LOOKING BACK: Geneva was home to a booming eyewear industry | Way of life

I have been wearing glasses since I was 7 or 8 years old. I even tried contact lenses for a very short time – during which time I found out that putting my finger in my eye wasn’t much fun (kudos to everyone you contact for being able to do so). Optical lenses have been produced right here in Geneva for decades, and it was considered a profitable industry.

The Geneva Optical Co. was founded in 1873 by Andrew L. Smith under the name of AL Smith & Co. Spectacle Manufacturers. Smith opened his office on Linden Street and primarily sold products from his hometown of Southbridge, Massachusetts.

Two years later he joined Joshua Maxwell, William Hall, Phineas Prouty Jr., Corydon Wheat and William H. Smith to incorporate the Geneva Optical Co. into it. Geneva Optical was said to have been the first in the country to make trial lens cases at a time when eyeglass fitting was a system of trial and error, meaning opticians had to carry multiple types of eyeglasses. different so their patients can try them out.

In 1882 E. Merritt Cole came from Southbridge to investigate the optical trade in Geneva; as a result, he formed the Standard Optical Works limited company in 1883. Its shareholders included names such as Alexander Lafayette Chew, Corydon Wheat and Phineas Prouty. Cole was one of the country’s leading manufacturers of optical products and an expert mechanic and draftsman. He started making lenses in the same building complex as Geneva Optical.

Sadly, Cole was in poor health and had to leave the state to recover in 1888, leaving his affairs to William Bowker, who had followed him from Southbridge. At that time, an agreement was made between Geneva Optical and Standard Optical for the former to become the wholesale distributor of the latter’s products, although the exact date is not written in the documents.

Business grew so much that in 1892 the manufacturing plants were moved to Lyceum Street, where the machines were increased by the dozen. That same year, the directors of Geneva Optical agreed to sell James E. Brown and Theodore J. Smith their “Name, Goodwill and Retail”, which included all items from the Linden Street office and all items bearing the name of Geneva Optical. Co. This may have been done to formally separate the retail business from the manufacturing business.

A huge employer

Standard Optical Co. was incorporated in 1896 with most of the shareholders mentioned above. It continued to manufacture eyeglasses and eyewear in all metals, as well as machines used by oculists and optometrists in the manufacture of eyeglasses. By 1912, the company employed more than 500 men and women, virtually all skilled craftsmen and mechanics, in addition to distributing its products around the world.

Organized in 1909 by Standard Optical and the Pennsylvania Optical Co. of Reading, Pa., The United States Lens Co. occupied the same factory on Lyceum Street where it took over the lens crushing plant. Its main concern was the production of lenses, as well as the design and construction of new and improved machines. Standard Optical will distribute its products until 1924, when it will take over United States Lens Co.

Geneva Optical would continue as wholesale distributors of optical products even after the consolidation of Standard Optical with Shur-On Optical, DuPaul-Young Optical Corp of Southbridge, Mass., And General Optical Co. of Mount Vernon (NY) in 1925. Known as the Shur-On Standard Optical Co., the company continued manufacturing operations at the Lyceum Street plant; its name would eventually become Shur-On Optical Co. At its peak, the company employed more than 800 workers.

In the late 1950s, the company was sold several times until Textron bought it. Textron eventually announced that the lens manufacturing department would move to South Carolina, and by 1969 the company had completely left Geneva. In 1974, the Lyceum buildings were demolished.

Various other optical companies came and went.

John Spengler, formerly an employee of Standard Optical, established his private practice in 1899, first specializing in ear, nose and throat care before devoting himself to ophthalmology. He was known nationally for his pioneering work in the field, including taking black-and-white photographs of the interior of the eye and taking photos of the living eye in natural colors in 1928. He also ran the Spengler Optical Co., manufacturing and selling optical glasses for binoculars, binoculars, reading glasses, microscopes, invisible bifocal lenses and barometers.

Harold J. Stead was inspired by his brother Ernest to enter the field of optical work. He started as a shopping boy and apprentice at Geneva Optical in 1900, then moved on to a lens surface grinder at Standard Optical for a short time before going on his own, going into business with his brother, from become a salesperson for other optical companies, and travel to other optical works across the states.

Stead details his return trip to Geneva in “The First Fifty Years of an Optical Career”, when he started his own business on Linden Street in 1916, next to the property originally occupied by AL Smith Co. He offers Steadfast bifocal lenses. among other services.

Eventually, Stead found himself at Shuron-Standard in May 1928, where he became a leader in the field of prescription technicians, a trainer for the Shuron factory in Geneva and wrote the newsletter “Shuron Shopman”. .

Andrew Smith, E. Merritt Cole, William Bowker, and Harold Stead all held patents on several eyewear-related improvements. Smith and Cole held several on their own and even requested one with Bowker together in 1886.

Chapin is the archivist of historical Geneva.

About Marion Alexander

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