Of Spectacles and Cataract Glasses: Technologies for Visual Impairment in Colonial India

Spectacles with corrective lenses were one of the primary aids for those with visual impairments already available in the region before the nineteenth century. The origins of this device remain contested: with some suggest a Chinese origin, while others argue for a Western beginning.[1] Irrespective of where they originated, there are two possible routes for the introduction of spectacles into South Asia: the first being with the Portuguese, who arrived on these shores at the close of the fifteenth century and did indeed carry spectacles through their imperial networks. Certainly, the works of Mughal artists such as Mir Sayyid Ali (image V) provide artistic evidence of the use of spectacles in courts by the sixteenth century.[2] The second possibility is through the British; who presented the Mughal emperor with telescopes in 1616 and spurred demand in Venetian-made spectacles.[3] Subsequently spectacles become a popular commodity traded in South Asia, with demand extending well beyond court elites to the local bazaars, alongside ‘looking-glasses, crystal eyes, perspective glasses’.[4] 

Image V- Artist Mir Sayyid Ali, Portrait of his father Mir Musavvir, Musee Guimet, Paris, 1565-70. (In this miniature, the spectacles comprised lenses mounted on a wooden frame, with arm
Artist Mir Sayyid Ali, Portrait of his father Mir Musavvir, Musee Guimet, Paris, 1565-70. (In this miniature, the spectacles comprised lenses mounted on a wooden frame, with arms curling over the ears)

By the nineteenth century, the sheer numbers of newspaper advertisements suggest there was a thriving market for spectacles, pebble and crystal glasses in the region. Both Indian and European firms sold spectacles and glasses, although distinct values may have been ascribed to European-made spectacles sold through European companies compared to the locally produced and sold spectacles. Bushnell’s for instance, advertised themselves as being explicitly linked to the shifts in ophthalmology in the metropole and often described themselves as ‘ophthalmic opticians’. [5] European companies selling spectacles were also far more expensive than Indian firms and could afford more elaborate advertisements. To counter this, many of the Indian firms explicitly expressed a connection to the metropole. Dey Mullick, based in Calcutta, advertised their wares as being superior to locally available ‘bazaar’ spectacles by articulating connections to biomedicine and its practitioners (see image). This could take the form of encomiums by Europeans while other companies advertised having American-made lenses. Maurice and Ghose, a firm of ‘consulting opticians’ in Calcutta announced that they were ‘Qualified by Exam!’[6] They warn readers that while there were many spectacle vendors there were but few refractionists who could ‘correctly diagnose the defect of the eyes and supply correct lenses’.[7] Potential customers with defective vision were urged to ‘consult our London trained eye specialist F.I.O; F.S.M.C, D.B.O.A (London) highest British Qualification in eyesight testing and spectacles fitting’.[8]

Image VI- The Pioneer, October 27, 1883
The Pioneer, October 27, 1883

In addition to spectacles, many of these firms also sold cataract glasses, which were recommended after cataracts were removed and were intended to correct and compensate for some of the visual impairment that resulted from cataract operations. The British doctor Maunsell commented that these permitted some women to see at least enough to perform some functions: ‘to sew, and persons who were sufficiently educated could read their native print of characters; the others could distinguish variously shaped printed objects, and carry on their work as agricultural labourers’.[9]

Amrita Bazar Patrika, March 30, 1911.

Some firms also advertised spectacles specifically for the ‘partially blind’, those whose sight had become impaired to age, ‘ripening cataract, opacities in the media of the eye’ and other causes of blindness. [10] Such spectacles were, however, even more expensive than the pebble or cataract spectacles—Bushnell’s, for instance, charged 23 rupees for a single pair of spectacles of the partially blind.[11]

The Pioneer, April 3, 1886

However, despite the ubiquity of advertisements, the use of spectacles to correct ‘defective vision’ appears to have been limited. British doctors had observed that spectacles were not a necessary technology for those of the population who were from the agricultural classes. For the latter, glasses were not crucial to their everyday lives. The more literate castes and classes of the population who were in a trade that required ‘near vision’ would have been more likely to buy spectacles.[12] For instance, many of the emergent middle classes that worked within the colonial administration as clerks and writers in government offices and banks wore spectacles.[13] This is not to suggest that visual impairment was uncommon—far from it. Medical inspections of schoolchildren not only pointed out students often suffered defective vision in both eyes, but that the use of spectacles was not common—children with corrective glasses were exposed to the ‘ridicule of old-fashioned people’.[14]

Spectacles Ad

Given both the metropolitan, urban and gendered bias suggested by contemporary observers, most Indians with impaired vision would have had limited access to the spectacles, cataract glasses and spectacles for the partially blind being advertised, as many of these were indeed imported from Great Britain, Germany and France. The solution for most with visual impairments would have lain in the local bazaar, where artisans and merchants produced and sold spectacles and cataract glasses—Maunsell, for instance, mentions buying spectacles for eight to twelve annas a pair, significantly cheaper than those spectacles sold through private companies. [15] The ‘ignorant dealers’ of the markets administered ‘a very primitive and cursory test’ to fit customers for their glasses.[16] Maunsell further opined that spectacles sourced indigenously were not as ‘true a mould….or centered as accurately’ as if they had been supplied by an English maker.

[1] Carl Barck, The History of Spectacles: Originally Delivered as a Lecture, Place of Publication not Identified: Publisher not Identified, 1907. Barck’s work although dated presents a compelling argument for the European origins of spectacles, primarily drawing on artistic sources.

[2] P. K. Gode, ‘Some Notes on the Invention of Spectacles’, in Studies in Indian Cultural History, Vol.3, Part 2, pp. 106-7 cited in Iqbal Ghani Khan, ‘Medieval Theories of Vision and the Introduction of Spectacles in India, ca. 1200-1750’ in Deepak Kumar, ed. Disease and Medicine in India: An Overview, New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2001, p. 35.

[3] Toby Huff, Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, 119

[4] Arnoldus Montanus, John Ogliby, Atlas Japnnensis: Being Remarkable Addresses by Way of Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces to the Emperor of Japan,London, 1670 , 48, 397, 400; Minutes of Evidence Taken before the Honourable House of Commons in a Committee of the Whole House, London: By Order of the Court of Directors, 1813, 220.

[5] Amrita Bazar Patrika, April 16, 1909, p.1.

[6] Amrita Bazar Patrika, June 27, 1914, p.11.

[7] Amrita Bazar Patrika, February 16, 1914, p.13.

[8] Amrita Bazar Patrika, February 16, 1914, p.13.

[9] Maunsell, Notes on Medical Experiences in India, 88.

[10] Amrita Bazar Patrika, February 22, 1909.

[11] Amrita Bazar Patrika, February 22, 1909.

[12] Maunsell, Notes on the Medical Experiences, 13.

[13] Maunsell, Notes on Medical Experiences, 97.

[14] Amrita Bazar Patrika, January 21, 1918.

[15] Maunsell, Notes on Medical Experiences, 15.

[16] William H Michael, ‘British India’, Special Consular Reports, Issues 44-48, 72.

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