Spectacle Makers

Well I did the obvious thing and ran the query “spectacle maker” on querypic:

chart (2)

Querypic doesn’t differentiate between “spectacle maker” and “spectacle-maker” as a query, so we can say that graph shows usage of both forms of the term.

The interesting thing is that while spectacle makers were around before the 1860’s it is only in the 1860’s and 70’s that usage of the term peaks, perhaps due to the development of wire frames making spectacles simpler to manufacture.

However, while the term was clearly in use, graphing spectacle-maker, oculist and optician together shows that the term optician was the one in most use

chart (3)

and it is again interesting to note a sudden surge in the 1850’s, perhaps due again to advances in technology, coupled with increasing literacy producing increasing demand …

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Rural Oculists revisited

It turns out the whole rural oculist thing is more complicated than I thought.

Firstly I was wrong in thinking that oculist was the preferred term in the nineteenth century. Five minutes with Querypic showed that while that might have been the case in the early part of the nineteenth century, by some time around 1860, the preferred term was optician:

chart (1)

The other complication is that until 1896 anyone could claim to be an optician, meaning that jewellers and watchmakers – both skilled crafts – could also claim to be opticians:

watchmaker and optician

As well as pharmacists

oculist hobart mercury 1896

(interestingly, while the pharmacist was doing the testing, the spectacles were being made up by Carter and Werner, a large wholesale optician in Ballarat)

and those who simply claimed to be spectacle makers

optician and spectaclemaker

and not just in Australia – a search of Welsh Newspapers online reveals much the same story:

optician and spectaclemaker wales

with spectaclemaker being the term used in the days before the medicalisation of sight testing. and the Federation of Spectacle Makers being the recognised trade body:

optician and spectaclemaker wales 2

But basically anyone could claim to be an eye tester.

However, what is also interesting is the case of our Tasmanian pharmacist outsourcing the making of spectacles to a wholesale optician- it meant that the pharmacist need only do the sight test without having to develop any technical skill in spectacle making …

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Nasty coughs in the nineteenth century

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s quite amazing how many people died of chest and lung related complaints in the late nineteenth century.

Not surprising really.

I grew up in Stirling, in Scotland, which was at first glance a quiet middle class sort of place. Today it’s all nice and clean and touristy, but when I was a child people had coal fires, and indeed the town was surrounded by coal mines – I can even remember seeing men coming up from a shift below ground.

Later, in my teens, when I took to hillwalking in the Ochil hills above the town, I can remember the developing pall of smoke on a winter’s afternoon when people lit their fires.

No wonder people died of what are now preventable diseases.

This is confirmed by a New Zealand project looking at the remains and burial records of early settlers in the South Island also shows the prevalance of respiratory diseases, doubtless accentuated by living in damp conditions and breathing in smoke from open fires.

So it’s no surprise that patent medicines like Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound and Baxter’s Lung preserver were popular – probably most of the population would have had a persistent cough over winter.

At least the horehound balsam may have done some good, it’s been used for treating respiratory ailments since Roman times

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Rural Oculists in late nineteenth century Victoria

As I’m sure you are all well aware, I’ve been working as a volunteer documenting the contents of Dow’s Pharmacy for the National Trust.

A few months ago, I came across a shoe box containing some boxes of old spectacle frames and spectacle lenses, making it clear that one of the Dow’s pharmacists had doubled up as a oculist.


Which of course makes perfect sense. The pharmacist was of course a trained professional, used to measuring and working with instruments, and given the essentially iterative nature of sight tests would have been able to make up wireframe spectacles to suit from his stock of lenses.

However, until I came across the work of Gemma Almond  yesterday on the take up of spectacles in the late nineteenth century

spectacles 2019-09-13 103338

did it click how much of a nineteenth century phenomenon this was.

Increased literacy, increased access to print material (and nineteenth century newspapers did use pretty small fonts) and of course poor indoor lighting probably meant that more people felt the need for reading glasses, even in what was a rural agricultural community by the 1890’s, the gold having run out a few years previously.

So, just as we see with dentistry, the local pharmacist provided access to optical services. And I would guess, just like dentistry, if you needed more than an eye test and a set of reading glasses, it would mean a trip to the nearest town to see an opthalmologist.

What I don’t (yet) know is how common the phenomenon of the local pharmacist doubling up as an oculist was in country Australia …

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Pennies on dead people’s eyes

Yesterday, I tweeted a link to a report from Haaretz on the excavation of Napoleonic era graves on Nelson’s island in Aboukir bay off of Alexandria.

It’s a good read, but there was one thing that struck me as slightly strange.

The report mentioned that one of the bodies had been found with Maltese copper coins on its eyesockets. Puzzlingly, this was ascribed to neo-classicism.

Well, no.

Certainly, Greeks in the classic period would put a coin in the mouth of the deceased to pay the ferryman – a habit that came from the Greeks not having invented pockets, and so they often kept their loose change in their mouths, but what they didn’t do was put coins on the eyes of the dead.

In Ireland and the west of Scotland – basically the Gaelic speaking areas, it was the custom to lay the deceased out for a wake prior to burial. The deceased was either in a winding sheet, or dressed in clothes – coffins were expensive, and while one might have been hired to carry the dead person to the grave, people were not always buried in one.

Now it became the habit to put pennies on the eyes of the deceased to keep the eyes closed and to stop them springing open to muscular contraction – something that if it happened in the midst of a wake must have been deeply disturbing to all concerned.

The pennies on the eyes of the dead thing is not just a Celtic thing – apparently in Hungary, there was similar belief except that there was a superstition that silver coins should be used, otherwise one could see one’s own death foretold in the dead person’s eyes.

(Nowadays morticians often glue the eyelids shut with superglue prior to a viewing of the body.)

But if you research this slightly morbid topic on Google you realise that somewhere in the early twentieth century, penny to pay the ferryman has become conflated with the pennies to keep the eyes shut – perhaps as people increasingly no longer personally prepared the dead for burial…

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Ceramic medicine pots

Sometime ago I wrote about the paucity of decorative ceramic medicine pots in Australia.

These pots, usually with a nicely printed lid are quite common overseas, but seem to be less common in Australia, and at the time of my initial post I hypothesized that the pots were manufactured and printed overseas, and the expense of importing them made it not worth the effort.

So, just as bottles were valuable and attracted a deposit 

C19 bottle of Whale Oil and 4d deposit label on rear

we might guess that the same applied to ceramic pots.

And that was just a hypothesis until yesterday when I was cataloguing a plain ceramic medicine pot from Duerdin and Sainsbury, a wholesale druggist in Melbourne, who were around from at least the 1860’s until they merged into DHA – Drug Houses of Australia – in 1930.

The pot is quite unremarkable and a little battered


as with all such items an exact date is difficult but stylistically the paper label looks to be late nineteenth rather than early twentieth century


but the real find is a deposit sticker on the base of the pot


which means that Duerdin and Sainsbury considered the pot relatively valuable, and what’s more wanted the pot back for reuse – and 4d was a reasonable sum – using the RBA’s pre decimal inflation calculator, 4d in 1901 comes out at a little over $2.50 today

Annotation 2019-08-01 095521

and closer to $3.50 if it dated from the 1860’s – so, given we don’t know the exact date of the pot, we can wave our hands and say that the 4d deposit was worth around $3 in today’s money – not massive, but certainly enough to make you think twice about throwing the empty item away …

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And it’s not just magnetic media …

Now I know I’ve been banging on about the loss of knowledge as regards analogue magnetic media – audio and video tape – but yesterday I was reminded that it’s not just knowing about magnetic media that’s important.

Yesterday when I was cataloguing some unused films at the project:


Now, the shop closed in 1968, a couple of years after decimalisation, but the film stock is older –  the latest film has an expiry date in the late sixties – March 1969 – but a lot has earlier expiry dates – mostly the mid sixties but some, in an obscure size, the mid fifties of the last century.

I guess, that as the owners never threw anything away they just kept the stale film stock on the shelves in case someone was desperate enough to buy it.

Now, from my teenage years well into the nineteen nineties I was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, developing and printing my own pictures – even had my own home lab at one stage, and consequently I thought I would be reasonably familiar with the material – Kodachrome, Tri-X, EktaChrome and Ilford FP4 and HP5 – all as 35mm film of course, and consequently should be fairly straightforward to document.

Well, how the mighty are fallen.

Well there’s a small amount of 35mm film, but most of it was in earlier formats 120, 127 and even 616, but no 126 film, which was strange it was first released in 1963, but at least all the formats that I found had been documented.

But it was a different story with the film types. While some that were still in use in the 1990’s, such as Kodak Tri-X and Ektachrome were documented it was a different story for the earlier types Kodak Verichrome, Ilford HPS, FP3, Sellochrome are sparsely documented if at all.

I suspect that the reason is that while amateur and professional photographers produced reasonable documentation on the films they used from the beginning of the web- say the mid nineties – until film stopped being a mainstream medium a decade or so later, they never documented what they never used, never bothered scanning spec sheets etc.

There is some information out there on photographic chat boards about what these few people mad enough to still do wet film processing did to successfully process and recover images from old exposed unprocessed films, but that’s as far as it goes – a lot of the basic information is simply missing – or if it’s still around is sitting dustily and ignored in some photographic society archive.

Now, in the scale of things, it’s nothing big, but just suppose we found a bag of unprocessed film cassettes containing images related to the early American or Soviet space missions, or old roll film with pictures taken during the heroic ages of archaeology and anthropology – how good a job could we do of recovering the images ?


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