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REMEMBER THIS: Looking back to the time of oculists, watchmakers (4 photos)

It may seem odd to combine the trade of watchmaker and jeweler with the profession of optician, but it made some sense in the late 1800s

It’s interesting to see the evolution of niche businesses in a place like Barrie.

From the building of coffins and the offering of hearse services, the carpenter led the way to the funeral parlours of the future. Flower shops included small birds and fishes in their inventory until the pet trade eventually became an industry of its own.

In small towns especially, the few existing businesses offered under one roof what we would rarely expect to see together in the same shop today. The King Bros. offered a wide assortment in their Dunlop Street shop in 1859 as seen in this partial list of goods advertised in the Northern Advance.

“Ladies’ dress goods, sewed work, parasols, bonnets, hats, children’s straw hats. Clothing, groceries, boots and shoes. Hardware, crockery, mixed paints, oil, glass, putty and patent medicines.”

I suppose we’ve come full circle, though, with the advent of department stores like Walmart, where you can buy most of the above, which now also includes beer and ciders.

On the surface, it may seem odd to combine the trade of watchmaker and jeweler with the profession of optician, but it made some sense in those early years. Eyeglasses were functional pieces, somewhat decorative, could be considered a status symbol and required the skills of someone accustomed to working with glass, metals and delicate mechanics. 

Watchmaker and jeweler Leander ‘L.S.’ Sanders was likely the first optician in Barrie. He had no formal training in that field, but was simply appointed distributor for Messrs. Lazarus & Morris Oculists and Opticians of Hartford, Conn. They provided the machinery for the task and instructed Mr. Sanders on its use.

“Perfected lenses and eye-glasses! The lenses of which are ground by us from material manufactured especially for optic purposes. It is pure, hard and brilliant and as achromatic as can be produced. The peculiar form and scientific accuracy is attained by the aid of complicated and costly machinery warrants us in asserting that these are the most perfect spectacles ever manufactured!”

In those days, the correction of vision was based on the use of convex glass to lessen farsightedness while concave glass assisted those with nearsightedness. Surprisingly, bifocals existed at that time as well, having been invented by Benjamin Franklin almost 100 years earlier.

The lenses were set into gold, silver or steel frames by the optician. Later, rubber, nickel and celluloid frames were offered.

L.S. Sanders wasn’t alone in the spectacle business in this town for long. In 1871, J. W. Hastings ran what he called a fancy goods store just west of Owen Street and sold jewelry, pipes and musical instruments along with eyeglasses.

In 1880, Robert ‘R.A.’ Douglas arrived to set up his own jewelry store and was soon offering the eyewear of Black & Co.  By 1887, he also was calling himself an optician and boasted that his shop now contained “a scientific and practical instrument for detecting all optical defects of the eye and determining the lenses needed for their correction.”

Astigmatism was beginning to be better understood by the late 1800s and Douglas believed that his measurement device could solve the problems “caused by oval eyes.” It appears that, prior to this time, it wasn’t well known that the individual eye had “different magnifying or diminishing” needs as opposed to the same prescription in both lenses.

In 1892, David Henry ‘D.H.’ MacLaren opened a drug store in Barrie. He had studied medicine at McGill University and was likely the first person in Barrie to call himself an optician who had actual medical training in that field.

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.

Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
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