By Jillian Heller
While the opera had been well established in Europe since the 16th century, it did not become popular in the United States until the 19th and 20th centuries. Even then, it was mostly enjoyed by high society. American opera started to become more prevalent once the Metropolitan Opera House was built in 1883. With 3,800 seats, the “Met” became the premier musical venue for any upper class New Yorker. However, in such a vast theater, it was difficult to perfectly view the performance. To optimize the experience, most socialites brought along opera glasses to better see the stage. This accessory made any of those thousands of seats a preferable one.
This week’s object is a pair of opera glasses that would have been used by the cultural elite at the turn of the 20th century. The glasses are essentially an elegant pair of binoculars comprised of brass and mother of pearl. Brass bridges at the objective lens and the eyecups conjoin the two scopes. Perpendicular to the bridges is a brass rod that is the location of the focus wheel. Turning the wheel adjusts the zoom and focus to the preference of the user. Most opera glasses followed this structure, all looking very similar.
One way people try to differentiate the similar models is by looking at the retailer’s trademark. Our object has the maker’s mark “A. Stowell & Co, Boston” around both the eyecups. A. Stowell & Co. was a jewelry retailer located in Charleston and Boston, Massachusetts during the 1800s. Beginning in 1822, three generations of brothers provided jewelry, silverware, hair ornaments, fans, and opera glasses to New England. Our particular opera glasses can be speculated to hail from the turn of the 20th century. A pair of opera glasses during this time can cost between $5-$80, equating to about $130-$2000 today, depending on how ornate of glasses the buyer would like.
The structure of opera spectacles has not changed much since the making of our A. Stowell glasses. However, the history of binoculars can be traced back 400 years. Opera glasses were the result of generations of scientific discoveries. Several landmark inventions gave way to the product we recognize today.
It all began with the creation of the telescope. In 1608 Dutch optician Hans Lipperhey applied for a patent on his marvelous new invention. Unfortunately, his request did not get approved, but instead was followed by a suggestion from the committee reviewing his application. “To ascertain … whether he could improve it so that one could look through it with both eyes.” In several months Lipperhey abided and connected two parallel telescopes, creating the first ever model of binoculars. However, binoculars are much more than combining two telescopes. Optically, a lot still had to be done to make Lipperhey’s binoculars efficient. Only a year later, the famous Italian philosopher and mathematician, Galileo Galilee, improved magnification to 3X and then again to 30X. He used a convergent objective lens and a divergent eye lens, resulting in a non-inverted, upright image. Galilean telescopes are also known as terrestrial telescopes because the observer could view magnified, upright images on earth or in the sky using erecting lenses.
In 1611, Johannes Kepler introduced binoculars with a wider field of view. He altered Galileo’s design by using a convex lens as the eyepiece, opposed to a concave one. This substitution allowed more light to come into the eyepiece, developing the larger field of view. The structure of Keplerian telescopes allowed for substantially higher magnifications, but inverted the image. Many regard Kepler’s findings as the foundation of modern optics. Luckily, Anton Schyrle, a monk from modern day Czech Republic, reverted the Kerplerian telescope by adding an extra lens to the eyepiece. He also writes Oculus Enoch, a book that described the binocular design and first introduced the words “ocular” and “objective”. In 1758, Englishmen John Dolland addressed an issue that all telescopes suffered from, color aberration. He cemented two lenses, each made from a different type of glass, together creating a color free lens. This achromatic invention is what we still use today! In 1825, Pierre Lemiere created the center focus wheel in Paris. This allowed for both eyes to be focused together, rather than the previous individual focus wheels. Very soon after this, Venetian optician, D. Salva designed a bridge that connects two Galilean telescopes. This bridge is a part of the current standard structure of binoculars. Most contemporary opera glasses and the object of the week follow Galileo’s original design, with the addition of many improvements over the years.
The first documentation of opera glasses was in 1730 on a London advertisement. However, it was just a monocular, essentially just a tiny telescope. It was not until around 1820 that invention of the binocular was presented as a tool for the opera. Opera glasses were always tastefully decorated. They were treated as a fashion accessory by the second half of the 19th century. Designed with gems, ivory, enamel, glass and nacre, opera glasses were just as elegant as the elite who frequented the theater. An instrument so tasteful had to be treated as so. Every pair of opera glasses was accompanied with a protective carrying case. They were usually comprised of leather and lined with colored silk. The case was shaped to the hourglass contours of the binoculars. A practical small leather handle was usually connected to the center top of the case. The case our A. Stowell glasses came in follows suit, with brown leather and blue silk lining.
Opera glasses were essential for any high-class individual. With nights spent at the theater, one had to be equipped with the appropriate theater gear. Opera glasses were not only a tool, but also a fashion accessory to keep in hand. Without them, the whole experience of going to the opera would be hindered. They were revolutionary in that they brought the performance closer to the audience.
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