The Beginnings 1826-1872
The development of the optical and eyewear manufacturing industry in America started in the early part of the nineteenth century. Prior to this time, optical frames and lenses were imported from Europe, mainly from France, Germany and England. Metal frames were also produced by local jewelry manufacturers as well as other specialty metal workers. The quantities, however, were limited to private demand for singularly custom made frames.
The AO heritage began in 1826, when William Beecher, a Connecticut farm boy, came to Southbridge, after an apprenticeship in Providence, Rhode Island, where he learned the jeweler's trade. This trade he practiced in Southbridge for seven years before his fateful encounter with a pair of typically crude imported spectacles.
"I can do it better," said William Beecher to himself and he went to work.
The American optical industry was born at that moment. William Beecher fostered an enduring precept for the company that was to grow into the American Optical Company.
The original factory building - "The Old Spec Shop" - at American Optical was built in 1839 when William Beecher's spectacles manufacturing operation outgrew the second floor over his jewelry shop, and was occupied until 1872.
Turn of the Century circa 1900
The Company grew at an exponential rate at the turn of the century. The export business was further expanded with the setting up of the London office in 1905. Back in Southbridge, AO was already employing 2000 employees with a payroll of
Precious metal frames (gold and silver) were increasingly gaining popularity. Production exceeded 600,000 gold/silver frames and mountings per year, twenty times the numbers produced just thirty years earlier.
AO War Effort 1917-1946
In 1917, AO designed and built 8 mobile optical units to support U.S. troops and Allied Forces in Europe during WWI. These self-contained eyeglass facilities were stocked with all necessary frames, lenses, refractive equipment and machines for the fitting and filling of prescription and distribution of sunglasses. Two white metal frames, "Liberty" and "Victory" were put to service in the field. A record of two and one-half million glasses were furnished to the US Government for the war effort.
During WWII, AO had again come to the forefront with new optical products developed by their research laboratories. This development work allowed AO to supply the US Government with new products including gun sights, bombsights, AR glass, aviation goggles, sunglasses and precision optics for military and instrument applications.
Between 1943 and 1944, a total of 10 million goggles frames, 5 million pairs of sunglasses and over 6.5 million pairs of lenses were ground and polished including 1.4 million prescriptions delivered to the Armed Forces.
By 1946, AO's contribution to the war effort was so substantial that the Company and the entire work force were presented the Army-Navy "E" award as recognition for their dedication to the cause of national defense.
180,000 pairs of AO Sun Glasses - the largest single shipment ever made to a Quartermaster Corps depot - part of an order for several million pairs.
Sunglasses, Sunwear and Goggles 1876-Present
The earliest form of sunglass and sunwear made by AO
(c. 1876) were glasses fitted with a variety of tinted lenses in blue, smoke, pink, and amber shades
It was in 1913 when AO secured the rights to Crookes glasses (invented by eminent British scientist Sir William Crookes) and that the study of Ultra-Violet protection became an exact science. The Crookes glasses sold then were either clear lenses or various darker shades, obviously for extended outdoor usage.
During the early 1930's, AO was supplying the Air Force with aviator goggles, including the U.S.A.C. Goggle Type B-6 and later the Type B-7 model. The goggles were fitted with several color lenses, including the green calobar, amber, smoke (gray) and clear lenses.
As early as 1940, AO offered prescription-polarized sunglasses to the market. They were (and are) especially helpful on water and snow in the reduction of glare from the reflective surfaces. These glasses became extremely popular from the mid-1980's onwards, when the consuming public came to appreciate the benefits of polarized eyewear and the value to improved vision when out on the sea or in winter sporting activities.
Contemporary Eyewear 1958-Present
It was in 1958 that the Flight Goggle 58, now known as the Original Pilot Sunglass was produced for the US military to provide pilots with maximum protection, optical performance and comfort. Right to the present time, the Original Pilot is still being manufactured in the AO complex in Southbridge, Massachusetts.
In fact the Original Pilot Sunglass was honored to be the first ever sunglass to land on the moon worn by Commander Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 in 1969. It now resides on permanent display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Subsequent years saw numerous collections of AO frames and sunglasses made and sold. A plethora of fascinating and mind-boggling shapes, colors, sizes, materials and designs were offered. They were the trendsetters in their own right. AO Sunvogue sunglasses could be found on the cool bikers in the 1969 movie, Easy Rider. The hotshot aviators in "Top Gun" wore aviator shaped frames as well.
In the fashion industry, trends and eyewear designs come and go. Occasionally a style or two will return for a period. AO Eyewear prides itself on its products, classic lines and styling. These products, developed with function first, remain in vogue year in and year out.
At AO Eyewear, we are as committed as the founders of the company to continue to uphold the value of producing the highest quality, innovative and design-driven eyewear products that withstand the test of time.
"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed"
Neil Armstrong, July 20, 1969