Spectacle Peddlers and the Early Optician

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(Slideshow of Spectacle Peddlers)

In Richard Corson’s well-written and well-read Fashions in Eyeglasses, it is stated “Glasses were largely unnecessary so long as there were few books and little education. But came the invention of printing, and (along) with the books came the desire of more and more people to read them, leading, naturally, to an enormous increase in the demand for spectacles. Mass production methods were instituted to meet the demand. Prices fell drastically; and by the end of the 15th century cheap spectacles, along with other kinds of merchandise were distributed through peddlers. Finally, after two centuries, glasses could be bought by anybody who needed them.”

Beginning with their invention by an unidentified layman in Pisa, Italy in the late 13th century and up until the 15th century, eyeglasses were relatively uncommon and few individuals besides artisans and clergy had access to or even the need to purchase them. Venetian spectacle makers had formed their own small guild around the year 1320. It is also well known from the noted research of Professor Vincent Ilardi that the Duke of Milan in 1462 was purchasing high-quality spectacles made in Florence to give as gifts to his friends and associates. Professor Ilardi has also demonstrated that early documents add much to our knowledge regarding the use of concave lenses for the short-sighted in 15th century Florence and Milan.

After Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1450s and with the proliferation of publications, people everywhere developed the desire to read and learn. This marvelous invention’s major impact was to extend readership of books to age groups which would otherwise have found it very difficult to cope with small type. Imagine also the effect and immeasurable value of simple magnifying glasses and spectacles for both artists and their appreciative patrons. Imagine also the beautiful and intricate miniature print and artwork possible after the more widespread availability of vision aids, especially the detail, workmanship, accuracy, and neatness. All of these qualities could now be better appreciated by people who had the clearer vision afforded by their new eyeglasses. Craftsmen of all types desired eyeglasses too; especially the works of art of the average jeweler expressed this newfound skill.

Leather- framed spectacles came into generalized usage by the early 16th century and the German spectacle industry developed soon thereafter. Peddlers came to the people wearing their basket or box with various styles and strengths of vision aids. Common folk were given the opportunity to try on different spectacles until one was located which fit comfortably and also improved vision the right amount. That vision aid was then purchased. All of the peddlers provided ready access to (somewhat) reliable and affordable spectacles. After the invention of the printing press, the increasing use of leather for frames became an important factor in reducing costs. This made the eyeglasses more affordable. Cheaper, serviceable lower quality glass came from German industry also. Both frames and cases made out of leather were produced in this fashion. Costs were lowered further by having spectacles more widely available. The most effective way to lower the cost in book production was to reduce the quantity of paper needed. This was accomplished by reducing the size of the type. But older people had to be able to read this smaller type without inconvenience. Even back then economic considerations played a key role. Fewer sheets meant a lower cost of presswork, therefore fewer workers, shorter hours, cost savings, greater profit, etc. Similar to modern times, back then everything was driven by economics; costs, expenses, profits, and balance sheets.

Beginning also in the early 16th century woodcuts showed street peddlers offering spectacles along with other wares carried in baskets suspended from around their necks. The earliest example has the date 1516 cut above the engraver’s initials. Peddlers and the opticians who supplied them with goods to sell to the general public deserve greater honor and wider respect. We can now distinguish the role they played hundreds of years ago during the infancy of the world’s optical industry. Notice the attached slideshow and the different artistic medium by which Peddlers and early opticians have been represented…….paintings, sculpture, etchings, lithographs, ceramics, and more recently photography. One German optometrist has even distinguished himself in modern times by traveling to European country fairs selling reproductions of medieval eyeglasses. He has become my friend and I have been particularly impressed with his photo which appears below.

Spectacles peddlers especially and also early opticians should now be better recognized for the worthwhile and necessary service they provided. Opticians mostly “paved the way” when it came to the improvements of the spectacles but it was the peddlers who delivered these improved vision aids to the general masses. Peddlers helped spread eyeglasses to the populace by traveling the country road and the city street as vendors offering all sorts of assorted wares, including a wide variety of antique vision aids.


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