How do you get youngsters to wear glasses? In 1927, an eyecare company entered the movie business to do just that. In the same year that Hollywood released the earliest “talking film,” American Optical distributed a three-minute movie showing the facial expressions of a young girl putting on glasses for the first time.
This film clip wouldn’t win any Oscars and don’t expect it to go viral on YouTube. But the expression of delight on the youngster’s face when she could finally see the world with clear vision captivated those who watched it in the 1920s.
The release of this public service commercial (as we would call it nowadays) represented a milestone moment in raising public awareness about children’s eyesight and the role it plays in learning.
This early initiative would blossom into an ongoing effort that continues in the 21st century to help youngsters see—at home, at school or at play. The history of this campaign to improve the eyesight of children and teens is now documented in a series of images and documents recently made public by the Optical Heritage Museum in Southbridge, Massachusetts. They are drawn from the archives of American Optical, now part of Carl Zeiss Vision.
Even before its movie-making project, American Optical had experimented with innovative ways of solving the vision crisis among youngsters. In 1916, the company launched a co-branding exercise with the Boy Scouts. This may have been the first time spectacles were marketed for their coolness to the younger generation.
No sales data survives, but the company reported a year later on the encouraging response to the Boy Scout program. American Optical followed up in 1917 with a campaign featuring a young girl whose headaches went away when she got her first pair of eyeglasses. In subsequent years the company developed a series of annual “back to school” awareness campaigns that could be implemented in local eyecare practices.
Before the 1920s, schools rarely conducted vision screenings of young students. These programs gained momentum after a 1928 study, promoted by the Surgeon General, which showed that 45 percent of the students tested had a vision issue. But the first programs, staffed by volunteers, often produced flawed or unreliable results.
American Optical worked to publicize the Surgeon General study and served as a vocal advocate for regular vision testing. Marketing campaigns alerted parents that many school performance issues could be solved with a pair of glasses. In a historic partnership, the company even enlisted the services of famous illustrator Norman Rockwell to help make the point with art. American Optical featured several original Rockwell paintings in its awareness campaigns—one of them recently sold at auction for $269,000.
A major breakthrough came with the American Medical Association’s endorsement of the Massachusetts vision testing program in 1943, and over the next two decades similar initiatives gained traction in most U.S. schools.
As technologies evolved, so did the tools available for addressing the national eyesight deficit. In the 1940s, American Optical funded research at Yale on the link between vision and child development. In the 1950s, the company developed a technique for using the home television as a training device to teach binocular vision. In the 1960s, the company made great strides in improving eye safety with more impact-resistant plastic lenses.
A wide range of other advances have been made in youngsters’ eyewear in more recent years. Even those rugged Boy Scout spectacles from 100 years ago can’t compare with the current offerings. “Lenses nowadays are more impact resistant, harder to scratch, lighter weight and block dangerous UV rays,” said Zeiss vice president Karen Roberts.
“But new risk factors are also present today—especially with youngsters spending so much time staring into phones, computers and other devices that emit large amounts of potentially dangerous blue light.”
Yet the biggest obstacle hasn’t changed. “The most important step is getting parents to schedule an eye exam for their children. We hope that sharing these images from the past will not only celebrate the history of eyewear, but also remind people about what they can do for their family’s vision needs today,” Roberts said.