I’d like to say that I’m incredibly cultured and that I knew the phrase “Know Your Heritage” because I’ve studied the philosophies of Rastafarianism and have a working knowledge of the works of Bob Marley. The fact of the matter is, I know it because of a t-shirt that several gamer friends of mine used to own around the time we graduated college. It had a graphic of an old-school, original NES controller in the center, and beneath it, in a font reminiscent of the kind Nintendo used around the early 90s, was that phrase: “Know Your Heritage.” Though it was being conveyed through the medium of video gaming (which I have absolutely no problem with), the basic idea behind the lesson was still clear to me: The present is contextualized through the past. Not just in a cause-and-effect, a-leads-to-b sort of way, but in really driving home the enormity of the now. That t-shirt was probably popular around 2011 or so; I’d only had my Nintendo Wii for a few years by then, with its’ motion-activated gameplay. The same year I bought L.A. Noire, a Playstation 3 game that used motion capture technology to render characters so lifelike that reading people’s facial cues was a part of the game.
Know your heritage: In 1991, I was holding an identical NES controller and playing Mario 3, a game that probably used less memory than this article.
That’s just gaming. The world is full of “know your heritage” moments. You used to have to flip a laserdisc over to watch the second half of the movie; now my DVD of The Godfather has the movie and the special features on one side of the disk. You used to have to walk between multiple department stores to price shop a quality watch; now you can go to Amazon.
And glasses… Wow.
It’s much easier to live in the moment and to take for granted today’s world of online optical, designer frames, and freeform lenses as just “part of doing business,” that’s denying all of the steps and developments that have gone into making opticianry what it is today. We work in a complex and layered industry with a rich heritage going back centuries, to before the time of Shakespeare, Henry VII, The American Revolution… All that while, from the time the first lenses were ground, the first frames crafted, things have been happening, things which haven’t just driven an industry, but people, and the world itself.
I’ve covered a lot about the “heritage” of glasses in my time writing for OH, most notably the 20th Century, and I’m sure that, reading my articles, several of you have at least gotten something of the flavor of what influenced particular eyewear trends and styles over the past 100 years. But, oh boy, is that only scratching the surface.
“Looking Back” is perhaps the most efficient, enjoyable way to know your optical heritage. Written by Joseph L. Bruneni and published by the Optical Laboratories Association to celebrate their centennial, Looking Back is a time capsule, history lesson, and discourse on the optical industry. Divided up into various categories (such as frame manufacturers, lens manufacturers, etc.), the book traverses the topography of the 20th century optical industry, covering topics as wide-ranging as the history of national frame distributors to who the first company was to manufacture a cateye frame!
Opening to any page is like hopping into a time machine: Filled with photos and illustrations, you can see the history of America and the history of eyewear evolve together, as sideburns lengthen and shorten, lapels grow and shrink, hemlines rise and vanish, and, of course, frames move through the various permutations and styles I’ve talked about so much before. Here are the men and women who made the industry— from pioneers innovating new technology and styles, to the folks who just kept the lights on and the doors open until the world was ready for another innovation. There are those who moved between three different optical titans over the course of their lives and those who founded dynasties. There are those who died old and young. Reading the book is a very humbling experience for anyone open to it, anyone who wants to really feel the enormity of all that’s come before in the world of optics. It’s also, in a sort of megalomaniacal sort of way, empowering: When these photos were taken, few of the people in them probably really felt the gravity of their actions, that they would one day be enshrined in the pages of a book dedicated to the history of an entire field. They were just going about their daily lives, doing what they did day in, day out. The same is true for any of us.
Unfortunately, twenty-two years later, the book is out of print, and no revised or expanded edition has ever been offered. As of 2016, the world of Looking Back ends in 1994, albeit on an optimistic note—the story of the book’s publication, told on the jacket, is the chronological end of the journey, bringing it to a close with a veneration of what’s gone before and a bright eye cast to the future. Perhaps it’s nice, in a way, that our surviving tome on the profession ends there: The country was on an economic upswing, war was over, popular culture was taking a turn for the sincere after the initial cynicism that defined the early part of the decade. Gas was still relatively cheap and the clothes not so garish. I was nine.
Until recently, copies of the book ran in the triple digits on Amazon; friends and colleagues have been recommending it to me for a while, but only recently did I start seeing copies pop up in the double digit range (I scored mine, unexpectedly, for less than $50). I encourage anyone who has the means to obtain a copy for themselves; it’s a fantastic read, for all of the reasons I’ve listed above, and more; and while I hesitate to make the recommendation due to its’ rarity, it would make an excellent coffee table book for any waiting room or dispensary.
Looking Back was a unique product of a unique time; I’d like to think that we might, one day, see a successor that casts just as loving an eye on the last quarter century as Looking Back did on its’ previous hundred years. Until then…
Know your heritage.
Preston Fassel was born in Houston, Texas and grew up between St. Charles, Missouri and Broken Arrow, Okla.
In 2009, Preston graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in Liberal Arts. In 2011, he graduated Cum Laude from Sam Houston State University with a Bachelor's of Science.
Preston currently works as an Optician in the Houston area. His interest in the history of eyewear goes back to his time in high school, when he developed an interest in all things vintage.
In addition to his writing for The 20/20 Opticians Handbook and 20/20 Magazine, Preston is a featured writer for Rue Morgue Magazine, where he reviews of horror and science-fiction DVDs. His fiction writing has been featured three times in Swirl magazine, the literary arts journal of Lone Star College and Montgomery County. He is the author of the definitive work on the life of British horror actress Vanessa Howard, Remembering Vanessa, which appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Screem Magazine.