Eye Catching Optical Toys – Magic Lanterns, Kaleidescopes, Stereoscopes and more! by Susan Brewer (follow Sue on Twitter @bunnypussflunge)
Look through the aperture – what do you see? A world of dazzling colours and shapes. Shake the tube or twist the end, and the vision changes. Optical toys such as kaleidoscopes have been popular for decades: children still play with stereoscopes which have been popular since the time of Queen Victoria, while projectors, toy cameras and many other optical novelties are all manufactured today.
By the late nineteenth century most families owned a stereoscope. Sometimes these were elaborate creations in mahogany and brass, but often they were more humble devices. A double-image photograph was inserted into a holder and viewed through a lens, revealing an impressive three-dimensional image. Thousands of stereoscopic cards were available, usually created by special twin-lensed cameras. Occasionally the cards were coloured, but normally they were monotone. A much later version of the stereoscope, the Vistascreen 3-D viewer, was popular in the 1950s. This pocket-sized plastic gadget consisted of a folding double lens connected to a small holder, and double photo cards could be viewed through the lens to give a 3-D image. For a while, these cards were given away free with Weetabix breakfast cereal.
In 1939, William Gruber invented a new kind of stereoscope called a View-Master. This device was a vast improvement over the original stereoscope as it was lighter to hold and took flat cardboard discs, or reels, which showed seven colour transparencies using the newly introduced Kodachrome film. Today, View-Masters are thought of as a child’s toy, but when they were first introduced they were a novelty for adults, which is why many of the early scenes were landscapes or flowers. The devices were updated several times; plastic replaced bakelite, the original drab colouring was changed to cream and then to other shades – a purple View-Master was issued for Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding in 1981 – while recently, a Barbie-pink View-Master was made. Nowadays, the brand is owned by Fisher-Price. and amazingly, the basic reel size has never changed, so even those first 1939 reels can be viewed on the latest model.
Originally, View-Master reels were sold singly, but in the 1950s manufacturers began packaging them in threes. The style of packaging has evolved over the years from paper envelopes to plastic blister packs, and gradually the reels became aimed more at the juvenile market, often with film and television character tie-ins. In the 1980s View-Master ran a short-lived club encouraging children to collect the various reels. A club badge would make an interesting addition to any View-Master collection.
An earlier optical novelty was the Magic Lantern. This device first cast its spell over a century ago. Magic Lanterns were a kind of projector illuminated by an oil lamp or paraffin burner, and their use dwindled by the early 1930s. Today, it’s not really practicable to collect these contrivances as most are expensive and large, but the lantern slides are a different matter. Made from glass, these beautiful objects are hand-painted or transfer printed, and the colours are vibrant as a stained glass window. Old lantern slides can be bought for around £5, though rare or animated scenes will cost a lot more. Children’s Magic Lanterns, lit by candles, were also made, and the charming slides intended for these were much smaller, showing nursery figures or animals.
Victorian children enjoyed optical toys. They amused themselves with a Zoetrope, which consisted of a series of illustrations painted on card and viewed through a slotted revolving drum. The passing of the slots over the pictures gave an illusion of movement. A similar idea was the phenaskistiscope, which used printed discs spun in front of a mirror. Children were also entertained by drawn illusions; concentric circles on the wheels of a vehicle seemed to rotate when the picture was moved, or the Thaumatrope which had a creature painted on one side of a threaded card, and a cage on the other. When the threads were twisted to make it spin, the creature appeared to be trapped inside the cage.
Later, toy projectors became popular. They showed cartoon filmstrips frame by frame. and were made by such companies as Chad Valley, whose 1970s ‘Watch With Mother’ sets are avidly collected by memorabilia enthusiasts. A slightly different kind of projector, the Home Planetarium, was an educational toy made by several companies including Humbrol, in the1980s. It consisted of black discs bearing pinholes to show the positions of the stars, placed over an illuminated dome. The resulting image would be projected onto the ceiling of a darkened room – simple but ingenious. Also worth mentioning are toy television sets made by Beeju in the 1950s, whose filmstrips featured various characters including Muffin the Mule and Brumas the bear.
One of the most popular kinds of optical toy is the kaleidoscope, invented in 1816. In its most basic form it consists of a cardboard tube containing small coloured chips behind a clear screen. Cleverly angled mirrors deflect the light and reflect the chips, so that they appear to form changing symmetrical patterns. Variations on the theme include tubes containing bubble-solution, tubes containing marbles, handle-operated tubes, and tubes with end-pieces based on the snow globe principle. In Victorian times, people were entertained by a Designograph, a disc on which small objects such as beads or paper shapes were placed. Amazing patterns would form when the objects were viewed through a tube connected to a mirror. In the 1920s, this was re-introduced as a ‘Designoscope’.
An adaptation of the kaleidoscope is a small viewer containing a faceted lens which reflects an image dozens of times, causing the most humdrum of objects to appear beautiful. A similar idea is a pair of ‘Magic Glasses’ with colour-cast lenses, which really do allow you to really view the world through rose-coloured spectacles, and one of the most impressive optical toys of recent years is the Flowscope. This strange-looking tube-across-a-tube contains a slow-moving liquid which forms incredibly beautiful shapes and patterns when observed through an eyepiece. At the other extreme, a simple yet effective toy is a plastic wand with a coloured glass marble on the end – hold it up to the light and peer through the glass to see pretty colours.
Modern optical novelties include toy cameras which reveal assorted images when held to the light. Often issued for the tourist market, they cover a wide range of topics, and either contain a single small disc inset with colour transparencies, or come with interchangeable reels. Cheap and cheerful, usually made from bright plastic, nevertheless, these trinkets are an interesting gimmick to include in an optical toy collection. Similar gadgets can be found as keyrings, while a variation on the theme are plastic torches which project an image when a disc containing colour slides is inserted in front of the bulb.
Further optical toys are books produced to deceive the eye, such as ‘flickker books’. They consist of dozens of pictures which vary only slightly but when the pages are quickly riffled or ‘flicked’, appear to create a moving story. Another old idea, that of using pictures which transform into different scenes when tabs are pulled, is still sometimes incorporated into children’s books.
Optical toys are often very beautiful, and it can be a challenge to see just how many different types you can find. They are fun to play with, too!