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Microscopic Stanhopes Offer a Victorian Look at the World through a Pinhole

by Maureen Stanton (10/08/12).

A Stanhope featuring Queen Victoria for her Golden Jubilee, 50 years on the throne, dated 1887. “Stanhope pictures of royalty, especially if they are dated, are worth about three times the price of items in the fairly common locations category,” says Jean Scott, author of “Stanhopes: A Closer View.” (Photo: Ken Scott, The Scott Collection, www.stanhopes.org)

We have always been fascinated by the objects that are not normal size—the gigantic and the miniature. There is something captivating and slightly disconcerting about this distortion of reality.

While babysitting my two nephews recently, I re-watched the now vintage 1989 movie, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” and realized that the miniature, while enchanting, can be also horrifying— the children in the film were outsized by an ant. In the classic 1966 film I recall from my childhood, “Fantastic Voyage,” a crew of four men and one woman (Rachel Welch) are miniaturized and injected into a human body to remove a clot from the patient’s brain.

Nowadays, the future is all about the ever-diminishing size of the microchip and nanotechnology, but a century and a half ago, Stanhopes represented the nanotechnology of the Victorian era.

Stanhopes, or “peeps,” were invented by Frenchman René Dagron, owner of a photography studio in the mid-19th century, who married two earlier inventions: the magnifying lens and the microphotograph. Lord Charles Stanhope, an eighteenth-century scientist, invented a hand magnifying lens, like a loupe, and in 1839 John Benjamin Dancer found a way to mount microphotographs onto slides to view with a microscope (Dancer’s microphotographs were so minuscule that 10,000 portraits could fit into a square inch).

Dagron brilliantly combined these technologies: he glued a microphotograph on a glass plate with a clear-drying Canada balsam adhesive, affixed a second plate and positioned the image opposite a tiny magnifying lens. He then tucked these “Stanho-scopes” into ordinary objects. For example, your great-great-grandfather’s watch fob might have contain a tiny, freckle-sized lens, through which you could spy the image of Lady Godiva or Queen Victoria, or perhaps a more risqué figure, a “French actress”—euphemism for nude model. These microphotographs were about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

The Grotto at Lourdes, an image inside a religious medal made in France and sold to people who made the pilgrimage to see St. Bernadette’s cave. (Photo: Ken Scott, The Scott Collection, www.stanhopes.org)

Dagron patented his invention, the “cylindre photomicroscopique,” in 1859 (the first-ever patent for microfilm), and then set the Stanhopes into all manner of trinkets made of bone, ivory, nut or fancier materials. Pocket knives, charms, thimbles, needle cases, watch fobs, watch keys (for winding), whistles, bookmarks, rings, brooches, rosaries, letter openers, cigarette holders, perfume bottles, lorgnettes, hat pins, toothpicks, nail cleaners, ear-spoons, walking sticks, buttons, domino tiles, letter seals, beer steins, vesta cases (match safes) and dolls—all were transformed into secret galleries into which you could “peep.”

Dagron sold these inexpensive souvenirs in his Paris shop to the throngs of train-riding tourists from Great Britain and Europe, some 60 million passengers a year by the 1840s. Stanhope souvenirs were so popular that within a year of his patent, Dagron employed 150 workers—mostly women, whose smaller hands were thought more dexterous—who produced a reported 12,000 Stanhopes per day. Demand was so high that Dagron had to import cow leg bones from Chicago’s stockyards and Argentina’s cattle ranches for the raw material for his little devices. Dagron also produced custom work, but mostly offered stock images: angels, saints, royalty, tourist sites, monuments and architectural wonders. Erotica was popular in men’s watch keys, tie pins and smoking paraphernalia.

Stanhopes were sold as souvenirs at various tourist resorts around the world. Here, we have six views of Niagara Falls embedded in a circa-1890 thimble holder made of satin spar, a semi-transparent opalescent mineral from the region, said to have a “satin-like” surface. (Photo: Ken Scott, The Scott Collection, www.stanhopes.org)

I first encountered a Stanhope while researching my book, “Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: An Insider’s Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques, and Collecting,” at the Brimfield Antique Show with Curt Avery, the dealer I intermittently shadowed for seven years. Curt and I had just finished setting up the booth and a handful people were shopping under a darkening charcoal sky. A clap of thunder, the clouds tore open, and it poured for a solid hour. For the people trapped in Curt’s booth, the foul weather was an opportunity for impromptu “object” lessons. A woman picked up a baggie stuffed with antique ivory sewing notions, pulled out a needle case and held it to her eye—a Stanhope! Unfortunately, the image had been lost, but I became fascinated with these tiny collectibles.

It’s easy to see why Rene Dagron’s Stanhopes delighted people. The world—or at least a diminutive version of it—could be captured and held in the palm of your hand. Or the image of your beloved—a saint, a queen, even a family member—could be carried with you all day in your pocket or worn on your finger. Dagron earned Honorable Mentions for his invention at the 1862 London World’s Fair and the 1867 Paris World’s Fair, and he won a silver medal at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair. Stanhopes were sold in volume into the first part of the 20th century, with one French manufacturer selling them until 1972. More recently, cheap plastic “peep views” with nude photos or Harry Potter characters were exported from Hong Kong and China.

Even though Stanhopes were produced by the millions, they aren’t easy to find because so many were lost. Those found are often missing the photographs or lenses or other tiny parts. And there are fakers who “drill and fill” antique objects with new “old” images. Stanhopes with Civil War photos have been so widely faked that Mark Chervenka, in “Antique Trader Guide to Fakes & Reproductions,” cautions that any Stanhope with a portrait of a general or historic Civil War figure “should be considered suspect until the seller can prove otherwise.”

Look for small objects made of ivory and bone, common material for Stanhopes, and check for the tell-tale freckle-sized peep hole. The earliest Stanhopes were placed into jewelry, so examine late 19th century antique baubles. Pictured above are: needle cases, a tape measure, crucifixes, a buttonhook, ring, bookmark, mechanical pencil, miniature binoculars, and whistle. Circa 1880-1920. (Photo: Ken Scott, The Scott Collection, www.stanhopes.org)

Today, Stanhope Microworks in Mechanicsburg, Pa., produces Stanhopes with your family photo or corporate logo, using modern film instead of microphotographs. They also sell antique Stanhopes, like a 19th-century pot-metal pig charm—the size of a lima bean—with a Stanhope “conveniently housed in the pig’s ass,” the no-nonsense ad copy reads. Microworks Stanhopes’ pig charm sold for $250, so the price tag can outsize this smallest of antiques. A mother-of-pearl pocket knife with a microphotograph of Adolphus Busch, circa 1890-1900, offered by Stanhope Microworks is priced at nearly $1,000—perhaps the perfect stocking stuffer for a breweriana collector, or just an avid Budweiser fan.

Dagron’s ingenuity with microphotography transcended trifle-making. During the siege of Paris in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, the city was surrounded by the Prussian army, cutting off communication from the outside word for four months and 10 days. Eighty-five valiant mail carriers attempted to slip through the enemy line with messages concealed in hollowed coins, artificial teeth and even incisions cut into their skin. Only eight escaped capture or death to deliver the mail. One successful strategy of getting word out of the city was via hot air balloons, which lofted over the military barrier with mail and some odd “passengers”—pigeons! The pigeons were then released back into Paris with communiqués. (It was difficult for balloons to land back into Paris, hence the pigeons.)

A postcard of the Monument to the Aeronauts and Pigeons of the Siege of Paris. This statue in Paris was erected to honor the balloons and birds that carried the messages out of besieged Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, but did not mention Dagron. The monument no longer exists, as it was melted during the Second World War by the Germans. (Photo: Courtesy of Ashley Lawrence)

Dagron micro-photographed military dispatches, letters and newspapers onto a tiny film scrolls that weighed less than one gram—roughly the weight of a paper clip or a dollar bill. These scrolls were tucked into a goose quill, and 20 of these “pellicules” containing some 80,000 messages, tied with silk string to the tail feathers of a single pigeon, who soared over the German line, bringing news to isolated Parisians. In 1871, Dagron was able to reproduce 130,400 letters on 0.5 millimeter square frame. For scale, a pinhead is one millimeter in diameter, a flea is about 1.5 millimeters across and an ant is gigantic by comparison at 5 millimeters. Dagron estimated that some two and a half million messages were sent during just the last two months of the siege of Paris.

Allegedly, Dagron died a poor man (his sons received government grants to attend school) and was never properly recognized for his war-time contributions on a monument commemorating the Pigeon Post. There was a statue in Paris honoring the balloons and birds that carried the messages, but did not mention Dagron. (The monument no longer exists, as it was melted during the Second World War by the Germans.)

But Dagron did make a permanent mark in history. To prevent laundry and equipment from being stolen, the French military marked the objects with one of Dagron’s other inventions: an indelible ink.

So when you are out and about, looking at little pieces of Victorian tchotchkes, give them an extra look to tell if there is a little viewer and take a peek. You never know what you might see.

To views a collection of Stanhopes and see what they have sold for, check out our Worthopedia.

Sources:

• Chervenka, Mark. “Antique Trader Guide to Fakes & Reproductions,” Krause Publications: NY. 2007 p. 69-70.
• David, Joel. Curator. “The History of Microfilm: 1839 – the Present”;
• Kass, Philip J. “Life through a Lens,” The Strad. October. 2005. Pp. 50 – 55;
• Lawrence, Ashley. “A Message Brought to Paris by Pigeon Post in 1870-1,” Micscape Magazine. Sept. 14, 2012;
• Luther, Frederic. “Rene Dagron and the Siege of Paris,” American Documentation (pre-1986). Octobber 1950. Vol. 1, No. 4 p. 196;
• Scott, Jean. “Stanhopes: A Closer View,” Greenlight Publishing. Essex: UK. 2002;
• Scott, Jean. “Stanhopes Magazine,” April 2012, No. 12;
• E-mail with Jean Scott.

Maureen Stanton is the author of “Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: An Insider’s Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques, and Collecting” (The Penguin Press), a 2012 Massachusetts Book Award winner in nonfiction and a “Favorite Books of 2011” selection by the Kansas City Star, San Jose Mercury News, St. Louis Post Dispatch and Chicago Sun-Tribune.

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