Stanhopes: Playing peekaboo with the past
By RENE KIENTZ
Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle
Howard Melnick, a Pennsylvania ear, nose and throat surgeon, had been
a knife collector for years when he stumbled onto his first stanhope.
Buster Dean / Chronicle;
stanhopes courtesy of Kaydee Cooper
Stanhopes, produced in many forms, have a surprise: a peep lens that
when held to your eye reveals a little scene, sometimes risqué,
sometimes religious. Shown here are a rosary (with a view of the
Grotto at Dickeyville, Wis.), a St. Anne de Beaupre letter opener,
and binoculars and two barrels featuring views of Niagara Falls.
He was at a knife show when a dealer said he had something Melnick
might be interested in seeing, an Anheuser-Busch knife with "little
photos" in it. He put the knife's peephole to his eye and was astounded
at the view, a tiny portrait of Adolphus Busch. A second peep showed a
"I thought it was absolutely the neatest thing I have ever seen."
Like many stanhope collectors, Melnick was hooked on his first
Stanhopes first were produced in the mid-19th century, shortly after
the invention of photography. A clever gentleman named John Benjamin
Dancer made the first microphotographs and placed them on glass slides
to be viewed under a microscope. Dancer showed his novelty creations to
David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope, who was impressed.
Brewster in turn would show microphotographs to a French photographer
named Rene Dagron, who took the idea and ran with it.
Dagron attached tiny images (the size of the head of a pin) to the
flat side of a magnifying lens, then inserted the lens into holes
drilled into souvenirs, dip pens and jewelry. Though the lens really was
a Coddington magnifier, says Melnick, Dagron called it a stanhope, named
for a similar lens created by the third earl of Stanhope a century
before. In any case, the name stuck and the idea was a hit, enthralling
the French and spreading across Europe and then the United States.
Then as now, stanhope appeal isn't necessarily in the object or the
image within, but the surprise. The tiny viewer turned trinkets into
treasures with little secrets that are revealed only to those who know
to look. At a cursory glance, the lens can appear to be a decorative
element, a cabochon jewel or glass rivet; many people don't recognize a
stanhope when they see one.
Stanhopes were made in every guise; most common today are crosses,
many with tiny views of the Lord's Prayer, saints and cathedrals.
Featuring a peek at Niagara Falls, petite souvenir barrels were produced
as fob charms by the thousands, in feldspar and satin spar. Brooches,
charms, rings, letter openers, pocketknives and tools, needle cases and
tape measures all housed stanhopes.
Images run the gamut, too, from religious views to landmarks to
"actresses," a period term for loose "wimmen." Floozies, some
semidressed, some outright naked, were popular subject matter. The
ladies still are desirable today and among the most popular stanhope
images. Most stanhopes have just one image within but some have multiple
views, six or eight or more.
France, and later Czechoslovakia, produced most of the stanhopes on
the market today. Some are signed; many are not. It can be difficult to
date stanhopes without experience; bone and ivory items tend to be
early, but not necessarily. Some objects, such as crosses and rosaries,
were made for decades. It can help if the view features a structure, say
the Empire State Building or Golden Gate Bridge, that can offer clues to
To some collectors, the date doesn't matter much. Nor does the image,
which is why some are happy to buy what Melnick terms "stanhopeless,"
meaning without its lens and image.
Stephen Leonard, a New York collector and eBay dealer who sells under
the name of 8TS, says he buys stanhopes with or without the images
because stanhopes in general are getting harder to find. Leonard bought
and sold stanhopes for more than 45 years and says he still sees new
forms from time to time.
Stanhopes were made up into the 1970s, though peak years seem to have
been roughly 1870-1920. One business, Stanhope Microworks, continues to
produce stanhopes using a combination of old and new techniques. The
company's Web site, www.stanhopemicroworks.com, offers customized modern
stanhopes as well as a large selection of antique ones.
Concerned that Stanhope Microworks' production would flood the market
with reproductions collectors couldn't discern, Melnick approached owner
Michael Sheibley to discuss the potential problem. Sheibley responded by
agreeing to sign his pieces to identify new from old, and the two men
became friends. Now Melnick is working with Sheibley to create an online
stanhope museum at the company's Web site.
Information on stanhopes always has been difficult to come by, says
Melnick, who is considering writing a book one day. Meanwhile, English
collector Jean Scott has beat him to it. Her Stanhopes: A Closer View
(Greenlight Publishing, $43) has just been published. It is a 148-page
softcover book with almost 300 color photographs and the kind of
information collectors have clamored for. Not available yet in the
United States, the book can be ordered directly from Scott's Web site,
Scott also is co-founder, with Douglas Jull, of the Stanhope
Collectors Club, which accepts international members and publishes a
biannual magazine, the Peeper. (See the Web site for details.)
It's rare to find more than one or two stanhopes in antique shops, if
any at all. Some dealers have never seen one (or didn't recognize it if
they did), and some have never heard of stanhopes. Kaydee Cooper, whose
booth at Antiques at Rummel Creek in west Houston features a small
collection of stanhopes (some of which are featured here), says she's
always on the lookout for stanhopes. The treasures have become harder to
find lately, perhaps because dealers who do have stanhopes put the items
Common stanhopes such as crosses and barrels often go for $25-$50,
items such as dip pens and letter openers for under $100. Because of the
cross-collectibility -- many stanhopes were put into sewing notions, a
collectible area in itself -- values for items such as needle cases and
pocketknives can go considerably higher.
Melnick says he paid $45 for his first stanhope, the Anheuser Busch
knife, which he later learned was one of at least 60 variations from the
beer company (the knives now sell for hundreds of dollars). The first
knives were created as novelties for company founder Adolphus Busch to
give away, as early as the 1870s, on his travels. Later the company
produced the knives on a larger scale as promotional items.
Condition of stanhope items affects value "quite a bit," Melnick
says, though the rarity of the object is most important, followed by the
content, then the quality of the image and the imprint, if there is one.
Most stanhopes have little intrinsic value since the items were created
Melnick says he was delighted by his first stanhope, and was
pleasantly surprised later to find that the lenses had been inserted
into thousands of other items. "I knew so little," he says with a laugh,
"I assumed it was a knife thing. I didn't know there was all this other
stuff, too. I started buying it all."