The HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” had a very successful run last fall and will be back for a second season later this year. It paints a vivid – and often violent – picture of Atlantic City, New Jersey during Prohibition, which lasted from 1919 to 1933.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the series is the insight it provides into everyday life on the bustling Atlantic City boardwalk, which it portrays as teeming with all manner of commerce, from fortune-tellers to elegant dress shops.
But the characters are what make the series and the boardwalk pop – especially the real-life figures whose names we recognize but rarely see portrayed; people like the gangster “Lucky” Luciano, the magician Hardeen (Harry Houdini’s brother) and the entertainer Eddie Cantor.
But one real-life character I didn’t see in the first season was Sam Foster.
Well, Sam Foster may the reason that you and I wear sunglasses. In 1919, he co-founded the Foster Grant Company and ten years later he sold the first pair of Foster Grant sunglasses at a Woolworth’s store located in, you guessed it, Atlantic City; right on the boardwalk, in fact.
His were the first sunglasses to be sold over the counter rather than be made to order by an optician. And did they ever catch on. Within a year, Foster Grants were all the rage—with their popularity stretching from coast to coast.
Sunglasses had been around for a quite a while before Sam Foster helped popularize them. In the mid-1700s a London inventor named James Ayscough developed lenses tinted green or blue, which were used by people with “weak or delicate” eyes to reduce glare. But, far from being a glamorous accessory, these early sunglasses became associated with infirmity and were sold alongside other medical aids.
But Sam Foster and the brilliant marketers that followed him at Foster Grant helped change all that. Atlantic City was just the beginning. Elvis Presley wore them, which didn’t hurt their popularity. And those of us of a certain age may remember the groundbreaking 1960s’ “Who’s behind those Foster Grants?” campaign that featured stars like Woody Allen and Raquel Welch and helped further associate sunglasses with success and glamour.
Today, more than 80 years after Sam Foster first set up shop on the boardwalk, the company that bears his and his partner’s names is still a major player in the industry, and claims to sell more sunglasses than any other company in the world.
Which is why I think he deserves at least a cameo on “Boardwalk Empire!”