Stanhope, the medium hidden in a pen

When I was a primary school student in the early 1980s, my friend Erzsike Székely brought a strange pen to school. There was a tiny hole at the end of the pen, into which, when glanced, erotic images with content incompatible with socialism appeared. It had a rotating ring, which meant that several enlightening slides appeared when a tiny ring was wound around it. At the time, I had no idea that I was holding the last reminder of a fashion that was almost 100 years old.
stanhope pen

The pen shown above is an American-made writing instrument that was very popular from the end of the 19th century until the first decade of the 20th century, but similar pens were still in circulation until the 1980s. Its main feature is the Stanhope lens in the centre, which, when held up to the eye, reveals the photograph inside - most often of a historical site or tourist attraction, but there have also been images of advertising, Jesus, famous people, cityscapes and erotic content. Jewellery, miniature binoculars, ink pots, letter openers, watch keys, pocket watches, needle holders, thimbles, scissors, pens, pencils, knives, pipes, perfume bottle caps - practically anything has been fitted with the little device. Below are some of the objects used with a stanhope (the little dot is the optical slot).
Stanhope objects

Development history

Within a few decades of the invention of photography, innovators began experimenting with the production of tiny microphotographs. In 1839, a man called John Benjamin Dancer succeeded in making a reversed process film (negative to microphotograph) measuring 3 square millimetres, but this could not be seen with the naked eye, only with a microscope. Another innovator, the Frenchman René Dagron, solved the problem in 1857. He combined a simple cylindrical (1 lens) microscope invented by Lord Stanhope 50 years earlier with a microphotograph.

The former was reduced in size and its lens surfaces reshaped, while the latter was glued to one end of the now tiny "lens tube", which is barely 1 cm long. By holding the device up to the eye, the image became visible. He called it Stanhope's lens, and patented the small 'viewer', which showed the photograph at a magnification of 300x.

The Stanhope could be built into any object. Dagron, who also had excellent business sense, invented this and set up a small factory to manufacture it on a large scale. And not for nothing, because it soon became fashionable to own and look at secret microphotographs hidden in various objects of daily use, and remained trendy for decades.

In 1862, Dagron presented the stanhope at the London World's Fair, and even Queen Victoria saw the novelty (a microphotograph of her was later taken). By then, Dagron's factory employed 150 people and produced 12,000 objects a day.

The key to the success of the stanhope was the magic of the household utensil as a medium. It can also be seen as the 'gadget' of the age. There were lower and higher resolution images, small and large. On the other hand, the resolution of the thumbnail images made it possible to experience monumentality at high magnification. It was a kind of magical device, because peering into the tiny slit projected the image onto the entire retina. Depending on the mood of the photo, the lenses were coloured, and later the image was coloured.

According to data gathered from the press of the time, the English preferred micro-photographs of calendars or banknotes, the Italians preferred religious themes, and the Germans preferred the more daring photographs. Here are some of the 'bold' photos from the period:

Perhaps the most valuable of all pens is the 1918 stanhope pen, a writing instrument made for Waterman's 35th birthday. The optical mechanism was placed in the upper part of the cap. The picture shows, not very excitingly, Waterman's own New York headquarters. The pen is priced at $2-3000.

Stanhope Waterman fountain pen

The stanhope is not completely dead. Today, they still produce "handmade" writing instruments, in which they embed the photos sent to them when they order. An Australian entrepreneur also sells a special miniature optical device into which the photo we send is inserted. Pictured below are some stanhope pens and the tiny device.


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