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