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History Lesson: Stanhope Viewers

Nov 8, 2012

by Jeni Sandberg handmade and vintage goods

Jeni Sandberg is a dealer, appraiser and consultant in 20th century design. She has worked in museums, was a Senior Specialist at Christie’s, and also appears on WGBH’s Antiques Roadshow. She writes about fun objects on her blog. In this series, she will explore the history of decorative objects. Today’s subject: antique novelty viewers that allowed revelers to view magnificent scenes — at a microscopic scale.

Before cameras became the ubiquitous items they are today, tourists relied upon souvenirs to bring home images of the places they visited. In the 19th century, popular locations such as Niagara Falls  were captured on countless trinkets, postcards and other mementos. Among them was this small charm in the form of binoculars. Though it measures less than an inch long, when you look through the viewer you can amazingly see ten small photographs of Niagara Falls and other attractions in the area.

Ken Scott

An example of Niagara Falls photos one might see inside a Stanhope.

This type of photo viewer, called a Stanhope, was a popular novelty during the second half of the 19th century. A Stanhope is a small glass lens through which a photograph can be viewed, usually housed in a piece of jewelry, writing implement, sewing accessory or other object. The photograph itself is tiny and could literally fit on the head of a pin. The lens allows the microscopic image to be seen when held to the light; this microphotograph of the Philadelphia Mental Hospital circa 1865, though not technically a Stanhope, shows the incredible scale of the photographs.

Photo courtesy of Guersey’s

A wide variety of Stanhopes.

Several men contributed to the development of the Stanhope: Charles, the third earl of Stanhope and noted 18th-century scientist, came up with the lens; the rod of glass is convex on one side and flat on the other, which magnifies the object beneath it. The Earl gave his name to the device, though he was not alive to see it used widely.

The image in a Stanhope was dependent upon advances in photography in the 19th century.  Microphotography — reducing the printed image to a very small size — was pioneered by Englishman John Benjamin Dancer. He could make a tiny photo, but he mounted it in a glass slide that required a microscope for viewing, which limited its widespread use.

It was Frenchman René Dagron who saw the commercial possibilities of combining the Stanhope lens with microphotography. He developed the device that allowed for the easy viewing of the tiny photos. Dagron aggressively marketed Stanhopes to a 19th-century public that delighted in visual tricks and the surprises of new technologies; he displayed his Bijoux photographiques microscopiques at London’s 1862 International Exposition, where he won an honorable mention and began selling his novelty viewers via mail order to buyers around the world.

Amusing and relatively affordable, Stanhopes gained great popularity. Dagron put these small photo viewers in to all manner of objects and used photos of royalty, politicians, tourist sites and religious scenes (they were also a discrete way to hide more risqué subjects). The cases could be in the form of churches, thimbles, crosses, animals and the viewer could also hidden within larger objects like walking sticks. For example, check out this late 19th century ivory needle case with images of Maine, or this microphotograph of the Philadelphia Mental Hospital in 1965. (This is not technically a Stanhope, but it shows the scale of the photos.)

Niagara Falls was an especially popular subject for these souvenirs. The Falls viewed through a Stanhope was a remarkable juxtaposition: the natural wonder, celebrated for its jaw-dropping enormity, was reduced to microscopic scale. The case was sometimes in the shape of a barrel, recalling the sometimes ill-fated journeys of daredevils who went over the Falls inside one. For more information, check out Etsy seller Wicked Darling’s excellent blog post on Stanhopes and Niagara Falls.

Have you ever looked inside a Stanhope?

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  • funktionslust

    Mara from FunktionLust said 8 years ago

    It's really amazing how far we have come in terms of what entertains with our super retina displays and ipads and such. Very entertaining and informative article, thank you!

  • WinchesterLambourne

    WinchesterLambourne from WinchesterLambourne said 8 years ago

    Those are amazing, I used to have one (still do, it's just back in another country). They're amazing souvenirs and really speak to the senses (which is more than I can say about the mass-produced low quality trinkets you find nowadays in touristic locations). :(

  • maggiesraggedyinn

    Mary Robertson from MaggiesInn said 8 years ago

    What an interesting article. I will have to look for more information on these items. What treasures they are... little pieces of a forgotten memories.

  • heatherfuture

    Heather from heatherfuture said 8 years ago

    Holy smokes! These are incredible little nostalgia-drenched delights. It's amazing how fast I can go from not knowing something exits to wanting an extensive collection of them.

  • silverlily786

    Fatema from SilverLilyJewelry said 8 years ago

    Wow these are so adorable! and to think of what they double as microscopic photo lenses sweet:-)

  • SuzisPillowStudio

    Suzi from ThePillowStudioShop said 8 years ago

    I never knew! Thanks for sharing.

  • DressyDollsCompany

    Leila from DressyDollsCompany said 8 years ago

    So fun! I love little things :)

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 8 years ago

    How cute!

  • RivalryTime

    Phil Jackson from NuptialNotion said 8 years ago

    Great lesson and great items.

  • ikabags

    IKA PARIS from ikabags said 8 years ago

    What an interesting article ! Thanks for sharing !

  • Nikifashion

    Natalia from Nikifashion said 8 years ago

    great article!

  • kzannoart

    Kristine Zanno from kzannoart said 8 years ago

    Wicked cool, thanks for schoolin' us!

  • EllyMaggy

    Elly Maggy from EllyMaggyVintage said 8 years ago

    Thanks for such an interesting article. I find the early history of photography so fascinating (particularly the use and popularity of magic lanterns) but I had never heard of Stanhopes before. I will enjoy searching for more information now. The microphotograph of the Philadelphia mental hospital is incredible.

  • StudioDR

    Ducky Rubin from StudioDjewelry said 8 years ago

    What an amazing review! I'll forward it to my husband. He will like it, too.

  • LoveFatimaJewels

    Jeniffer Inocente from LoveFatimaJewels said 8 years ago

    very cute ; )

  • LineaLina

    Susanne Major from LineaLina said 8 years ago

    I looked through one of these as a child and I was absolutely fascinated! Thanks for reminding me!

  • BambuEarth

    Amber from BambuEarth said 8 years ago


  • WholeheartedVintage

    Vanessa from WholeheartedVintage said 8 years ago

    Love this post. I'm a huge stanhope lover. I pin the most unique ones I see to my Stanhope Pinterest board as reference so if I spot one in a store I don't miss the chance to own another.

  • paramountvintage

    kristin from blackmoonsky said 8 years ago

    Great article!

  • MelroseAntiques

    MelroseAntiques from MelroseAntiques said 8 years ago

    This was really interesting and informative!

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 8 years ago

    I love Stanhopes, they're delightful little miniatures with a hidden secret!

  • marvelousa

    Adriane Skinner from marvelousa said 8 years ago

    Goodness, I have two of these and never realized they were a thing. One is a tiny pair of binoculars just like in the photo, and the other is a silver cross with the Lord's Prayer inside; I found them in my grandmother's jewelry box years ago. Thanks for this!

  • messinabella

    messinabella from BandBEstate said 8 years ago

    love these!

  • gabbygailsgoodies

    Gail from GabbyGailsGoodies said 8 years ago

    Talk about great timing! I found a Stanhope binoculars ~ exactly like the one in your photo ~ a few days ago among some misc. vintage jewelry. It has writing on it that I believe is a place in France. I put it in my miniature shelf just thinking it was a unique vintage trinket, as I had not heard of stanhopes. As soon as I read your article, I looked through the binoculars, and i could see what looked like some gorgeous old mansions. That was so exciting--now I must further research this little treasure! Thanks so much for making my day! :-)

  • lauriloli

    Laurie from MagicalBlooms said 8 years ago

    Thanks for the background , interesting

  • LittleWrenPottery

    Victoria Baker from LittleWrenPottery said 8 years ago

    I love the idea of shrinking huge monuments into something tiny, I remember as a kid having something similar squinting at a photo enlarged through a tiny plastic lens!

  • BrendaNate

    Brenda Nate from Snookumfarms said 8 years ago

    It is mind blasting and flabbergast also. crazy horse shirt

  • osnatavni

    Osnat Avni from Avnis said 8 years ago

    :) great post

  • HandmadeIsAllAround

    HandmadeIsAllAround from iammieOWLshop said 8 years ago

    So cute!

  • pinguim

    Hazel Deeps from pinguim said 8 years ago

    I've been collecting stanhopes for a few years now, and this article really opened a new depth of interest. I saw a dozen pieces here that I must find! Thank you for including my little binoculars. WickedDarling is an amazing resource for fascinating Victorian pieces!

  • Laboiteabijoux

    Sandrine Devost from BijouxSandrineDevost said 8 years ago

    Thank you for your article! I found it much interesting!!!

  • cottonbirddesigns

    Angela Cotton from CottonBirdDesigns said 8 years ago

    Great article!

  • vintagetogoetsy

    Kennedy Miranda from vintagetogoetsy said 8 years ago

    Interesting article and thank you! I have a couple of Bibles and when you look inside you can read something Biblical. I didn't know they were called Stanhopes and I thought they were from bubblegum machines! Thanks again for the fascinating information!

  • vevela2012

    emma zhang from vevela2012 said 8 years ago

    wonderful ,I love it . There are a lot of beautiful bracelet,welcome to choose and buy :

  • leeannasjewerybox

    Leeanna from LeeannasJewelryBox said 8 years ago

    That was a fun article. Now I will be keeping my eye out for these little treasures.

  • vinagy

    Valerie Nagy from Fabstract said 8 years ago

    So cool. I have one I found when I was a kid, always thought it was neat but didn't know it was a trend. Mine is not so old, probably 40's-60's I would say. Took me a long time to figure out what exactly what was going on in the image inside, eventually figured it out: A topless woman putting one of her breasts through a clothes wringer.. complete with the end-product pancake boob. Definitely a curiosity.

  • CarpoolDiemCrafts

    Michele Weber from MichelejustoneL said 8 years ago

    A very interesting article and a great history lesson. I had no idea! Thanks!

  • xutian1

    ya mo from 2013color said 8 years ago

    cool i love

  • SewWille

    SewWille from SewWille said 6 years ago

    I think I have one of these! Never knew what it was. Can't wait to find it again and enjoy the view! Thanks for this history.

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