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Set of fifty artificial eyes, Liverpool, England, 1900-1940

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Have you read Roald Dahl’s The Twits? If so, you’ll know Mrs Twit, a very memorable glass eye wearer. Except she was not always wearing it – like the time she put it in Mr Twit’s beer glass to frighten him. But what was it really like to choose and wear an artificial eye? In the early 1900s your eye surgeon would send you to an optician, or an ocularist – someone who specialized in making and fitting prosthetic eyes. You’d have to pay for the eye, so what would be the most important factor in your choice? You’d probably go for a combination of comfort, natural appearance, and match to your skin tone and other eye. Why were they laid out in a box like this? Ocularists had to compete for customers, and wanted to impress both the buyer and the surgeons who sent them there. Demonstrating their wide range of stock – or craftsmanship for custom-made eyes – was essential for making a sale. Ocularists also made home visits so that you could try them on in private. Artificial eyes are now free on the UK’s National Health Service. The shops and mail order services have closed. Today technicians and eye fitters work together to produce a perfectly matched prosthetic eye made from a special hardwearing plastic. The boxes of glass eyes are now museum objects, but imagine the fun Mrs Twit could have had with them.

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    Glossary: ophthalmology

    The branch of medicine dealing with the diseases and surgery of the visual pathways (usually the eyes or the brain).

    Glossary: artificial eye

    A curved disk of opaque glass or plastic, containing an imitation iris and pupil in the centre, inserted beneath the eyelids and supported by the orbital contents after evisceration or enucleation; it may be ready-made (stock) or custom-made