Oddball Optics

by Jonathan Wright

It began by accident. “I was just doing a favor for my brother,” explains Terry Jermac of Peoria. “He found an eyewash cup in the cupboard at my grandmother’s house… and told me he had started collecting these things. I said, ‘What the hell is an eyewash cup?’

“I was always going to flea markets and garage sales, and once I found out what they looked like, I started noticing them… So I’d buy a few here and there, and before I knew it, I had 30 or 40. It turned out he had everything [I had], so I was stuck with them. Then I started taking an interest in it.”

For several hundred years—until modern eye drops were developed—eyewash cups, or eyebaths, were the most common way to relieve the eye of irritants. People would fill them with water, hold them to the eye, throw their heads back, and blink to flush away unwanted elements. Developed in England in the 16th century, they are rarely used today, though there remains a steady mass of collectors.

Vintage eyewash cups come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, and are made from materials ranging from tin, wood and plastic to porcelain, glass and rubber—even silver and gold. Some were mounted on pedestals; others, called “squats,” came attached to bottles of solution. They can be smooth and rounded, or have panels on the sides, shaped like tulips or patterned like barrels. They are most often clear, blue or green, while ambers are prized for their relative scarcity. Some were even hand-blown—these are typically the most expensive.

The center of the collecting world remains London, where they were first invented. In the ‘90s, Jermac and his brother went overseas three times in search of missing items for their collections. “We went to London, Scotland and Wales, then over to Ireland,” he says. “In London, there are a lot of antique shops and dealers, and my brother was able to make contact with some collectors. That was the hotspot if you wanted anything out of the ordinary. We went to the museum in London, saw some great collections, and took pictures and videos of ones that were just out of this world.”

The Internet, of course, has changed everything. “Before, you sent pictures, wrote letters and talked on the phone [to other collectors],” says Jermac. “Now, they just put them on eBay. So it kind of took away the secrecy of it, but it also took away the hunt.” A quick eBay search reveals a variety of eyewash cups, most in the $15-20 range. The most expensive? A vintage, rubber eyewash cup from the late 19th-century, priced at $160.

Today, Jermac has about 350 of them, though he’s no longer a very active collector. Among his favorites are the porcelain cups and the hand-blown ones—“because there’s an art involved. It wasn’t mass-produced.” a&s

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Comments

I wrote a story for POP magazine about 1992 or '93.  Terry is one eclectic chap & a fine drummer, too.

 

Eyecups were first made in China in 1700's but many do come from England most of your porcelin ones  come from Asia. If you go to Craigslist in Knoxville TN You will see a pop-up display of 12 eyecups for sale by me.  Look under collectables also antique for sale by owner I have never seen one of these before. My wife has been collecting for 30 yrs.  If you are interested in that display e-mail me  Thank You

I began collecting in my early twenties. I moved to North Georgia in 1992. I corresponded with a man named Ken Jermac, whose name I'd found in an antique seller's paper.
He ended up sending me two boxes filled with numbered eye cups, of which I bought as many as I could. I was always broken hearted to send the others back, but this remains one of my greatest memory treasures of a time, gone....and it sparked my hunt for eye cups all the more. I hope Mr. Jermac, both of them, are well. Terry HAS to be his brother, given the story....and I send Ken my thanks and the warmest regards for being kind, trusting and widening my world. Many thanks. I hope this is seen by one of them.

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