The early days of the colonies which were to become the United States in the fulness of time were not quite as romantic as some might suppose after such a long remove of time. Besides the ferocious politics of the era, which led to some notable crimes, and the constant threat of torture and death at the hands of native raiders, there was constant toil and a battle against nature as the early colonists sought to recreate European civilization with very limited resources. The earliest American vintage glasses bear mute testimony to this state of privation, struggle, and hardship that many of our earliest ancestors endured, and which had largely passed even by the time of the Revolution.
Vintage glasses from the pre-Revolutionary period are extremely rare today, and most are either in museums (the fate of most surviving examples) or are in private collections from which they are unlikely to emerge at any time in the near future. Therefore, you are unlikely to actually find yourself in a position to buy one of these pairs of vintage glasses, even if you would like to – but there is always a chance.
Comparing American vintage glasses of the period to those from Europe reveals the stark difference in living standards between the “home countries” and the colonies. The European versions are beautifully made and are frequently rich with ornamental flourishes, turning them into miniature works of art to be worn on the face as well as optical correctives.
American vintage glasses of the early colonies are not only extremely plain, but often roughly made as well. At this time, almost all lenses were imported from Europe, since they were cheap and high quality, while the primitive technical facilities in the colonies made it difficult or impossible to grind lenses with such precision – or at least with such a combination of precision and low cost. It was eventually to be a period of war which prompted local American lenses production, but this belongs to a somewhat later era in the history of vintage glasses.
The earliest vintage glasses frames made in the colonies were fashioned from leather or horn for the most part. Unlike the beautiful, delicately sculpted eyerims and bridges found on European vintage glasses of the same time, or produced in America slightly later, the frames for vintage glasses in the colonies before the days of Benjamin Franklin were often heavy, squat, and roughly made.
Tool marks and ragged edges were left in place on them by workmen made careless by an overload of essential work. If you see a pair of early spectacles with serrations along the edge of the temples where the horner sawed roughly through a sheet of tempered horn, and never bothered to smooth the resulting edge, then you are likely looking at pre-Revolutionary American vintage glasses.
Of course, the affluent were able to buy high quality vintage glasses imported from England or the Continent, so there is also room for the collector to acquire some fine European spectacles, on the assumption that they are similar to those which might have been worn by famous Americans of the early colonial period.