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Technology & History


A “Stanhope,” also sometimes referred to as a “peep” or “peeper,” is a tiny rod-shaped lens, generally with one convex end and one flat end, and with a microphotograph attached to the flat end.  (Originally, the term “Stanhope” only referred to the lens but today it is generally used to refer to the entire contraption.)  More specifically, the microphotograph resides on a tiny glass plate adhered to the flat end of the rod-shaped lens with a clear adhesive called Canada balsam.  The side of the glass plate that hosts the photo is the side that is glued to the lens.  Therefore, the image is well protected since it is essentially encased in glass.  Together, the glass lens with the attached glass plate form a cylinder that is about a quarter inch in length and an eighth of an inch in diameter.


Once assembled, the cylinder is inserted into another item frequently referred to, not very creatively, as the “holder.”  Commonly found holders include pens, pencils, letter openers, tape measures, jewelry, charms, thimbles, miniature binoculars or monoculars (a.k.a. “telescopes”) which look like they belong in a doll house, and other trinkets such as the lead pigs widely known to political collectors. 


To see the image, the holder must allow light to pass through the cylinder.   When held up to the light -- natural daylight is best -- one can look through the convex end of the cylinder and view the microscopic image with remarkable clarity.  Sometimes translucent circles are visible on the image.  These circles are typically air bubbles in the Canada balsam.


Stanhopes were made with  images of tourist attractions, famous buildings, important historical events, international exhibitions, religious symbols, naked women and famous people, including British and European royalty, American civil war heroes, and, of course, American presidential candidates.  Many Stanhopes contain more than a single image, as you will see in some of the photos on this website.


In the latter half of the 19th century and early part of the 20th, millions of Stanhope cylinders were manufactured, primarily in France.  Sometimes an enterprise that manufactured cylinders also inserted the cylinders into novelties and sold them to retailers.  In other cases, a novelty distributor in Europe, the U.S. or elsewhere would send a regular-size photographic plate to a cylinder manufacturer in France. The cylinder manufacturer would then create microphotographs of the original photograph and perhaps add text such as a caption and/or the words “Made in France.”  Then the manufacturer would mount the micro-photographs onto lenses in the manner explained above, creating the quarter-inch long cylinders.  It would then package the cylinders in the quantities ordered and mail them to the novelty distributor who would insert the cylinders into holders and provide them to retailers. 


The metal pigs that were used to hold images of American presidential candidates were probably manufactured in the United States and then joined with Stanhope cylinders that were shipped to the United States from France via this mail order business.  (No record of the pigs has been found in the well-researched archives of European Stanhope manufacturers, so it is believed that they were made in the U.S.  However, the name of the American manufacturer remains a mystery.)  


The pigs containing American political images account for only a fraction of the thousands of different images that were incorporated into Stanhopes during their heyday from the mid-1860s through about 1920.  And political collectors may be surprised to learn that the pigs comprise only a modest subset of the Stanhopes that contain American political images.  Monoculars and other holders host a far broader array of political images than the pigs.  Indeed, the pigs – which, for the most part, tend to have very similar images from one campaign to the next -- are probably among the least interesting of the American political Stanhopes.


The Stanhope receives its name from the prominent British scientist and inventor who created the lens which became intrinsic to these gadgets: Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope (1753-1816).  His hand-held lenses (much larger than, but having similar characteristics to, the ones found in Stanhope novelties and souvenirs) enabled nature enthusiasts to explore microscopic details at any time, without the need for microscopes or glass slides.


The mid-1820s saw the creation of the first long-lasting photographic images by French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833).  The micro-photograph was invented in about 1839, almost a quarter century after Charles Stanhope’s death, by a British designer of scientific and optical instruments named John Benjamin Dancer (1812-1887).  By installing a microscope lens in a camera, Dancer succeeded in reducing a 20 inch long document to a photographic image that was one-eighth of an inch long, thus requiring a microscope to read it.


It was not until 1859 that a French photographer named René Dagron combined the two inventions by marrying a micro-photograph with a Stanhope lens (so that a microscope was no longer needed to view the micro-photograph.)   He then inserted his innovative optical device into a holder and sold them as cheap souvenirs or novelties.


Dagron enjoyed a fair amount of celebrity in the 1860s as a result of his invention.  In 1864, he was given the title of Court Photographer by the Emperor Napoléon III.  And during the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870-71, Dagron escaped the embattled city by hot air balloon in order to take charge of a crucial effort to create microphotographs of dispatches that could be transported by carrier pigeon from the provisional government in unoccupied Tours to the encircled Parisians.  (Incidentally, this may not have been the first time that micro-photography was used in warfare.  It is rumored that the Confederacy used micro-photography for espionage purposes during the American civil war.)

Stanhopes with a caption indicating that they were produced by Dagron & Co. are quite rare and highly prized by Stanhope collectors.  

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