For centuries, the American continent was decidedly junior to Europe in the manufacture of both eyeglass lenses and the antique eyeglasses themselves, but this changed with the high quality 19th century eyeglasses which were fashioned in the New World. The earliest days of the Colonies were obviously too hardscrabble and technically primitive to sustain a sophisticated lens grinding and frame fashioning industry, though horn and leather frames of a rough type were produced by Colonial craftsmen.
Thereafter, native industry existed at a low level, but remained the poor cousin of the long-established European centers for many years. The European lenses and vintage glasses displayed a mix of high quality and low cost that was too steep a barrier to entry for the artisans of the early United States to overcome. A few feeble attempts were made by the American government to foster local production, but these remained limited in scope or fizzled out after a few years.
The watershed occurred at the time of the Civil War. One of the positive results emerging from the horror of internecine warfare was that shipments of eyeglasses from Europe were greatly reduced by the chaos of war on the waves. At times, the European supply was cut off entirely. The 19th century eyeglasses made by Americans owe part of their existence to the rattle of muskets on the Civil War battlefields.
The role of German immigrants in American vintage eyeglasses
Many of the American-made 19th century eyeglasses placed in collections or worn by the historically minded today were the result of another factor as well. Numerous knowledgeable German lens grinders and eyeglass artisans fled or moved to the United States during the Revolutions of 1848. In effect, it was two successive conflicts which gave America its first strong foothold in the manufacture of eyeglasses – a position of eminence it was to maintain until the destruction of American manufacturing during the Carter presidency in the 20th century.
John Jacob Bausch is a German-American figure who has already been mentioned as the creator of the pince nez portion of the 19th century eyeglasses industry in the U.S., and who was one of the founding partners of Bausch & Lomb. Bausch opened an optical shop in Rochester, New York, and, after finding a piece of vulcanized rubber in a New York City street when he was visiting the metropolis. Curious about this substance, he took it to his shop and made the first pair of rubber frames for antique eyeglasses, which was to prove his fortune during the Civil War.
Bausch was not the only German to contribute to the budding American eyeglass industry, however. Another fellow named Isaac Schnaitman, who actually arrived prior to the Revolutions of 1848 (probably in response to the deteriorating economic conditions in Germany that eventually prompted the mayhem) made a name for himself at the Franklin Institute Fair in Philadelphia, and went on to patent the first true bifocals – which featured two focuses ground into a single lens, rather than Franklin's two lenses fused together – in 1836. The German-American took the American's superior idea and made it even better, making America an early leader in bifocal production.
America outdoes Europe
The combination of American and German-American know-how and the huge boost that the American Civil War gave to local production affected a remarkable change by the end of the conflict. By 1867, American vintage glasses lenses had outstripped European equivalents in excellence – in fact, their quality was higher by a considerable margin – and as a result, Europe became an importer of 19th century eyeglasses and lenses from the former Colonies.