Spectacles pre-dating Revolutionary War The Find of a Lifetime

By Nathan Lamb

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.

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12/18/2004

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 budget.

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 century.

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 eyeglasses.