost any action, and this led to an economy where hideous inflation took hold.
Wiseman and his sons took the initiative in 1932 and bought a whole factory, complete with all its equipment, from the German eyeglass-manufacturing city of Rathenau. Nearly a dozen German artisans highly skilled and knowledgeable about making filled gold frames moved to England to head the new factory in London – probably glad to escape the hyperinflation, unrest, and growing menace of Hitler and his faction to democratic society.
Thus, John Lennon glasses were born from the combined efforts of Wiseman and his sons, and a select group of German expatriate artisans. Algha broke almost immediately out of the stuffy Teutonic mold of purely functional vintage eyeglasses, and started experimenting with a whole catalog full of intriguing, fashionable designs. This was the era when eyewear was starting to shake off its age-old stigma of “weakness” and become a fully acceptable part of fashion.
The Second World War and Vintage Glasses
Max Wiseman was not just a savvy entrepreneur and seller of the extremely popular “Rolled Gold” glasses. He was also one of the founding fathers of the Association of Wholesale and Manufacturing Opticians, which led to one of the bodies that not only promotes the welfare of its members, but also monitors excellence and ensures quality in their products.
The fact that the practical is never far beneath the surface of the stylish in the world of antique eyeglasses is underlined by the fate of Algha during the war years. In these stark, grim times, the company turned to making gas mask eyepieces and aviators’ goggles for the fighting men of Britain. Fortunately, the gas masks were never needed, since the soldiers were spared this hideous weapon by an unexpected qualm on the part of their enemy.
However, many of the pilots during the famous Battle of Britain wore goggles made by Algha – a far cry from the stylish, peaceful world of Windsor glasses that appeared in the postwar world. As is so often the case in human history, style and danger or adventure are not too far apart – which is perhaps what lends piquancy to fashion, especially vintage fashion from an earlier era.