Royalty, Espionage, and Erotica: Secrets of the World's Tiniest Photographs

Ben Marks of Collectors Weekly says: "Hunter Oatman-Stanford has just held a magnifying glass up to Stanhope lenses, which were popular from the second half of the 19th century through the first half of the 20th, and were used to help people see the head-of-a-pin-sized microphotographs secreted inside everything from letter openers to thimbles to pocket knives. For his story, Hunter spoke to author Jean Scott, who's written the definitive book on Stanhopes, and collector Howard Melnick, who has helped the Kinsey Institute archive and repair its sizable collection of erotic Stanhopes."

Today, hunting for Stanhopes is addictive precisely because most of these lenses were designed to elude discovery. As Melnick puts it, “most Stanhope objects don’t declare themselves to be Stanhopes.” Besides the ubiquitous miniature binoculars or monoculars, Melnick has only come across a couple of other Stanhope items that explicitly make their purpose known. “I just got a little sterling-silver charm that looks like an old keyhole, and it actually says ‘Peek’ on the charm. If you look inside, it shows six views of Montreal,” says Melnick. “I also have a celluloid pocket knife from the 1939 World’s Fair with the Trylon and Perisphere on it. The top of it says, ‘Air View New York Skyline’ with an arrow to the Stanhope, and inside is a photo of the New York harbor and skyline. Those are the only two items I’ve ever seen that direct you to the Stanhope.”

Even today, the discovery of a Stanhope lens in an ordinary object is enough to make the viewer squeal with delight. “I remember the first time I saw one, I just couldn’t believe it,” says Scott. “If you go to an antiques fair and you see somebody standing there holding a small object to their eye and looking up, you can be pretty certain they found a Stanhope. We collectors call it the Stanhope pose.”

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