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Civil War Era Eyeglasses

February 05, 2008 By: admin Category: Old But Helpful Newsletter Articles, Research, The Civil War Hub of Arkansas

Judging by the absence of eyeglasses in photographs of Civil War troops, many men who could have used glasses went without. Perhaps the soldier considered them too expensive, or didn’t know his eyesight was bad. or considered eyeglasses too much of another to wear in the field. At any rate, if your eyesight is bad, one authentic solution is to simply go without. But if you are nearsighted and want to see what’s going on at a reenactment, you’ll want to wear something to correct your vision.

Contact lenses are one possibility. However, the daily care required for them, together with the dirt and smoke encountered at reenactments, may render them unsuitable. Since modern eyeglasses can ruin an otherwise authentic appearance, in most cases a pair of authentic eyeglasses is the solution. But how can you tell what is authentic? Some people think that any old pair of wire frames is sufficient. But if you’re going to spend the bucks on some prescription glasses, you may as well do it right and get some authentic ones. So here are some things to look out for.

FRAMES

Eye GlassesRound frames had gone out of style by the end of the Revolution, to be replaced by rectangular frames (Fig. A). In turn, the rectangular frames lost out to oval frames (Fig. B)around 1860. Another style that came on the scene during the Civil War was the coffin-shaped frame(Fig C.) These are, of course, only general guidelines. Thus, though not prevalent, some round frames were made during the Civil War. Likewise, although the rectangular frames went out of style by 1860, some people would have continued to wear such frames into the Civil War. However, since the oval frames were by far the most prevalent, those wanting to represent the typical eyeglass wearer will choose the oval frames. Another advantage of oval frames is that they remained popular until the twentieth century. This means that it will be easier to find examples of such frames in antique shops. All styles of frames tended to be much smaller than modern frames (though very small frames indicate reading glasses). However, the smaller frames did not restrict one’s views much as you might think because the frames were worn close to the eyes. As for material, gold or blued steel were most common.

Civil War Eye GlassesThe nosepiece rested directly on the bridge of the nose: nose pads were unknown. Two shapes were common to American-made glasses: the "yoke" type (Fig. D) and the "C"type (Fig. E). The yoke type gave way to the C type around 1860. Most of the antique glass you are likely to find will have a nosepiece that is bent forward and flattened to follow the contour of the nose better (Fig. F). This type of nosepiece indicates that the glasses were made after the Civil War. Nosepieces made before and during the Civil War were simpler, with the nosepiece even with the frames, and round in crosssection (Fig. G).

Civil War Eye GlassesMost bows were straight (not curving over the ears) with a loop at the end, through which string or ribbon could be passed to secure the glasses to the head (Fig. H).

Civil War Eye GlassesOther bows did wrap around the ears (Fig. I). Though the wraparounds were less prevalent, they were more practical for enactors, since they were less likely to fall off.

SUMMARY

Figure J shows what a typical pair of glasses would have looked like in the 1860’s. Figure K shows a typical pair of 1850’s glasses, which would also be authentic for Civil War Reenactors.

PROCURING THE GLASSES

Civil War Eye GlassesNow that you know what you’re looking for, you need to know where to look. Since the style of frames we are talking about are generally not sold by modern opticians, you’ll have to check out antique stores, flea markets, or sutlers. You should be able to get a pair of period frames for between $6 and $12. Once you get some frames that fit, take them to an optometric establishment to have lenses made to your prescription. You might have to try more than one place to find one that will fit lenses to such unusual frames. Some places might charge extra to fit such lenses, but because the frames are cheaper than modern frames, you’ll still end up paying less then you would for a modern pair of glasses If your search is unsuccessful, Tom McEvoy (one of Thomas’ Mudsills) can make glasses to your prescription at a reasonable price. You can contact him at his office at 111North Addison Avenue, Elmhurst, IL 60126 (phone 312-832-2115).

SOURCES
Richard Corson, Fashions in Eyeglasses (Dufour
Editions, Chestes Springs, PA 1967)
L.D. Bronson, Early American Specs (Occidental
Publishing Co., Glendale, CA 1974)

By: John A. Braden

This article can be downloaded from the January, 2008 edition of the newsletter located at the top of the page…great Civil War articles written by Civil War buffs in Arkansas.

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The Seven Generals Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp in Helena, Arkansas needs your help in funding several historic projects. The camp plays an integral part in the maintenance of battle field sites and preservation of historic properties. A donation in any amount would be greatly appreciated and put to good use!

A list of the sites maintained by the Seven Generals Camp:
1) The Confederate Cemetery, where over 120 Confederates are buried, including General Patrick R. Cleburne, General James C. Tappan, and General Thomas C. Hindman.

2) Civil War Helena interpretative markers- we maintain over 50 historical interpretative panels throughout the city, including the battlefield, Confederate Cemetery, General Tappan's home, Battery C, and many other historic sites.

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The best part is that all items donated to the Seven Generals Sons of Confederate Camp #135's living history program are tax deductible! Upon the arrival of your donation, we will respond with our tax ID# for tax purposes.

Below are a couple choices in donating to the maintenance and preservation of Helena's battlefield:

-Make a one-time donation in any amount

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Because of the valiant support of dedicated individuals across the globe, the money has been raised for the purchase of Confederate Memorial Park in Helena, Arkansas.

We have taken a rare opportunity for the Sons of Confederate Veterans to own a core piece of battlefield and made it a reality! Located in Helena, Arkansas directly across from Fort Curtis and to the side of a Civil War era home (Moore-Hornor Home), both properties of which are maintained by the State of Arkansas (Delta Cultural Center) is approximately an acre of core battlefield that backs up to the site where General Price's troops made an attack on Fort Curtis on July 4, 1863.

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