Our Story


While today’s Wellsworth Hotel offers a contemporary guest experience, traditional New England character and historical touches reflect the building’s heritage as the home of eyeglass manufacturer American Optical Company for 160 years.

In 1826, William Beecher opened a jewelry store in Southbridge and set up a spectacle shop on the second floor. He started to craft coin silver spectacles in 1833 and, in 1839, was credited with making the first thin steel spectacle frames in America. As Beecher expanded, and competitors set up eyeglass shops nearby, Southbridge became known as the “Eye of the Commonwealth.”

Robert Cole, who was apprenticing for Beecher at the times, and his own later apprentice, George Washington Wells, eventually merged in 1869 to create the American Optical Company, which became the largest optical company in the world. Wells went on to buy a former textile mill on the Quinebaug River, the site of today’s Wellsworth Hotel.

Over the years, American Optical became known for its eye-examination instruments, camera lenses, astronomical instruments, satellites and military optical instruments, microscopes, medical devices and more. Edgar “Doc” Tillyer, an employee and top optic scientist, was awarded more than 150 patents for improving and protecting vision, lending to the continued success of the American Optical Company. From the AO Original Pilot Sunglasses worn by NASA Commander Neil Armstrong, to the frames John F. Kennedy Jr. often wore, American Optical became a trusted name in eyewear.

Today’s Wellsworth Hotel showcases some of the glamourous frames that were chosen by celebrities and captains of industry over the years and has taken great care to preserve American Optical’s historic clock tower, façade, elegant foyer and marble staircase. Guests are welcomed into a chapter of Southbridge history, while being treated to all the creature comforts of today.

 

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