Spicy Stanhope


Wax on about the haptic!  It will protect my secret.  Here I see what you cannot, a spicy scene in swine.  

In 1859, a French patent was issued to René Dagron for a reducing machine that printed photographs on the ends of rice-like cylinders of glass called Stanhopes.  Each Stanhope was capped with a magnifying lens that allowed the picture to be seen.  In the late-eighteenth century, the third Earl of Stanhope invented these lenses, which allowed all sorts of “viewers"—pipes, rings, brass piggies, knife handles, hairpins—to house in secret.  Stanhopes essentially made the peep shows private.  

Dagron’s microphotographic process put souvenir views and other innocuous pictures on Stanhopes, but such popular scenery was merely lipstick for pigs.  Here I’m at the library of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, where all the patrons are up to no good.  My brass pig digests light; my left eye receives its gift.  Dagron, it seems, started printing filthy pictures immediately, no doubt in response to a French crackdown on erotic imagery beginning in 1854-5.  Erotic Stanhopes were popular throughout the industrialized West into the early twentieth century, but their size has largely hidden them from the history of photography.  The Kinsey got their 38 secret pleasures in 1959 from contraband that the U.S. Postal Service seized in 1924.  The Institute, which was established in 1947 to research human sexual behavior, did not record who gave up this smut, but the box was labeled, ridiculously, “from France.”    

My monocular vision here is filled with details I will get no points for describing, but I trust that your imagination is saucy enough not to need them.  I can tell you that I see the picture’s edges, surrounded by immaterial blue light from the glass.  I wonder what this tiny porn was for.  The obvious answer—personal gratification—I think is unlikely.   You have to concentrate on how you hold it; multitasking, shall we say, was not supported.  A more likely scenario would be a gentlemen's club, a stag party, or some other venue filled with trusted others, who could keep my sexual secret once I share it.  

Sharing, I'd argue, is tiny porn’s climax.  In the 1970s in the United States, pornographic theaters allowed people to publicly share in the experience.  But you didn’t own the movie; it wasn’t part of you.  Not so with spicy Stanhopes.  When you put it in your charm on your person in public, it was part of your identity.  It would have been a fast way to make a new friend, if the venue was right.  For straight men at least, this was homosociality at its most explicit.  But the discrete nature of this media gave any kind of sexuality the chance to carefully locate its secret public, and that, I believe, would have been the best thing tiny porn was for.    

Andrew Moisey is a photographic artist and Assistant Professor of the History of Art at Cornell University. His current research investigates how photography became an art that deals with philosophical problems. The book project, The Photographic World Picture, shows how four artists--one early modern and three contemporary--took pictures that reflected prevalent philosophical views of their time.