Several months ago, I lucked out and found a large stash of Stanhope novelty pieces at a garage sale. The collection I had to choose from was mostly religious icons, like tiny paintings of saints, the Lord’s Prayer, and other iconography hidden in keychains and cross pendants. The naughty Stanhopes, however are highly collectible — Victorian cheesecake nudes — so I snatched them all up.
A Stanhope is a tiny peep hole, called a lens, containing a micro photograph and inserted into a novelty souvenir. The photo inside these trinkets is the size of a pinhead and has to be held up to a light and close to ones eye to view the image. The lens technology was invented by Charles, 3rd earl of Stanhope in the late 18th century, and micro-photography was perfected by J.B. Dancer in England around 1840.
In the Victorian era especially, these novelties were extremely popular. Although the pieces I have are naughty but benign today — microphotographs of Victorian ladies in various states of undress — these would have been quite scandalous back in the day.
You can identify Stanhope jewelry primarily by the small lens located somewhere on the piece, usually on a pendant, fob, keychain, or ring. Oftentimes Stanhopes will look like little lenses, like a telescope, a pair of binoculars, or another eye piece. If this is a religious piece, the lens will typically be in the center of the cross. The lens is usually about 3mm in diameter and will go all the way through the piece, and is curved like a dome on one side. You must hold it right up to your eye and look through the dome in the direction of light to discern the image inside.
NOTE: If you have and love a piece of Stanhope, you must be very careful not to expose the piece to moisture in any form. Water, lotion, steam, or any other moisture will dissolve the tiny picture on the lens, negating much of the value of the piece. I learned this one the hard way.