Eyestrain on the Train: Automatic Sight Testing, Victorian Reading Habits, and W. H. Smith’s

Eyestrain on the Train: Automatic Sight Testing, Victorian Reading Habits, and W. H. Smith’s

Following on from my vitalizing visit to the British Optical Association Museum, I have been investigating the late-19th century innovation of automatic sight testing and have begun to think, in further detail, about the relationship between eyecare and reading at the fin de siècle. My meanderings have led me to consider the relationship between three features of late-Victorian England: automatic sight testing; the practice of reading on trains; and the railway bookstalls run by W. H. Smith’s. My thoughts on this triad are still somewhat embryonic, but I feel it is worth, if only as an aide-memoire for myself, jotting down some initial findings…

 Automatic Sight Testing

It appears that automatic sight testing machines, of various types, were ubiquitous in late-Victorian railways stations. Rail commuters could peer through an aperture, turn a handle to rotate through a series of lenses and, by these means, discover their prescription. By filling in a slip of paper and depositing it back in the drawer of the machine, a potential customer could then order a pair of moderately priced glasses to their automatically-ascertained personal specification. The customer’s new pair of specs. could then be promptly delivered to a specified address or be collected, in person, from the company’s head office in London. It seems that many customers used the machines to procure glasses for long-sightedness, to aid their reading experience during their rail journey, perhaps. In an apparently ‘unsolicited remark’, a customer of the Automatic Sight-testing & Optical Supply Company asserts, with reference to his recently purchased glasses, ‘it is a pleasure to read with them’.[1] In another dubiously unbiased piece in a fin de siècle fashion, literature, and beaux arts periodical, the agony aunt suggests that the correspondent, ‘A Governess’, purchases for herself a pair of glasses from the aforementioned company in order to improve her eyesight for close work, noting that ‘there must be many ladies whose sight is failing from hard study, or constant writing or reading’. [2]

The Dangers of Reading on the Rails

My research has, so far, substantiated the notion that, like today, reading was a popular way of passing the time during a train journey. However, it was not an activity to be taken lightly; oculists and others vehemently warned against it. An 1898 leaflet on eyestrain, published by Bateman’s opticians, features an illustration showing three people reading in a train carriage; the two non-glasses-wearers are clearly straining, and show signs of becoming ‘permanently disfigured by “crowsfeet”’, whilst the glasses-wearer smiles contently.[3] In an 1881 issue of The Girl’s Own Paper, readers were cautioned: ‘Do not work in the gloaming, nor in too great a glare of light, and do not read in a railway carriage’. These warnings were, of course, a great boon for the Automatic Sight-testing & Optical Supply Company; railway readers could easily ward off eyestrain by taking just a few minutes to utilize one of the company’s strategically-placed machines.

Once they had procured their new glasses, what would be the customer’s reading matter of choice as they sped along the rails?

This is where W. H. Smith’s & Sons enter the picture.

W. H. Smith’s Railway Bookstalls

Taking my cue from the Curator’s mention of a connection between the manufacturers of the automatic sight testing machine and W. H. Smith’s, I started to research the history of Smith’s railway bookstalls and was excited to discover the presence of a sizable W. H. Smith’s archive just down the road in Reading. I have not, as yet, been able to corroborate the existence of any legal agreement linking automatic sight testing machines to W. H. Smith & Sons but, even if there was no official partnership, the connection between the machines and the practice of reading on trains is not hard to comprehend – and Smith’s certainly had a monopoly on railway reading matter. According to an 1895 article from Good Words (the torn-out pages of which were nestled in a box from Reading’s archives), ‘to-day Messrs. W. H. Smith and Son have the bookstall monopoly of every line in England, with the sole exception of the Metropolitan; and their bookstalls number more than 600, or, including what are known as sub-stalls, or which a boy is placed in charge, 1025.’[4] The same article notes that ‘the chief requirement of railway travellers is fiction’; the ‘lighter class of literature’ was preferred as even the ‘most intelligent and studious readers will not be likely to provide themselves at the beginning of a railway journey with literature that will lay any tax upon the intellectual powers’.[5] The definition of ‘lighter’ literature, in this context, will be the subject subsequent research.

I shall return to Reading in the near future to explore the W. H. Smith archive further. I shall probably take the train. But I shall ensure that I get my eyes tested before embarking upon my journey. I have noticed a lamentable lack of automatic sight testing machines at my local station so, at my inconvenience, I shall have to visit a high street optician.


[1] 1892 advertisement for the Automatic Sight-testing & Optical Supply Company, held in the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera. Shelfmark: Patent Medicines 18 (20) – Opticians & eyes.

[2] Le Follet Journal du Grand Monde; fashion, Polite Literature, and Beaux Arts (London, 1st March 1893, p. 14).

[3] Eyestrain, Frederik Bateman & Co. (1898), held in the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera. Shelfmark: Patent Medicines 18 (25) – Opticians & eyes

[4] Good Words (1895), pp. 474-478 [relevant pages torn out and kept with the ‘W. H. Smith & Sons Circulating Library’ catalogues]. University of Reading Special Collections, W. H. Smith Collection, WHS PA 341.

[5] Good Words (1895), p. 476

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