LOOKING BACK – MAY 2014

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SPY SENSATIONS

It’s not quite 007 material but it’s also not far off. Small handheld telescopes, known as monoculars, were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries as a way to discreetly spy on others, especially at the theater. During the late 1600s, monoculars were made from and decorated with a variety of materials, such as paper, wood, ivory, gold, and silver. They were also commonly concealed in perfume bottles, necklace charms, and in the fulcrum (hinge) of fans.

The one pictured above right, from 1790, features a French-cut glass perfume bottle with a glass stopper and silver cap. It was most commonly used by women. Because perfume was expensive, the monocular allowed a woman to view the people around her before using it and approaching someone she wished to talk to. This is understandable considering that daily bathing in the 18th century was unheard of. Fully immersive baths were considered unhealthy during this time period and, since most homes did not have running water, it was impractical. The monocular above left, circa 1850, is an example of the spy glass genre and features mother of pearl.

Courtesy of The Museum of Vision, museumofvision.org.

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