American Optical Company (Illious State) : The oldest optical company in the United States


( ) In 1833 William Beecher, a Connecticut farm boy, moved to Southbridge, MA after completing an jewelers apprenticeship program in Providence, RI. He then opened the Beecher Jewelry Shop to start a jewelry and watch business on Main Street in Southbridge. Over the next 20 years the little workshop became a thriving business.

Prior to this time spectacles, including optical frames and lenses, were imported from Europe, mainly England, France and Germany. He noticed that the foreign spectacles were of very poor quality and was convinced that New England workmen were capable of making spectacles that could compete with these foreign imports.

By 1843 Beecher and created the first steel frame eyeglasses in America, and these steel framed spectacles outranked all other spectacles in demand. As the business grew he developed an inexpensive way to produce the steel frames right there in Southbridge, MA.

As so often happens with small businesses it changed hands a number of times and when Beecher retired in 1862 the firm became the Robert H. Cole and Company. In 1852 Hiram C. Wells had joined the firm followed by his son George W. Wells in 1864 who began his career with the company as a young man of 18. The company quickly recognized that he was a genius in mechanics and he quickly gained the respect of management because there was no manufacturing problem he couldn’t solve.

In 1869 the company was incorporated as the American Optical Company with 400 shares of stock and capitalized for $ 40,000. R. H. Cole offers 22 year old George Wells a partnership in the company with 40 shares of the company. Over time he became first the treasurer of the company and then the President of the company in 1891.

George Wells experience in machine work and tool making enabled him to invent newer machines and innovate the production of spectacle frames and lenses. By 1909 George held 26 patents and the company itself held another 27 patents. Wells figured out a new method of edging split bifocal lenses and built the first spectacle bridges along with many other developments to shorten and improve manufacturing methods. By 1933 the plant covered 17 1/2 acres of floor space in 36 connected structures.

American Optical was founded in 1833 and expanded throughout the early and mid 1900’s to become the largest optical company in the world. In the 1980’s it was purchased from Warner Lambert by a gentleman who eventually sold the divisions off to competitors.

In 1989 Alan J. McKinley joined American Optical as a Controller eventually becoming President of American Optical in 1998. The owner of the company continued selling off the divisions until in August of 2005 McKinley purchased the Metal Frame Division (last remaining) from him.

Today AO Eyewear, Inc. remains in Southbridge, MA and McKinley has created the Optical Heritage Museum which details the history of spectacles in the United States and in particular the history of The American Optical Company.

In the fashion eyewear industry trends and eyewear designs come and go, but the classic design and styling of aviator sunglasses remain in vogue year in and year out.

AO Eyewear remains as committed as William Beecher to continue to uphold the value of producing the highest quality, innovative and design driven sunglasses that will withstand the test of time.

According to

Van Nguyen (Collect and Nominate for the U.S. Record) - USKings (Source of photos: internet)

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