Spectacles make a spectacle in obscure museum collection

Tim Orland

Stalkers had it good in 18th-century England. From the comfort of their private box in an opera house, theatergoers could scan the audience, peering through a handheld monocular.

“Small and discreet, the monocular was most often used by theater and partygoers to sneak a closer look at the others in attendance,” read the placard next to the antique red eyepiece.

Monoculars, lorgnettes, goggles, sunglasses, ophthalmoscopes and other eye-care artifacts currently are on display in “Windows to the World: The Science of Sight and the Ophthalmic Art,” a permanent exhibit at the International Museum of Surgical Science on Lake Shore Drive .

From 19th-century Chinese spectacle cases to early bifocals to mid-20th century glass eyes, the exhibit chronicles the history of ophthalmology and eye care, a history that involves more than mere science.

“It started out as vision correction, but art and fashion highly influenced it,” said Marine Dawson, the museum’s director of programs.

The development in fashion can be seen in the exhibit’s display cases. One pair of brass-framed sunglasses, circa 1840, featured four lenses: two in the frame and two additional lenses attached with hinges to block out light entering from the sides.

At the same time in China, sharkskin spectacle cases were all the rage, and in the United States, amber lens shooting glasses allowed hunters to spot their prey even in foggy conditions.

By the early 20th century, tortoiseshell frames were en vogue, followed closely by harlequin frames and later by plastic frames, popularized by actor Harold Lloyd in the 1920s.

The bulk of the exhibit, nestled into a corner room on the second floor of the museum, was donated by a private collector, Dr. J. William Rosenthal, in late 2002. According to Dawson, Rosenthal spent years traveling the world collecting antique eyewear.

The museum’s emphasis on surgical history can be seen in the various ophthalmological surgery kits dating back to 1910 Germany, and medical equipment like a 1960 opthalmoscope. According to a display, the earliest documented eye surgeon was an Indian physician, who performed ocular surgery around 500 BC. And, according to Dawson, organ transplant surgery has its roots in the 1940s, when ophthalmologists began to perform corneal transplants.

“Eye surgery has been around since ancient times,” Dawson said. “It has led the way in some aspects.”

Although the museum’s mission concerns that type of surgical history, the eyewear exhibit has a lot to say about art and fashion too. After all, as Dawson says, “spectacle cases would be a fantastic (art) exhibit!”