Detail from a chart including Chinese, Russian and Hebrew characters, images of a human eye and an American flag, and color blocks in blue, green, and orange.

Mayerle’s Lithographed International Test Chart, 1907

By Stephen P. Rice ~

Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011.

International eye chart, on a wooden stand.
Mayerle’s Lithographed International Test Chart, 1907

This multilingual eye-test chart, published in 1907, was the creation of the optometrist George Mayerle (ca. 1870–1929), a “Graduate German Expert Optician” who set up shop in San Francisco in the mid-1890s. Optometry was professionalizing at the time, and Mayerle was on board. A charter member of the American Optometric Association at its founding in 1898, a decade later (not long after the eye chart appeared) Mayerle delivered a lecture on “The Progress of Optical Science” at a national conference of opticians. Typically, professionalizers were anxious to make a distinction between certified, licensed expert practitioners and undiplomaed marketers of nostrums and products. But Mayerle straddled the line. If he saw himself as a scientific practitioner, he was also right at home in optometry’s peddler tradition, selling a variety of products to a national market, including “Mayerle’s Diamond Crystal Eye Glasses” and “Mayerle’s Eyewater,” which he pitched as “the Greatest Eye Tonic” and sold by mail order and in drugstores.

An eye chart with a white background in Chinese, Russian, Hebrew, English, Japanese, and images, with color blocks and astigmatism tests.
Optometrist George Mayerle combined an array of eye tests on a single chart that, he boasted, was “accurate, artistic, ornamental, practical and reliable.” Marketing the chart to fellow practitioners, he promised that it “makes a good impression and convinces the patient of your professional expertness.”
National Library of Medicine #101573438

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”).

An eye chart with a black background in 6 languages and symbols.
Mayerle’s chart was two-sided, reproducing the chart with a black background on the opposite side.
National Library of Medicine #101573841
Detail from an an eye chart with a white background showing images, a cat, a dog, an American flag, and a human eye.
Mayerle’s chart included images, to make it more universally useful.
National Library of Medicine #101573438

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.

Stephen P. Rice is Professor of American Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He is author of Minding the Machine: Languages of Class in Early Industrial America. His research focuses on nineteenth-century commercial wood engraving and visual culture in the United States.


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