Willson Goggles and the Rise and Fall of American Industry

There’s something about old style protective eyewear that projects a grander air of adventure than the current stuff. Who cares about effectiveness? It’s kind of like comparing the look of a leather reefer coat and breeches to one of the current armored motorcycle suits which, with sponsorship patches and bright colors, sort of resemble clown suits.

Old style motorcycle clothing, even in the WWI era, projected a strength that could easily jump the rails into menace. Bolshevik leader Yakov Sverdlov understood this. He wore leather from head to toe and his Chekist underlings followed suit (so to speak). Clothing resembling old style motoring/motorcycling garb became standard issue for scary secret police during the interwar years.

But I digress…

These sunglasses are made for use with open motorcars, motorcycles and airplanes. You can tell they’re not simply safety glasses by the amber lens, which was intended to cut haze when viewing objects at a distance. As the case and paperwork indicates they were made by Willson.

Thomas A. Willson was the World’s preeminent maker of safety eyewear in the early 20th Century. Gile J. Willson and his son Dr. Thomas A. Willson founded the company in 1871 to manufacture optical glass. As American industry burgeoned the company began making safety eyewear. Eventually the company produced a wide variety of products ranging from oxygen masks to fashion sunglasses.

Starting in the 1950s the company began changing hands. Ray-O-Vac bought it in 1956. A year later Electric Storage Battery Co. became the owner. Eventually they stopped making safety eyewear and began sourcing it overseas.

Christian Dalloz SA took Willson over in 1989 and changed the company name to Dalloz Safety in 1997. The Willson factory in Reading Pa. closed for good in May 2002.

The building is now a community arts and cultural resource center.

If you’re ever in Reading stop by and pay your respects.

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