Some have a knack for finding forgotten treasures buried in boxes marked “miscellaneous” at yard sales or thrift stores.
I’m not one of them, although my grandparents do have ‘the eye.’ Their treasures mounted to the point where they opened a now-closed shop, ‘Finders to Keepers,’ to sell their discoveries.
I wasn’t much help in stocking the shelves, but a blind pig can snort up a truffle, eventually.
In the second week of businesses reopening in phase 3, my partner and I visited the White Rock Salvation Army Thrift Store.
We felt like two Indiana Jones-esque characters braving the hazards to search for a sacred, golden idol. More accurately, we looked like a pair of masked sloths hesitantly leaving their branch for the first time, double-checking every step of the way.
Almost immediately, we found an old leather case containing binoculars. The leather on the case was stripped of its colour and looked frail. The binoculars were heavy, in fantastic shape, but they looked, felt and even smelled old.
We bought them. What we didn’t realize was the history behind this pair of J.H. Steward Optician “The Tourist” binoculars, but we were curious.
Thanks to the internet, we learned J.H. Steward was established in London in 1856. Steward was a well-respected optician to the British government, as well as the National Rifle and National Artillery Associations. We found an advertisement for the same binoculars in a book titled London in 1880. Our research indicated that the binoculars could be 140 to 160 years old.
A fascinating find, but there’s more. Engraved with a skilled hand, hidden underneath the lens hood, was another mystery. The marking read “U.S. NAVY ®29287.”
We spent days trying to figure out how exactly U.S. navy markings got on a 1880 pair of English binoculars. With the help of strangers online, we found the answer.
During the First World War, America was in a spyglass-, binocular- and telescope-shortage emergency.
In response, then-secretary of the navy Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the “Eyes for the Navy” program. The program asked Americans to sell their binoculars and telescopes to the navy for $1. In his appeal, Roosevelt said more “eyes” were needed onboard ships to look out for German U-boats, according to the Boston Athenæum.
The program promised to return the binoculars after the war, if possible. The navy recorded the name and address of the donor and engraved a serial number on each object. Americans reportedly donated more than 51,000 pieces of equipment to the program.
After the war, our guess – judging by the impressive condition – is that this pair of binoculars sat in somebody’s attic for 100 years before finding a spot on the shelf of White Rock’s Sally Ann for $50.
The true value is hard to determine and would require an expert opinion. However, a similar pair is currently for sale on eBay for $500, but that’s without the unique U.S. navy connection and original case.
According to an old advertisement, “The Tourist” binoculars were sold for £6 in 1880. Converted to Canadian with inflation, that puts them at about $1,000.
Unfortunately for collectors, we’re not selling. After all, finders keepers.
Aaron Hinks is a reporter for the Peace Arch News