An "international eye chart" from 1907

Behold the "international eye chart" designed by George Mayerle, a German optician who made his name working in San Francisco in the 1890s.

Optometry was a new field back then, filled with all manners of quackery, some of which Mayerle himself engaged in. (He enthusiastically sold "Mayerle's Eyewater", something he claimed was "the Greatest Eye Tonic".) But optometry was also professionalizing and becoming more research-based, and Mayerle himself pitched in by creating an eye chart designed to be used by people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

San Francisco was, back then, a hotbed of immigration, and Mayerle wanted to serve the city's polyglot community. The goal was to produce a single chart that would allow an optometrist to do an eye-test for nearly anyone who walked in the door:

His eye chart, which he claimed to be “the result of many years of theoretical study and practical experience, ” combined four subjective tests done during an eye examination. Running through the middle of the chart, the seven vertical panels test for acuity of vision with characters in the Roman alphabet (for English, German, and other European readers) and also in Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and Hebrew. A panel in the center replaces the alphabetic characters with symbols for children and adults who were illiterate or who could not read any of the other writing systems offered. Directly above the center panel is a version of the radiant dial that tests for astigmatism. On either side of that are lines that test the muscular strength of the eyes. Finally, across the bottom, boxes test for color vision, a feature intended especially (according to one advertisement) for those working on railroads and steamboats. The chart measures 22 by 28 inches and is printed on heavy cardboard; a positive version of it appears on one side, a negative version on the reverse. It sold for $3.00 or for $6.00 with a special cabinet designed to reveal only those parts of the chart needed at the time (“thus avoiding many unnecessary questions”). The “international” chart is an artifact of an immigrant nation—produced by a German optician in a polyglot city where West met East (and which was then undergoing massive rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake) and of a globalizing economy. One advertisement promoted it as “the only chart published that can be used by people of any nationality, ” such as might be needed by a practitioner in almost any American city. Another ad, which appeared around the same time, touted it as “the only chart. .. that can be used equally well in any part of the world. ” Mayerle’s internationalism was part of a marketing strategy, but when it suited him he could patriotically claim that his wares contributed to the project of American imperial expansion. A 1902 advertisement, for instance, boasted that a pair of his eyeglasses was used “at Manila, during the Spanish-American War, ” by none other than Admiral Dewey himself.

An immigrant entrepreneur, inventing cool stuff to help serve other immigrants! It's nice to recall the many moments in America's past that defy the nativism of today.

By the way, that passage above comes from a free PDF online book by the National Institute of Health called Hidden Treasure, which depicts amazing artifacts from the history of medicine. It's a heck of a read. Mayerle's on page 136. (Via Circulating Now)

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