Go back to article: Rather unspectacular: design choices in National Health Service glasses

Trade and private frames

The provision of sight tests and supply of regulation frames under the National Health Service became the main source of activity, and of income, for ophthalmic and dispensing opticians during this period. The provision of NHS frames reportedly made up 80 per cent of business activity; optical practitioners were paid per patient seen and this brought a limited income stream which had to cover the overheads of their premises and practice costs. Practitioners who were affiliated to the NHS supplementary Ophthalmic Services (section 41, NHS Act 1946) needed to accept the Ministry of Health’s terms of service and to work within strict regulations. One restriction that had implications for both business practice and for the patient was the ban on advertising.[42] An optical practitioner worked within a practice or consulting rooms. This environment meant the purchase of the product was not defined in retail terms as a shop premises; opticians would not refer to their clients as ‘customers’ but as ‘patients’. It is through this rejection of consumer terminology, and the processes of retail trade, that optical practitioners identified themselves with the medical profession.

Within the optical industry, during the period 1946 to 1986, some of the key features of retail trade were consciously rejected; because advertising was strictly prohibited and the clear display of prices was forbidden under the scheme, any creative visual display of the product in a sales area was unusual.[43] There was little communication about the range of frames available within the state service and practices were also prevented from promoting alternative frames that were available under their private practice. Design and styling were not considerations within the NHS range – indeed, fashion elements were consciously rejected. It was only spectacles produced outside the system, in the private trade, where there was an element of choice. However, the terms of service prevented promotion of these choices.

The 1951 trade exhibition had highlighted this troubling issue; although alternatives in private frame styles could be promoted within the trade publications, how could information about these more fashionable frame styles, suitability of fit, and other elements of eyecare be communicated to the public? During the trade exhibition there was a meeting between W E Hardy, editor of trade journals Optician and The Manufacturing Optician, Max Wiseman and Frank Piggott, where it was agreed to begin an appeal to fund an information council for the trade (de Klerk, 1976). The Information Council of the Optical Industry, later the Optical Information Council, was founded in 1951 in an attempt to address the public ignorance of ophthalmic optics and combat prejudice against spectacle wear. The Council was fully aware that it had a difficult task ahead; they were faced with hostile public opinion, and members of the profession had to work within the Ministry of Health restrictions. The organisation was able to do this because it presented impartial general advice rather than promoting products for financial gain. The aim of the service was to educate and influence public attitude and this would be beneficial for the entire trade. However, the press officer, Frank Piggott, stated that the initial aim was to stimulate demand outside the National Health Service.[44] The Council organised a series of trade meetings across the country, was able to be supply information, and organised publicity campaigns and collaborated with British Pathe on the production of several pictorial news films for screening in cinemas. The series of short films produced in the 1950s are particularly interesting as they demonstrate the private frame styles available: the 1952 film Specs for Showgirls shows a spectacle fashion show and promoted flamboyant private designs using a glamorous model; the 1955 film Spectacles  shows the importance of the relationship between optician and patient, where the optical frame fitter is presented as an expert who can ‘help enhance beauty’; and in a 1958 film female students at the Lucie Clayton Mannequin School are given instruction in choosing the right pair of spectacles for an occasion.[45]

The films and articles influenced by the Optical Information Council provide evidence that there was a negative reaction to spectacles that had to be addressed. Whilst these films from the 1950s identify that there is a huge potential market in women’s frames and they make consideration of fashion and attractiveness, they predominantly offered advice on correct fitting of frames from the standpoint of an optician, a skilled frame-fitting technician, and was the only outlet to promote trade in private frames. The NHS constricted the optical practitioners, the optical trade and therefore the market, which consequently had a limiting effect on the trade in private spectacles. The government scheme was seen as the limiting factor on design innovation in private styles; it was blamed for stifling opportunities for creativity and innovation. The government did not have an active agenda for design in the optical industry so it was left to individuals to innovate and do this in the private frame market. One individual who had already been working towards a design that offered variety was Neville Chappell.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170703/006