Excerpt from The Comet Rag: Halley’s comet, 1910

Copywright 1984 by Jerred Metz


          Halley’s comet had the whole telescope, spyglass, marine and field glass business booming at a rate the trade had not known since the Civil War.  Business of the week before May 18 was the best in years, and the next week was expected to be even better.


          People of all classes became astronomers.  They were buying first class telescopes that sold from $50 to $250.  The most popular telescopes were the French and the English makes.  Both were mounted on tripods and fitted with precision lenses.  The barrel of the English instrument was of polished brass, the French telescope being covered with white leather.  Through them Halley’s comet was a sight of immense beauty.


          People who could not afford a telescope bought smaller instruments.  Marine, field, night and opera glasses sold from a few dollars up.  The cheaper glasses were selling in great quantities in pawnshops.  One day a shop on Third Avenue in New York City filled a window with glasses selling for one dollar up to ten dollars and the next day all were sold.  A Broadway dealer said, “We sold more in the past three months than we sold between the end of the Civil War and the start of 1910.  That’s forty-five years worth of business in three months!”


          The wholesale dealers of the Maiden Lane district exhausted their supplies.  The story was the same all over the country, all over the world.  Every telescope and every set of binoculars, spyglass, surveyor’s and opera glass hidden away in trunks and drawers must have been dusted off for use and pointed to the sky to salute the celestial marauder who came, it seemed to many, with motive.  Some saw him as a pirate – especially the spyglass types – others, as the wrath of God come to smite us with death and destruction.


          Retailers put up prices 20 per cent and people paid, gladly paid.  Everyone – and everyone everywhere on earth – wanted to see Halley’s comet.  Importers tried to buy back instruments from local retail stores and from other parts of the country, but nobody had any left.


          Downtown the hardware stores were selling telescopes manufactured expressly for the comet trade for a dollar.  The barrel was made of pasteboard in sections and according the label on the side:


Will Present a Beautiful

Picture of the COMET


          Peddlers, who sold whatever happened to be the fad, said the last week before the comet comes closest to the earth would see many Halley’s comet novelties on the market.  They hawked kerchiefs and shawls with the image of the comet painted on, costume brooches and hat pins in the comet’s shape, postcards depicting destruction of the world, pamphlets on the comet’s history, charts showing the exact location in the sky each night.


          Then it all stopped.  Nobody bought telescopes anymore.  The novelties along with the pasteboard telescopes found their way to the trash and everything worth keeping was stored away --until 1914, when the trade was called upon to manufacture field glasses for the armies and navies of the world.  From 1914 to 1917, the years of World War I, the optics trade once again profited, this time from the folly of mankind, while the last time, 1910, it had profited from mankind’s interest.


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