Archives and Museum

An institutional repository for the American Optometric Association on the history of the Association, affiliates and allies and the profession of optometry.

The Archives and Museum of Optometry is a part of Optometry Cares--The AOA Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit foundation dedicated to promoting eye health and access to vision care services in the United States. The Archives & Museum of Optometry serves as an institutional repository for the American Optometric Association and a locus of resources on the history of the Association, its affiliates and allies, and the profession of optometry.

The archival collections are comprised of institutional records, manuscript collections and assembled collections containing unique, primary source documents as well as other relevant material compiled by the Association's librarians during the course of the last century.

The museum collections include eyeglasses, contact lenses, devices, diagnostic and therapeutic instruments, and other artifacts that interpret the history of eyewear and the optical industry as well as methods of vision testing and care. Our permanent virtual exhibits are galleries of our most unique objects. Our Collections Policy is under review and subject to change.

Support the Archives & Museum of Optometry in preserving optometry's legacy

You can help preserve optometry's history

The Archives & Museum of Optometry's current holdings comprises more than 100 years of archival material and museum objects culled from the International, Library, and Museum of Optometry's collections. Unfortunately, much of this material is in need of conservation and preservation treatment in order to ensure these resources will be accessible to future generations. These projects require significant staff time, expertise, and materials. We encourage you to make a donation to assist us in this effort to preserve the history of the profession and the AOA. 

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Please be sure to select "Museum and Archives" from the "Program Designation" dropdown menu.

We are working hard to bring this hidden collection into the digital age! Our old card catalog is being converted to an electronic system that will help us to create better finding aids and provide access to our materials. Converting the catalog will allow us to share what we have on our website and to continue to build our collections. We need funds to provide us with storage space, staffing, and equipment.

Ongoing projects

Conservation

Our photograph collection is in need of conservation treatment. Many photographs have been stored incorrectly and require flattening and stabilization treatment by a qualified conservator. Only after conservation is performed can preservation techniques be applied to digitize these invaluable historical objects. We need funds to acquire conservation training for our staff and professional treatment for our at-risk photographs.

Storage

Even the most stable media, such as printed material, requires specialized housing. The acid in non-archival paper and boxes weakens and damages our paper and print records. The majority of our material is stored in non-archival folders and boxes. Archival storage materials are expensive and need to be rotated periodically. We need funds for housing and rehousing both our print resources and our other objects so that they may be stored in a way that ensures they survive the long haul.

Digital preservation

The Archives & Museum of Optometry has thousands of magnetic audiocassettes, VHS tapes, vinyl LPs and even motion picture reels in need of digital conversion. These materials hold conference proceedings, oral histories, public service announcements, press conferences, educational programs and a variety of other unique AOA productions. These media decay rapidly and analog-to-digital conversion is time-consuming and expensive.

Archival collections

The Archival Collections held at the Archives & Museum of Optometry include the Association's institutional records, governance documents, publications and ephemera; state affiliate records, publications, and other material; records and publications from other national optometric associations; and assembled collections on the profession of optometry, public health, government documents, and other disciplines, subjects and organizations of broad interest to optometry.

Within these collections are series of material or types of media, such as photographs, oral histories, film collections and periodicals that may be of special interest to researchers. We are in the process of making these materials available digitally or creating quick-reference lists of our holdings while we construct more detailed finding aids. The Archives also maintains a library of books and other materials that serve as guides to the collections. Materials in the archival collections, in turn, provide reference material for the museum objects.

As we survey, appraise and process our materials, we will continue to update the website. Please check back frequently to see what we have uncovered. Access to the Archival collections is by appointment. Please contact the Heritage Services Specialist, Kirsten Hébert, by email, telephone or mail.

Contact us

Archives & Museum of Optometry

Optometry Cares ®—The AOA Foundation
243 N. Lindbergh Blvd
St. Louis, MO 63141
314.983.4136

Please note: While our renovations are complete, we are still in the process of moving our collections back on-site. Access and reference to the collections will be restricted to those materials we have at the AOA Headquarters in St. Louis, MO. Reference requests may be directed to Kelsey Wolf.

Our collections

American Optometric Association records

The AOA records include materials produced in support of the Association's activities from its inception as the American Association of Opticians (1898-1909) and the American Optical Association (1910-1918) through the present. The collection consists of administrative and governance documents such as directories, guides, manuals, meeting minutes, reports, memos, and bulletins. Other mass media and publicity materials, ephemera, educational materials, and internal publications, such as the Journal of the American Optometric Association [Optometry] and the AOA News, are also collected and housed in the Archives. Assembled series of material collected by the International, Library, Archives & Museum of Optometry staff on various topics related to the Association are also included in the AOA records collection.

American Optometric Association Washington office records

The AOA Washington Office records are institutional records created in support of the Association's national affairs and advocacy activities. These materials consist of directories, guides, manuals, meeting and conference minutes, reports, bulletins, memos, correspondence, statistics, surveys, patents and copyrights, publications and other material. These records were not originally housed at the Archives, but rather have been transferred in their original arrangement from the Washington office at irregular intervals.

State optometric associations

The Archives holds a collection of materials related to state affiliate associations as well as nonaffiliated local optometric associations and societies. These materials include collected administrative and governance records of state affiliates including directories, reports, meeting minutes, correspondence and memos. The collection also includes manuals, guidelines, educational material, newsletters, and other publications as well as materials related to celebrations, awards, councils, committees, congresses, workshops, and other meetings. Records of the State Boards of Examiners in Optometry are also included in this collection.

Allied optometric associations

This collection includes records and other material created by or assembled on national optometric associations, societies, and clubs in the United States. Materials in this collection include histories, directories, awards and fellowships, conference, committee, commission, council, and other meeting minutes and records, curricula, programs, reports, guidelines, statistics, and other documents.

Optometry as a profession—The eye and vision

This assembled collection created by the Library staff prior to 2009 includes materials related to the history of optometry and optics. Included in this collection are early periodicals and ophthalmic publications, educational and practice management materials, information on clinics and vision care centers, surveys and statistics, inventions (patents) and original research, personal and professional papers, oral histories, and ephemera such as awards, medals, citations, and honors. Materials documenting the public, private and official positions on optometry, optometric practice, education, ethics, and legislation are also included in this collection.

Foreign (international) optometry

The International Library, Archives, and Museum of Optometry assembled materials on non-US or international optometric entities including associations, societies, committees, councils, commissions, and clubs as well as schools, clinics and vision centers, and educational institutions. Also included in this collection are publications, materials related to foreign legislation on optometry, and proceedings from international meetings and congresses. ILAMO staff also collected materials on inventors, manufacturers, and distributors of ophthalmic devices and instruments around the world.

Other health professions—Public health & welfare

This assembled collection includes materials on public health optometry and allied health service professions with an emphasis on theory, practice, research, and policy. ILAMO staff compiled documents and other material created by associations, educational institutions, public health and community health service agencies and organizations representing health care providers. The material in this collection includes reports, studies, theses and dissertations, and other research, monographs, policy documents, legislation, symposia and conference proceedings, manuals and guidebooks, publications, and ephemera. This collection also includes catalogs and historical material on U.S. optical manufacturers and distributors, and scientific optics.

Other disciplines, subjects, organizations and matters of broad interest to optometry

This assembled collection contains a broad selection of materials created by organizations, individuals and other entities involved in a variety of activities related to (non-medical or health-related) natural, social and behavioral sciences, technology, education, religion, philosophy, and philanthropy. Materials selected are of interest to optometry and include standards and guidelines, manuals, publications and manuscripts, and other media dealing with occupational and public health and safety, public education, social analysis and theory, and philanthropic endeavors.

United States government documents

This collection includes government documents related to the practice and regulation of optometry and the provision of optometric services. Documents in this collection were generated by the executive, legislative and judicial branches and their agencies as well as independent, state and local government agencies. Materials in this collection include publications, proposals, manuals, statistics, proceedings and minutes, reports, assessments, testimonies, regulations, and other legislation. Subject areas include health policy, programs, commissions and councils, education and credentialing, labor/manpower, and campaigns.

Museum collections

The Museum Collections held at the Archives & Museum of Optometry represent the history of eyewear, the optical industry, and the American Optometric Association, as well as the changing methods of vision testing and care. Visitors to the AOA headquarters in Saint Louis may view exhibits of selected items from the Museum collection in the first-floor Archives area.

Many interesting items are included in the collection, including eyeglasses, contact lenses, instruments and tools, photographs, and other historical artifacts. Permanent exhibits include several virtual museum galleries listed on the right.

Unclaimed and abandoned property

The Archives & Museum of Optometry (AMO) has a list of abandoned and unclaimed property left in the custody of our repository and its predecessor The International Library, Archives & Museum of Optometry (ILAMO). In accordance with Mo. Rev. Stat. § 184.112 (1991), this notice postedJuly 17, 2018, is our statement of intent to claim title to all abandoned, unclaimed and undocumented materials listed below. To prove ownership of the property, a claim must be made in writing within 90 days of this notice to:

Heritage Services Specialist
The Archives & Museum of Optometry
Optometry Cares—The AOA Foundation
243 North Lindbergh Boulevard
St. Louis, MO 63141

If no claim is received, The AMO, a program of Optometry Cares—The AOA Foundation acquires title to the property.

AOA Archives and Museum

The McAllister Collection: The legacy of American optometry's founding family

The Archives & Museum of Optometry curates historical records, manuscripts, photographs and other objects that document the origins and development of optometry in the United States. This month we are celebrating America's birthday by processing a collection related to one of optometry's own founding fathers: John McAllister, Sr.

About the collection on the McAllister family of Philadelphia

The McAllister Family Collection [Mss 501.01] was assembled by the International Library, Archives & Museum of Optometry (ILAMO) staff shortly after the establishment of the Archives in the early 1970s. In these early days, there were no stewards of optometry history and the AOA's History Committee worked diligently with the librarians to compile research on individuals who made significant contributions to the profession. The McAllister collection contains correspondence between researchers working with the Committee, the Optometric Historical Society and the head librarian to gather information for future researchers.

For this reason, the McAllister Family Collection is not an organic collection resulting from the accumulation of materials during the course of an individual's lifetime of work. Like many small museums and archives in the mid-twentieth century, ILAMO staff and the members of the Committee created an artificial assemblage of materials comprised of published articles, photocopied manuscripts and original archival material brought together from many different sources. In processing the collection, we have an opportunity to revisit the arrangement of the materials and assess their condition and value.

Preservation and access

To make this collection more accessible, we have created a finding aid and digitized the original material for online publication. We have also taken steps to preserve the more fragile items found in the collection by rehousing them. For example, these early-nineteenth-century letters shown below were removed from cramped folders, encapsulated in Mylar and stored flat to protect them from damage. Online access will ensure that researchers are served without taking a toll on the original documents.

The McAllister family of Philadelphia

John McAllister, Sr. (1753-1830)

John McAllister emigrated from Scotland to New York in 1775. Trained as a cabinet maker and woodworker, he worked briefly for a New York City carpenter until the outbreak of the American Revolution in April of that same year. After spending a short time in a New Jersey prison for his revolutionary activities, McAllister landed in Philadelphia in 1781. At the end of the War in 1783, McAllister took advantage of his new country's entrepreneurial climate and rapidly flourishing trade in consumer goods, opening his first shop on Market Street where he specialized in manufacturing and selling buggy whips and canes.

The shops at Chestnut Street

By 1796, McAllister had expanded his trade and moved his thriving business to a new location at 48 Chestnut Street [later 194 and 728 Chestnut]. McAllister purchased stock for his new shop including assorted hardware and a small lot of spectacles. This one-off acquisition proved so popular that his inventory soon began to shift toward all things optical, including both instruments and eyewear.

McAllister became an avid student of optics, acquiring the technical skills of an optician in order to properly fit spectacles and the clinical skill to refract his customers' eyes so that he could provide more accurate prescriptions. He became a well-known "refracting optician" and attracted a prestigious clientele. McAllister is widely considered the first practicing optometrist in the United States.

The McAllister family optical business began in Philadelphia, but the family practice expanded to New York and Baltimore, spawning six generations of optometrists. McAllister's sons and grandsons became accomplished vision care providers and vocal advocates for organized optometry, playing leadership roles in the American Optometric Association, state affiliates, and allied organizations.

Thomas Jefferson's bifocals

Among his many high-profile customers, McAllister catered to several U.S. Presidents and political heavyweights, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. President Thomas Jefferson solicited many pairs of spectacles from John McAllister, Sr. during his first two terms in office (1801-1809). He continued to consult McAllister about his changing vision throughout the remainder of his life. An 1806 letter held at The Becker Medical Library at Washington University, St. Louis, reveals that Jefferson ordered a pair of bifocals from McAllister like those used by his friend, Benjamin Franklin:

"You have heretofore furnished me with spectacles . . . what a convenience it would be to have different magnifiers in the same frame. Dr. Franklin tried this by semicircular glasses joined horizontally, the upper & lower semicircles of different powers, which he told me answered perfectly. I wish to try it, & therefore send you [a] drawing . . ."

America's first case of astigmatism corrected with cylindrical lenses

The science of astigmatism

McAllister's service to the Washington elite may have allowed him access to the newest discoveries and innovation in European optics. Astigmatism was first identified by the British physicist Thomas Young in 1801, but it was not until the 1820s that a few European scientists and opticians attempted to use cylindrical lenses as a corrective device for the vision anomaly. This treatment was a revelation and not well known or understood outside the scientific community, however, original correspondence held in The McAllister Family Papers suggests that McAllister was providing his customers with cutting-edge care.

In 1822 Joseph Wood of Washington, D.C. sent a letter to John McAllister and Sons requesting a pair of cylindrical lenses, remarking that "These glasses have been very much extolled in my hearing by scientific men." Whether McAllister received the request because of his connections or had previously supplied the lenses based on his own observations with patients is not known. However, other letters in the collection hint that he was a well-known supplier of cylindrical lenses less than a decade later.

The French Connection: M. Chamblant's cylindrical lenses

A letter from Henry Von Phul, a St. Louis, MO merchant, and brother of the artist Maria VonPhul (June 18, 1829) reveals that McAllister had been prescribing cylindrical lenses ground and patented by the Parisian optician M. Chamblant for some time. In his request to McAllister, von Phil asks for:

". . . a pair of the New French glasses . . . described in a . . . paper you handed to me last Winter. . . . They are made by Chamblant a Frenchman, the glasses are ground so as to have segments of cylinders in the opposing sides at right angles to each other. Should you be able to procure such a pair of spectacles for me in the United States . . . cost will be no object."

Chamblant is well-known among historians of physics and optics as the manufacturer of cylindrical lenses supplied to British engineer and inventor John Isaac Hawkins in 1826 and astronomer George Biddell Airy not long after. Like other early optometrists and physicians of the time, McAllister demonstrated a keen interest in the science of optics and the use technological innovation in improving human performance.

The Reverend Chauncey Goodrich's astigmatism

A series of correspondence in 1828-1829 between McAllister and the Reverend Chauncey Enoch Goodrich at the Oneida Academy in Whitesboro, New York is most often cited as evidence of the first prescription of cylindrical lenses to correct astigmatism in the United States. Goodrich had written to others about his unique vision problem and was subsequently referred to McAllister who tested his vision and fit him with lenses that corrected his lifelong astigmatism.

On March 17, 1829 Goodrich wrote to McAllister to beg him to replace a pair of cylindrical lenses previously supplied and recently broken:

"I hope this letter & the last will leave nothing unsaid . . . I wish you to repair my glasses and set them in a pair of new frames, remembering that they must be set in with the flat side in front, and with the straight direction of the concave side in a horizontal direction."

The Founding Fathers of American optometry

The transformation of a trade: The refracting optician becomes an optometrist

By the late-nineteenth century, four generations of McAllister’s had been refracting eyes and prescribing glasses. John McAllister, Jr. was now a well-respected optometrist and a manager at Wills Hospital Eye Hospital in Philadelphia (1848-1859), where he taught physicians to refract the eye. His son William Young McAllister continued to work at Wills while maintaining a private optometry practice and optical retail store. W.Y. McAllister's professional perspective had a distinctly optometric bent.

The monograph (circa 1865) "Our Eyesight" includes a detailed "Diagram of the Eye" and a "Notice" on the inside cover which serves to:

"abolish . . . erroneous ideas in regard to the use of Spectacles . . . [and ensure] utmost care is given to properly filling Oculist's prescriptions and . . . [that] frames [are] properly adjusted. . . to suit the various optical defects of sight."

The McAllister’s successfully straddled the breach between a retail trade and healthcare profession, participating in the diagnosis and treatment of vision anomalies as well as the fulfillment of prescriptions. By 1898, when the American Optometric Association formed, John McAllister's great-grandson Francis Wardale (F.W.) McAllister was primed to become a charter member.

Founder's speech to the District of Columbia Optometric Society: Echoes of the four pillars

With more than a century-long legacy at his back, F.W. McAllister addressed the District of Columbia Optometric Society in June of 1919. In his speech, McAllister extolled his ancestors and the achievements of the profession since the Association's founding.

He was not satisfied, however, with the present state of the profession and called for increased legislative advocacy to improve the status of optometrists relative to allied medical professionals, and for higher standards in optometric education in order to enhance patient care and increase public awareness. McAllister could fairly be called one of the early articulators of what the AOA now refers to as its "four pillars." The original full manuscript for McAllister's speech is held at the Archives & Museum of Optometry.

McAllister's Museum

In his address to the Society, McAllister also predicted the importance of his family's legacy to museums:

If a museum if ever formed in this country, I shall take great pleasure in presenting these old fashioned spectacles to it.

While we do not know for certain what became of those original spectacles, we have identified two pairs of spectacles with the McAllister mark in our collections.

The first pair were among the earliest McAllister glasses and likely originated at the 48 Chestnut Street store. This silver-framed pair of spectacles feature the oval lenses, c-style bridge, pin-inslot telescopic arms, and narrow tear-drop finial ends consistent with early-nineteenth-century eyewear.

The next generation of McAllister spectacles in the AMO collection are this beautiful pair of gold-framed glasses with octagonal lenses, a crank bridge and loopslide telescopic temple arms with tear-drop finial ends. If you pass your mouse over the image, you can see a page from the 1860s McAllister & Bros. catalog featuring a pair of spectacles very like those in the picture below.

The McAllister legacy

The McAllister family embodied the innovative and independent spirit of early American optometry. Like his contemporaries in Washington, D.C., London and Paris, McAllister embraced the future during a period that should resonate with all of us in the new millennium. John McAllister found success at a time of great uncertainty characterized by unprecedented technological change and global political upheaval that had worldwide environmental and economic consequences.

What an appropriate way for us to celebrate this July 2017 at The Archives & Museum of Optometry! Make sure to visit us again to see what new McAllister treasures we have discovered and what new objects and collections we have that make us reflect as well as inspire us to act.

References

"Correction by Cylinders in 1828." Optical Review 1 12 (March 1908): 42. "Death of C.W. McAllister." Optical Journal 18 15 (July 26 1906): 369. "Death of J. Cook McAllister, of Noted Family of Optometrists and Opticians." Optical Journal and Review 62 9 (August 31, 1928): 32. "Death of Thomas H. McAllister."The Jewelers' Circular, 37 19 (December 7 1898): 11-12. "Historical Sketch of Famous Optical House in Philadelphia." Optical Journal and Review 58 10 (September 2 1926): 31. "How Thomas Jefferson Ordered His First Bifocals in 1806 from Pioneer American Optician." Optical Journal Review 71 17 (September 1 1934): 21. "Obituary of Francis W. McAllister." Optical Journal and Review of Optometry 46 17 (October 21 1920): 1137. "Obituary of William Young McAllister," Optical Journal 2 1 (March 1896): 26. "Optical History in Philadelphia." Optical Journal and Review 34 18 (October 22 1914): 1201 Albert, Daniel M., and Margaret O'Connell. "Ophthalmology in the United States at the Time of the Revolution." Survey of Ophthalmology 22 1 (July-August): 48-56. "Five Generations of Optical Specialists."Wellsworth (American Optical) (November 1920): 136-137. Barnett, Albert. "Astigmatism: An Historical Review." Optician [or Optical Developments?] (December 1944): 2- 4. (or April 1941?) Beath, Robert B., John Welsh Croskey, and William Ives Rutter. "McAllister, John." In St. Andrew's Society of Philadelphia, An Historical Catalogue of the St. Andrew's Society of Philadelphia, With Biographical Sketches of Deceased Members, 235. Philadelphia: Printed for the Society, 1907. Goodrich, Chauncey E. "Notice of a peculiarity in Vision." In Silliman, Benjamin American Journal of Science and Art 14 (July 1828): 264-265. New Haven: A.H. Maltby and Hezekiah Howe, 1828. Gould, George. "The Discovery of Astigmatism and EyeStrain." American Medicine 4 (October 1902): 618-622. Kelly, Chris. "McAllister Five Generations." Optometric Journal and Review of Optometry 112 13 (July 1 1975): 10-17. Lebensohn, James E. "The Story of Astigmatism." Sight-Saving Review 30 3 (Fall 1960): 139-141. According to Leffler, Christopher T., Wasim Samara and Michael Christensen in their Letter to the Editor, Eye & Contact Lens 44 5 (September 2018) p. 375-376, McAllister had been advertising Chamblan'tslenses since 1835. Library Company of Philadelphia. The John A. McAllister Collection. Accessed:  librarycompany.org/mcallister/biography.htm Mackenzie, William. "Astigmatism." In A Practical Treatise on Diseases of the Eye. To Which Is Prefixed an Anatomical Introduction Explanatory of a Horizontal Section of the Human Eyeball, 668-671. Philadelphia, PA: Blanchard and Lea, 1855. McAllister, F.W. "Forty Nine Years in the Optical Business." Optical Journal and Review of Optometry 39 12 (March 15 1917). McAllister, F.W. "FW McAllister Talk on Optics." Optical Journal and Review of Optometry 37 6 (February 3 1919): 359. McAllister, F.W. "Optical History in America." Optical Journal and Review of Optometry? 12 (September 111919). McAllister, J.F. "A Question often Asked and Seldom Answered." Optical Journal 3 8 (October 1897): 388-389. Miller, Maxwell. "The Philadelphia Story of Optometry." American Journal of Optometry and Archives of American Academy of Optometry 48 3 (March 1971): 270-280. Morris, Charles. "Memorial Notice of John McAllister, Jr. Read by Charles M. Morris, before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, January 14, 1878." Murray, Samuel A. "Astigmatism. Airy or Hawkins?" Optical Journal 11 3 (March 1903): 322-325. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 2 1 (1878), 92-95. Noyes, Henry. "Article III: Note respecting the First recorded Case of Astigmatism in this Country for which Cylindrical Glasses were made." In Unknown (April 1872): 355-359. Poser, Max. "Test Charts." Optical Journal and Review of Optometry 79 9 (May 1 1942): 17-18 Scott, Hugh. "Who Had the Idea?" Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine (September 16 1956): 18. Snyder, Charles. "The Rev. Mr. Goodrich and His Visual Problem." In Our Ophthalmic Heritage, 93-96. Boston: Little, Brown & Company 1967. Sullivan, Charles H. "Philadelphia: A Cradle of Liberty, Birthplace of American Optics." Optical Journal and Review 7 12 (June 15 1933): 46-111. Von Phul Family Papers, Missouri Historical Society Archives, St. Louis, accessed at collections.mohistory.org/resource/104213 . Wilson, Gaye. "Jefferson's Spectacles" California Optometry (September 2000): 21-22.

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