Old West prescription shades

Did you know that people in the Old West actually wore sunglasses? It was a surprise to me. I’ve been thinking about guns, horses, clothes, provisions, even eyeglasses…but sunglasses never occurred to me.

While doing research on the Allen Pepperbox gun, I stumbled across a dramatic part the gun played in early Mormon history and their exodus into the uncharted West—and that’s also where the sunglasses come in. They’re sitting in the LDS Church History Museum because they made the long journey west without their owner.

In fact, they’re an integral part of the beginning of Mormonism itself. They belonged to Hyrum Smith, older brother of Joseph Smith, who started the whole thing.

Hyrum was an instant believer in his brother’s vision of a restored Christianity directly ordered by God, and was one of only a handful of people who could say they actually saw and handled the gold plates on which the ancient text of Joseph Smith’s “new Bible” (the Book of Mormon) was inscribed.

A tall, strong man with a kind and gentle nature, he did a lot of work outside in the sun; he was a prosperous farmer, and later served as foreman of the quarry that provided stone for the church’s first temple. And as the new church’s assistant president, he also did a lot of missionary traveling and plenty of reading, preaching, and teaching.

The glasses did more than provide relief from the glaring sun—the blue lenses, which were custom prescription work, could be swung forward to correct Hyrum’s farsightedness when he needed to read. The telescoping earpieces let the glasses fold down and fit into a sturdy, compact leather case.

Hyrum Smith's sunglasses and carrying case (from BYU library archives)
Hyrum Smith’s sunglasses and carrying case (from BYU library archives: http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/RelEd/id/5010)

If Hyrum Smith had lived to a ripe old age, these custom prescription sunglasses probably would have worn out and been replaced, and nobody would have thought to keep them around.

But as fate would have it, he was murdered at age 44, along with his brother Joseph, by a mob that stormed into the jail in Carthage Illinois, where they were awaiting trial. (There’s quite a story behind their arrest: you can read more here or here or here.) His death as a religious martyr ensured that many of his personal effects would be kept and treasured by friends, family, and members of the religion he helped to begin.

Those who killed the Smith brothers probably assumed that the death of the Mormons’ prophet and his right-hand man would kill the religion. It did cause turmoil, but the Mormons were (still are) a devout, determined, and industrious lot. They quickly regrouped.

And two years later, in 1846, led by Brigham Young, the Mormon community set out for uncharted territory in the West, taking a certain pair of sunglasses with them.

I don’t know about you, but I find stories like this both humbling and inspiring. For one thing, the people who settled America, and particularly the West, were braver, tougher, and more determined than I’ll ever hope to be. And then there’s the fact that I’m directly descended from some of them (in fact, some of my ancestors helped the Smith brothers start the Mormon church), so I feel like the Old West era isn’t just history, it’s part of my history.

And the stories…there are so many moving, dramatic, true stories to draw from that I can’t help but be inspired. I want to play out stories of my own in that world. And I’m incredibly excited about the prospect of eventually (hopefully not too far in the future) publishing FAR Western so that  other people around the world can immerse themselves in their own visions of the Old West.

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