AOA helps son support oral history of his mother and FDR’s glasses

AOA helps son support oral history of his mother and FDR’s glasses

In December 2013, Glen J. Mueller, of Sanford, North Carolina, contacted the AOA for help solving a mystery.

For public figures, spectacles are used as iconic images during their active years and are highly coveted by museums as artifacts related to their activities.

As he told it, Mueller had a pair of Oxford-style pince-nez spectacles—a gift from his deceased mother. He wanted to know whether the pair of pince-nez, which perch on the bridge of the nose, had belonged to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), the nation's 32nd, and longest-serving, president.  

The AOA's Archives & Museum of Optometry (AMO) received the request. AMO, part of Optometry Cares® - The AOA Foundation, serves as an institutional repository and resource for the association, its affiliates and the optometric professional.  

AMO doesn't have the resources to conduct independent research inquiries, though it manages thousands of artifacts in the AMO collections. The museum's work involves acquires, collects, catalogues and preserves artifacts. It advises avocational historians and genealogists and points them toward resources that may help them find answers about objects or ancestors they are researching.  

Glasses: Reflecting evolution   

AMO has a significant spectacle collection, containing between 3,000 and 4,000 pairs of glasses and other items, including cases.  

"For example, in the AMO collection, we have a pair of spectacles (the 'Wing' glasses) that were a family heirloom passed down through several generations in the 19th century," Kirsten Pourroy Hébert, AMO heritage services specialist says. "The spectacles were carried into Civil War battles and repatriated to the family after the deaths of the soldiers. The battle and death were then engraved on the case and the glasses were passed down again.  

"This practice illuminates how an object can create a personal connection to a larger experience, such as death of a loved one or participation in a significant historical event like the Civil War," she adds. "The increase in style and form of spectacles in the late 19th—and early 20th—centuries indicates an increase in literacy among the emerging middle classes. Some spectacles with safety features, such as tinting and mesh temple guards, signal the increase in rail and auto transportation and factory work that posed risk of injury to the eye."  

Then there is iconic eyewear. Think Ray Charles, Jackie O, John Lennon—and FDR.  

"For public figures, spectacles are used as iconic images during their active years and are highly coveted by museums as artifacts related to their activities. Within our collection are spectacles reputedly belonging to Gen. Robert E. Lee. We also hold a pair of cardboard campaign ephemera for the Barry Goldwater presidential bid (in 1964) that are marked 'Go Goldwater.'"  

Mueller's mystery

Mueller's glasses weren't passed down the traditional way.   

During a conversation with his mother, Mary Elizabeth Mueller, Glen Mueller says she relayed a story of being childhood friends with Priscilla St. George, the daughter of a cousin of the Roosevelts.  

Through research, Mueller verified that his mother's parents, Antoinette and John McMahon, worked for the Roosevelts at Hyde Park, and also the president's cousin, Katherine Price Collier St. George (mother of Priscilla). The St. Georges lived nearby in Tuxedo Park. Hyde Park, FDR's hometown and where his estate was located, is less than an hour drive from Tuxedo Park.  

John McMahon, Mueller's grandfather, was a chauffeur, and also handled the Roosevelt's dog, Chief, and horses. A photo showing McMahon with FDR's car and German shepherd, Chief, were verified by the National Park Service museum, Hébert says.  

"Using census records, we provided research assistance to Mr. Mueller in placing his grandparents and mother at the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park and the St. George home in Tuxedo Park," Hébert says.  

Says Mueller: "My mom used to attend birthday parties with Priscilla. During one of the parties, Priscilla went into the house, and my mom said she came back out of the Roosevelt's house with something for her. She gave my mom an eyeglass case. Inside the case were the glasses. My mom put them in the pocket of her dress and later put them away. Over the years, the two friends grew apart."  

The AOA also assisted Mueller in researching two doctors whose names are imprinted on the eyeglass case.

One of those doctors, Dr. Homer J. Rhode, was a surgeon specializing in the eye and had spent time at Wills Eye Hospital in Pennsylvania. Wills Hospital specialized in ocular oncology, including the treatment of melanoma. He may have crossed paths with FDR's personal physician, an ophthalmologist and otolaryngologist named Vice Admiral Ross McIntire, Hébert says. McIntire reportedly destroyed FDR's medical records upon his death. FDR's cause of death was listed as a cerebral hemorrhage. However, some have debated whether melanoma had a hand in his death.  

"We provided historical research to support the oral history provided by his mother, which serves to assist authenticating the provenance (source) of the glasses," Hébert says.  

As for Mueller, his quest continues.  He's not sure whether he will keep the glasses or eventually auction them off. For now, he is happy to hold onto them and unravel the mystery. "I appreciate the help," Mueller says.  

Optometry Cares - The AOA Foundation supports itself through donations. To support its Heritage Services program and its efforts to preserve and digitize photographs and other objects in its collection, please click here to donate. Learn more about the AMO here.

October 14, 2016

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