When I was a kid, my mother used to tell me about her lifelong friend Ruth Pollack, whom she met on the first day of their freshman year at Forest Hills High School, in 1945.
Years ago, my mother and I visited Pollack in her home on the Upper East Side. She gave me a tour of her treasures—over one thousand pairs of antique eyeglasses. Pollack told me about how the first corrective, wearable eyeglasses were likely invented in Italy in the thirteenth century; how the Chinese were the first to figure out how to hang weights on the frames of glasses so that they would stay in place on the wearer’s face. I never forgot the two-thousand-year-old whalebone “Eskimo goggles” she showed me, a very early prototype of sunglasses.
Pollack’s cozy, two-bedroom apartment on East 75th Street—which I visited again this summer with photographer and multimedia journalist Elizabeth Herman—is a temple to her passion. Posters of eyeglasses and eyes line the walls, and all manner of glasses are on display just about everywhere: on plates, in nooks, framed on the walls, filling an assortment of glass cases. Herman and I were two of the last people who got a peek inside this palace of lenses; Pollack is moving to Virginia at the end of the month, after living on East 75th for more than half a century—the same length of time she’s been collecting. As for what will become of her collection? “I’ll keep all the glasses around,” she told me. “I like to look at them.”
But later, when she’s no longer around, Pollack’s daughter will inherit her collection. The Smithsonian Institution only expressed an interest in a few pairs, Pollack said, so she decided that it was more important to keep her decades of work together.
Pollack recalled her daughter’s reaction to her offer: “Her eyes filled with tears and she said, ‘Oh, yes! Can I have them?’”
“Wherever she is, she’s going to find a couple of walls somewhere to hang these, or a box,” Pollack continued. “So that makes me very happy.”
Elizabeth Herman is a New York based freelance photographer and researcher. She recently returned from a year in Bangladesh as a Fulbright Fellow, and has been working on a long-term photography and oral history project on women in conflict called “A Woman’s War.” An exhibit of the work opens in DUMBO at United Photo Industries on November 2.
Daniel Krieger, a contributing editor at Narratively, is a freelance journalist based in New York. He writes for the New York Times and his work has also appeared in Fast Company, Wired, Slate and New York Magazine.