My husband, Paul, and I have been cleaning out his parents’ house since my mother-in-law died last December.

The house is in Massachusetts, which is one reason it’s taking so long. The other is that Rita was a secret hoarder. Her neat-as-a-pin home was really a set of Chinese nesting boxes. Every cupboard, closet and drawer contained more storage units, which, in turn, held more envelopes, pouches and sacks, which, in turn, contained an amazing amount of ephemera, doodads and whatchamacallits.

The process of sifting through this stuff has been both emotional and exhausting. Then, a roll of silver quarters will fall out of a cupboard and hit me on the head, and I’ll be spurred on to find more treasures.

One of my favorites was found by Paul. He was going through a box of his elementary school papers when he said, “Look at these old-fashioned glasses.”

I snatched them from him and squealed, “Retro!” The bronze-colored frames were thick, possibly made of Bakelite. They had a slight cats-eye shape. The lenses were green.

I put them on and took pictures of myself with my phone. Then I carefully put them aside and got back to work.

Later, after we had finished for the day, I took out the glasses to admire them again. I love vintage. This time I noticed there was an engraving on the earpiece. Written in scroll was the word “Calobar.”

Hmm. What was a Calobar? Did it have anything to do with the Malabar region of India? Mallomar cookies? Feeling like a historian on the PBS show “History Detectives,” I whipped out my phone and Googled.

Within a few minutes, I had my answer.

The Calobar was a type of sunglasses made by the American Optical Co. in the 1950s.

Just as if I was on the show, I turned to Paul and said, “You’re not going to believe this.”

The American Optical Co. was once one of the largest manufacturers of eyewear, lenses and other visual devices in the world. Its headquarters were located in Paul’s hometown of Southbridge, Mass., giving the community the nickname “the Eye of the Commonwealth.”

Paul’s father, Leonide, had worked in the mill, as well as his grandfather, William. Paul had spent a couple of college summers there. He often had told me the best part of working in the packing room was when a shipment of artificial eyes had to be sent out.

Good times!

Surely, upon finding a pair of unusual sunglasses, we might have made the connection with the looming presence of “the AO,” just a mile away.

Heck, there’s even a sculpture of a giant pair of glasses on the town common.

But we didn’t, because the glory days of the company are long gone. The sprawling red brick mill complex, covering some 17 acres, now houses a conference center and some small businesses. Though I had heard about the AO ever since I first visited Southbridge with Paul, it was just a legend to me.

I was used to old mills. When I was growing up in a suburb of Fall River, Mass., in the 1960s, the cotton factories had been idle for years. My grandparents had been weavers and spinners, but by the time my mother went to work, the textile barons had fled south.

Mom worked, for as long as she could stand it, in what she called a sweatshop (sewing garment bags) in one of the idle mills. She developed her chops as “The World’s Best Shopper” (as I fondly called her) dragging my sister and me through the discount department stores that had sprung up in other vacant plants: Arlen’s, the Kerr Mill and the Globe.

I always admired the architecture of these Victorian structures. I was just glad I never had to work in one.

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about them in a different way. Old mills scream at me now; they are stark reminders that we don’t make much in this country anymore. That depresses me. It also scares me. Is it wise to be so dependent on other countries?

Here I was, not even imagining that my snazzy old-school sunglasses could have been made right here in New England.

They might even have been assembled by my late father-in-law.

My Calobars are cool, but they are, more importantly, an artifact of the 20th century — a bittersweet reminder of the way things used to be.

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: