American Optical Co. (AO) was founded in Southbridge, MA, and was such an integral part of the community that the town is still referred to as the “Eye of the Commonwealth.” The company was founded in 1833 by William Beecher (1805-1892), a jeweler and watchmaker who transitioned to the optical business shortly after moving to the area in 1826. Beecher felt that New England workers were capable of making spectacles that could compete with the foreign variety and by 1843 he was one of the first producers of steel eyeglasses made in the U.S.

At its peak, the company employed 5,500 people in Southbridge and 13,000 worldwide. The photo above left, taken in 1925, shows workers leaving AO’s Main Plant on their lunch break. To attract workers the company supplied three-decker housing near the factory. The photo above right shows a ’20s’ Americanization class. AO employed many nationalities including Italian, Polish, French Canadian, and Irish who settled in this area because of the job opportunities the company provided.

Courtesy of Optical Heritage Museum (opticalheritagemuseum.org)


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