Spectacles pre-dating Revolutionary War The
Find of a Lifetime
HARVARD -- As the curator for the Harvard
Historical Society's collection, most of Melanie Clifton-Harvey's
archeological digging takes place within the society's storerooms in
the Still River Baptist Church, which she has been re-cataloging for
over a year.
As a historian, she considers each of the 15,000-plus relics
there as being priceless and unique, but she recently uncovered a
truly exceptional find -- a pair of spectacles dating from the 17th
century -- with the help of a traveling antique eyewear expert.
She said the story began back in mid-November, when she took a
call from retired ophthalmologist and eyewear historian David
Fleishman requesting a look at the society's collection of
spectacles. Fleishman, who is an enthusiast on the topic, to say the
least, has been visiting collections across New England in recent
years in his effort to build an educational Web site on the
evolution of eyewear, she said.
|Nashoba Publishing / John
Love, Harvard Historical Society curator Melanie
Clifton-Harvey holds up a pair of antique spectacles,
one of many in the society's collection.
Clifton-Harvey said the call coincided with her ongoing effort to
improve and update the catalogue of the society's collection, so she
invited him down with the hope of gaining a professional's insight
to the society's holdings.
She expected to learn more about the 80-plus pairs of spectacles
in the society's care. But she never thought she would discover that
a small set of lenses with a broken bridge, labeled as being rubber
when they were donated almost 50 years ago, would predate the events
of Lexington and Concord by more than a lifetime, but that is
exactly what came to light.
Local antique enthusiast and society member Wade Holtzman offered
his assessment of the discovery.
"It's one of those things you always hope to find, but don't too
often," he said.
Remembering the visit, Clifton-Harvey said Fleishman had a
similar reaction; recognizing the find immediately, with his face
lighting up and doing a bit of a double-take. His best estimate put
the glasses as being made between 1550 and 1700, which made them a
rare and notable find indeed.
Explaining how the ancient leather glasses had been categorized
as rubber, Clifton-Harvey said it was entirely possible they
resembled rubber in 1949 when they were donated.
Although she said it is an exciting discovery, it also raises the
question of what the society plans to do with the spectacles in the
long term, she added. The society does have climate and humidity
controls in its storerooms, but the stabilization and restoration of
this particular piece is likely to be outside of its capacity and
She said another important consideration is that the age and
condition of the glasses essentially precluded that they be put on
permanent display at the society's Still River home.
"One of the things you have to consider is whether you have the
security, the faculties and the environment to keep it long term,"
she said. "You have to make a decision over whether it's better for
us to keep it where people won't be able to see it."
That decision will be made by the society's board in the near
future. Holtzman sits on that panel and said he would like to see
the artifact restored but acknowledged that, that undertaking may
not fit in the society's budget
"We'd like to get rid of the adhesive and stabilize the leather
and perhaps have them re-attached," he said. "A professional
conservator would be able to preserve the leather, remove the glue
and perhaps mend the glasses back together."
Whether that solution requires the item being put on loan to a
larger facility remains to be seen.
Showing what the spectacles look like today, Clifton-Harvey
pointed out traces of paper and glue stuck on the leather rims from
where previous curators had attached them to a cardboard backing for
display; it is the type of outdated alternations she is looking to
remove in her current re-cataloguing endeavor.
That effort largely consists of navigating the society's two
large storerooms packed to the gills with artifacts, removing each
piece for photographing and cataloging into a computer database, and
returning them to storage with modern labels complete with a short
description and photo.
She said proper labeling is important when dealing with a
collection where so much is kept and stored in boxes. Coming into
the project, many of the older items such as the spectacles were
only catalogued with a brief description on a small slip of paper.
Clifton-Harvey estimated she is about three-quarters of the way
through re-cataloguing the 5,000 relics and artifacts in the
collection, with plenty of work remaining on the 10,000 paper items,
photos and books that round out the storerooms.
In a collection with space limitations that requires
near-perpetual storage for the bulk of items and is still partially
under the influence of outdated cataloguing, it is not surprising,
she said, for a find such as this to fly under the radar for half a
Fleishman's informational Web site can be found at http://www.antiquespectacles.com/
It features direct links to 120 participating institutions and 200
contributing individuals. His goal is for the Web site to grow into
an online encyclopedia for research on the topic of antique