Soon after the popularization of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, people started experimenting with gimmicks like microphotography. There was a brief but huge craze for these tiny images that could only be seen using a special microscope lens. It was perfect for sharing porn in a repressive age.

Above, a microphotograph (actual size) on the left. On the right, the image is magnified.

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Over at Collectors Weekly, Hunter Oatman-Stanford has a fantastic story about the history of microphotographs. Beginning in the 1830s, photographers produced these microphotographs by coating glass laboratory slides with the proper chemicals and exposing them to images that had been shrunk down so much they could only be viewed under a microscope. Indeed, the first microphotograph was produced by a microscope maker, and many of the earliest examples of the form came from people who were experimenting — or making them for very wealthy clients.

But the French photographer René Dagron wanted to come up with a way to sell them to the masses. The best way to do it, he decided, would be to figure out how to combine a magnifying lens with the photographs, somehow. That way, the images could be positioned in a clever way on a common device, creating a secret photo.

Oatman-Stanford writes:

Dagron spent nearly a year secluded in his workshop, perfecting a lens that would do just that. He settled on a miniature version of a magnifying device invented 50 years prior by Charles, Third Earl Stanhope, who gave these tiny lenses their name. In 1859, Dagron was granted the world's first microfilm patent for his new device, but the following year, he simplified the design to create the most common form of Stanhope. One end of a small glass cylinder was ground into a convex form, and on the opposite end, a tiny, translucent photo (cut from a glass slide) was secured with Canada balsam, a glue made from the resin of a balsam fir tree. When held to the light and viewed from the longer side, the microphotograph was visible to the naked eye.

You can imagine why this would have been instantly popular for erotic photographs. A secret picture of a naked person hidden among your manly hunting equipment, or smoking gear? Perfect for the Victorian man who loves gadgets.

And indeed, it was. Oatman-Stanford describes how the famous Kinsey Institute for sex research came to possess a collection of Stanhope porn:

One of the largest collections of erotic Stanhope lenses is housed at the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana. [Stanhope collector Howard] Melnick has worked closely with the Kinsey collection—donating Stanhope objects, repairing lenses, and preparing items for display. Most of their Stanhope archive was made up of loose lenses never inserted into objects. These Stanhopes arrived as a single donation in the 1920s, when they were confiscated in the mail as pornography presumably on their way from a lens manufacturer to a client making novelty items. "There were thousands, with 30-some different images," Melnick says. "Some are actresses with clothes on, but mostly they're stylized nudes doing poses amid weird props or things like that." Combining their small size and secretive placement, Stanhopes were perfect for hiding erotic imagery in plain sight.

Read more at Collector's Weekly