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Kinsey Institute adds to its Stanhope collection of microscopic erotica

Apr. 10, 2014

Frenchman Rene Prudent Patrice Dagron patented the first Stanhope optical device in 1859.

The hidden erotic novelties, or “peeps” as others called them, were the 19th century’s dirty little secret, bypassing microscopes to create microscopic images. The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction has hundreds of these miniature photographs in its collection. The Kinsey Institute celebrated its 67th anniversary this week on April 8.

Stanhopes

One of the hundreds of Stanhopes found at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. | PHOTO BY SOL LEGAULT

Many of Dagron’s microscopic photographs showcased female nudes or pornography, encased in glass lenses and hidden in everyday objects such as rings, knives or tobacco pipes; they were the underground Playboy of the 1800s and as sensational as modern smartphone applications such as Snapchat. Other Stanhopes were not erotic but were popular tourist items featuring images of famous places or monuments such as the Eiffel Tower. 

In 1959, a small cardboard box arrived at The Kinsey Institute. It was full of hundreds of rare, unorganized Stanhopes from the 19th or early 20th century. The box was confiscated by the U.S. Postal Service in 1924 because it contained pornographic materials. Catherine Johnson-Roehr, curator of art, artifacts and photographs at the institute, said the box was held by the Post Office for several decades before it was sent to Bloomington.

“We’ve had the box in our archives for a long time, but no one had taken the time to organize it,” she said.

A graduate student by the name of sol Legault from Ryerson University contacted Johnson-Roehr in 2011 seeking a topic for his Master of Arts thesis. Johnson-Roehr suggested the Stanhopes, and the sorting and rehousing process began.

Legault worked without gloves to avoid damaging the Stanhopes with latex, squinting to see every image before categorizing it. He discovered 25 groups of repeating images within the collection. Legault’s final product included a 150-page thesis, and his contribution to the institute was to organize and document the collection and to create archival storage boxes to hold the Stanhopes, with a shiny new pair of tweezers to handle them.

Additions to the collection



On a March afternoon, Garry Milius, associate curator at The Kinsey Institute, and Howard Melnick, part-time Stanhope collector and full-time surgeon from Pennsylvania, are in Morrison Hall’s second-floor conference room. On the table are four trays, each with eight divided compartments. In the compartments lay hundreds of tiny glass lenses, all holding photographic images.

The lenses measure less than a centimeter in length; the photographs glued to them are the size of the head of a pin.

“Let’s try not to drop any this time,” Melnick says.

Melnick grabs a pair of metal tweezers and plucks a lens from the tray. He holds it to his eyeball while Milius opens the room’s curtains, letting light pour into the room.

“Yep, there it is!” he says, squinting.

The microscopic image is of a young woman, nude, lying on a soft lounge chair. She is carefully posed and is looking away from the camera.

It’s a keeper.

Stanhopes

Stanhopes showcased female nudes or pornography and were hidden in everyday objects. | Photo By sol Legault

Melnick began collecting Stanhopes in 1994 and now has so many he doesn’t even keep track, he said. He contacted The Kinsey Institute after his son, a schedule organizer in IU’s School of Education, told him about the collection.

Melnick brought to IU two knives, two rings, three miniature binoculars, a pipe bowl and a pig figurine that he donated to the institute from his personal collection.

Each item has a small hole drilled in it where the glass lens, containing a photograph, is carried. Viewers hold the item close to their eye to take a peek at the microscopic image hidden within.

Specialty pipes with high-quality Stanhopes hidden within them can sell for more than $1,000, Melnick said. Collectors like Melnick flock to Stanhope hotbeds like Adamstown, Pa., and as far as the United Kingdom to find the rarest pieces.

“Every new Stanhope image I find could potentially be of anything,” Melnick said. “And that’s the fun of it.”

Anyone can contact The Kinsey Institute and ask to inspect the Stanhopes.

“They’re something special,” Johnson-Roehr said. “And now we can share them with everyone.”

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