Kaleidoscope History

This article concentrates on the US and Japanese (on a separate page) history of Kaleidoscopes. TheKaleidoscopeBook.com would post kaleidoscope histories for other countries but we have no information on them (France, China, Germany, Russia, Italy & other countries have all produced scopes for many years).  Please let us know any information that you can provide to us.

The Inception

The idea for the kaleidoscope came from Scottish scientist David Brewster in 1816.  He was studying many aspects of physical sciences including polarization optics and the properties of light when he invented the kaleidoscope.  He named his invention "kaleidoscope" from the Greek words:

kalos = beautiful

eidos = form

scopos = watcher

Therefore kaleidoscope means "beautiful form watcher"

He patented the kaleidoscope in 1817 (UK 4136), wrote two books about it but never made much money from it.  While his invention became popular, selling over 200,000 scopes, improper patent wording allowed others to capitalize on it.

For his scientific discoveries, Brewster was elected a fellow of the Royal Society (Britain's leading scientific organization) in 1815 and knighted in 1831.

Besides inventing and naming the kaleidoscope, Sir David Brewster also used polarization and polyangular mirrors in his kaleidoscopes.  This was not duplicated by other scope artists  until the 1980s, another 150 plus years later.

Below is a photo of a Brewster designed polyangular kaleidoscope made by R.B. Bate.  The mirror angles adjust from 4 degrees to 60 degrees.

The Parlor Scope (Victorian) Era

Kaleidoscopes became very popular during the Victorian age as a parlor diversion.  Charles G. Bush was the first person to mass manufacturer "parlor" kaleidoscopes in America.

Charles Bush improved upon the kaleidoscope and started the kaleidoscope fad in America. He was granted patents in 1873 and 1874 related to improvements in kaleidoscopes (US 143,271 , 151,005 , 151,006 & 156,875). The improvements were for liquid-filled ampules to be viewed as objects inside of kaleidoscopes, kaleidoscope chambers that could be easily opened to change the viewing objects, adding a colorful wheel to the front of the scope that would alter the scope's background during viewing and for a kaleidoscope stand that could be easily taken apart for storing. 

Unlike Brewster, Bush found kaleidoscopes to be very profitable.  He manufactured his parlor kaleidoscopes by the thousands and many are still around today, over a hundred years later.

Below is a photo of objects in a Bush parlor scope including the liguid-filled ampules.  Also includes the hard to find "Swan".

 Bush parlor scopes with the round base and the rarer 4 footed version that he patented.


The Toy Scope Era

The kaleidoscope's popularity peaked during the Victorian era when all elegant homes had a parlor scope for family entertainment.  That all changed with the electronic age of radio and television.

By the mid-1900s, kaleidoscopes had become mostly children's toys.  The Steven Manufacturing Company, founded in 1946, was one of the most noted producers of toy kaleidoscopes in the US and they still make them today.  They started out in St. Louis, Missouri and in 1964 moved to Hermann, Missouri.  Most Steven kaleidoscopes are made of cardboard, but a few plastic models were produced.

Other American toy scope manufacturers were:

  • Artop Specialties of Rochester, New York
  • California Kaleidoscopes of Los Angeles, California
  • Cross Publishing Company of Kenilworth, New Jersey
  • WM. Drueke & Sons of Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • H. Davis Toy Corp. of Brooklyn, New York
  • Gantec Associates, Inc. of Emmeryville, California.
  • Gemini of Zelienople, Pennsylvania
  • The Wale-Irving Co. of Troy, New York (also known as F P Irving)
  • Tico Toys Inc. of Providence, Rhode Island

After years of kaleidoscopes being only a toy, America was ready to be introduced to the kaleidoscope as an art form.

Below is two version of a toy scope from WM. Drueke & Sons of Grand Rapids, Michigan.


The Modern Scope Era

The kaleidoscope's popularity grew again starting in the late 1970s.  It was a combination of craftsmanship and technological advances that lead to this resurgence.

During the 80's and 90's the kaleidoscope revival flourished as leading artists started to experiment with both the interiors and exteriors of the scopes.  The exteriors were made of new materials such as hand-blown glass, alabaster and ceramics. They were also made from odd things like grown gourds, wine & beer bottles and even used Harley Davidson motorcycle parts.  Scope exteriors were also made to resemble things like animals, light houses, cars and even the Chrysler Building.

Modern artist also altered the interiors of the scope, experimenting with polarization & polyangular mirror systems for the first time since Brewster did in the early 1800's.  They also improved upon Bush's liquid-filled ampules.  Other new ideas were utilized such as curved reflective mirrors and complicated mirror arrangements, tapering mirrors and putting multiple mirrors inside a single scope.

This era, known as the "Kaleidoscope Renaissance", was assisted by the work of one woman, Cozy Baker.  Cozy wrote six books about kaleidoscopes, curated the world's first kaleidoscope exhibition, and founded the Brewster Society for kaleidoscope enthusiasts in 1986.  Cozy has been called the "First Lady of Kaleidoscopes" because of the many "firsts" she has pioneered.

The kaleidoscope changed more in 25 years, from 1975 to 2000, then it had in the past 150 years.  While the technological improvements were important, it was the craftsmanship that really sets the modern scope apart.  Mostly the modern scope is characterized by its beauty, both inside and out.  Kaleidoscopes became works of fine art during this era.

Below photos show three scopes that are works of art!