Eckleburg of the East Side: The History of Moscot Eyewear

Close-up of tortoise shell Moscot Lemtosh glasses
Image is my own / All rights reserved

When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait for the day I got glasses. I so aspired to be bespectacled that I spent much of my time shuffling around the house squinting through the prescription lenses of my late grandfather’s hornrims or sneakily popping on my parents’ 90s-era wireframes for a quick look in the mirror. The origin of this optometric obsession isn’t entirely clear. Like a similar interest in clothing, watches, and jewellery, it feels like it just arrived at a certain point in my young life, curiously unbidden yet fully formed. 

Unfortunately, though, I had to wait until well into my teen years before I got my first set of prescription specs. It was a joyous day when I received the news that I would finally get to wear glasses. But the excitement rapidly faded when I discovered that the rural South African oculists who tested my eyes for that first decade or so didn’t have anywhere near the kind of exotic fare I had spent my childhood fantasising about. I had always imagined wearing something bold and characterful in the manner of Yves Saint Laurent, Iris Apfel, or a young Michael Caine. Instead, year after year, the best these small-town opticians could manage was to outfit me with the kind of emaciated frames a low-rent, aughts-era Bono might wear. It wasn’t what I had in mind.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I had my most recent eye test done. It was an unusual visit in a number of ways. For one thing, it was my first trip to the eye doctor’s since before the pandemic began. For that same reason, it also represented my longest absence since I started wearing glasses. Usually, I was one to darken the optician’s doorstep two years to the day following my previous test, all in the hopes of finally finding a pair of glasses that I truly liked. I would even do a recce ahead of my appointment in the hopes of finding the ideal set of frames, but, alas, I rarely had any luck. This time, however, when asked whether there were any frames I had my eye on, I shook my head not in sadness but with a sense of glee. I simply handed them my old glasses and, for the first time, elected to reuse the frames I’d walked in with. Because, a few years ago, after more than a decade of searching, I finally found my ideal pair of glasses, and with them a most unlikely story in the world of eyewear.

Truman Capote holding Moscot glasses
Truman Capote holding some Moscot specs
Image credit: Moscot / CC BY-SA 4.0

My glasses are made by the beloved New York-based brand, Moscot. I say theirs is an unlikely story because the company is still run out of the same Lower East Side neighbourhood where it was founded back in 1915. What’s more, it continues to be owned and operated by the very family that started it more than a century ago (the fourth and fifth generation of Moscots currently helm the operation). 

In the realm of eye care, this is nothing short of remarkable. If you’re a business nerd, you might know that the Italian conglomerate Luxottica — the owner of such brands as RayBan, Persol, Oakley, Oliver Peoples, and many others — accounts for roughly 25% of the frames you can buy, in addition to nearly half of the lens market thanks to a 2018 merger with French optics giant, Essilor. It is, therefore, a highly monopolised industry. What’s more, on the other side of the spectrum, your independent brands (rare as they may be) are typically upstarts in the mould of Warby Parker, who has been on the scene for a comparatively scant decade or so. 

Moscot, by comparison, still boasts the independence and heritage it can trace back to a wooden pushcart which the brand’s founder, a Belarusian immigrant by the name of Hyman Moschot, originally used to hawk eyeglasses on Orchard Street. When Hyman had first reached American shores, the customs officer at Ellis Island swiftly changed his original surname to Moscot, which meant that when he officially set up shop on Rivington Street, ‘Moscot’s’ was the name printed above the storefront. 

Moscot Rivington St storefront
Hyman Moscot standing by his famous storefront
Image credit: Moscot / CC BY-SA 4.0

Hyman’s wares soon became a local institution, enough so that when F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, Moscot made the cut, or so the legend goes:

‘But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic — their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose.’

A popular theory has it that Fitzgerald had Moscot’s yellow frontage with its faceless eyes in mind when penning this famous passage in his opus. Whether true or not, the story certainly hasn’t hurt business over the years.

Moscot has over time variously survived and thrived despite decades worth of challenges, including everything from the Great Depression to the gentrification of the Lower East Side. They have had to change locations a few times over the years, but have resided somewhere on Orchard Street for the better part of a century and, as of 2021, finally bought the building that houses their current flagship store at number 94.

This hard-nosed approach to the heritage of their business and the neighbourhood where it was born may be the key to Moscot’s success. Despite having opened stores across Europe, Japan, and North America, the brand continues to be celebrated primarily as a New York institution. Moreover, its longtime adherence to classic design principles has meant that even as trends change Moscot remains a constant.

Andy Warhol wearing Moscot Miltzen glasses 1977
Andy Warhole wearing Moscots
Image credit: Moscot / CC BY-SA 4.0

This legacy has won the brand the loyalty of countless fans, many of whom are proud to have had several generations of Moscot customers in their families. There is also, of course, a sizable celebrity cohort, including such erstwhile luminaries as Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, John Lenon, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Garcia. Contemporary customers, meanwhile, have included the likes of Johnny Depp, Woody Allen, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Scorsese, Justin Theroux, Black Thought, and many more.

The label offers a range of unfailingly stylish options, from classics such as the Lemtosh and Miltzen through to…well, really you should just peruse their lovely offerings for yourself since there are too many good models to mention. Or, better yet, if you’re ever in the neighbourhood, visit one of their dedicated stores. In my case, as I mentioned at the start, I’m set for now, but the second anything should happen to my current pair of much-loved Moscots, I already know exactly where I’ll go looking for my next pair.