Jason Clarke Antiques

Early Victorian Portable Microscope Slide Case by Smith Beck & Beck London


For sale, an early Victorian portable microscope slide case by Smith Beck & Beck London.

The mahogany case is constructed somewhat like a book with a leather spine and tooled black and gilt leather covers back and front. The mahogany leaves are released by rotating two large brass catches to the side revealing 4 double leaf mahogany sections with inset blue velvet covering and eighteen elasticated pocket sections per leaf.

The front of the case has the company name of “Smith Beck & Beck – London” tooled into the leather and finished with gilt lettering.

Numerous catalogues were released by the company throughout its trading life but sadly there are no illustrations of this unusual piece, however their catalogues were focused very heavily on microscopy so it is reasonable to assume that this case was for the transportation of slides.

Prior to 1857 whilst trading as Smith & Beck, the company initially advertised “miscroscopic objects”, slides of various different specimens which were available for singular purchase for which trade seems to have grown quite rapidly. In their 1860 catalogue, the company now trading as Smith, Beck & Beck and having moved away from their Coleman Street address, began to advertise their, “microscopical subscription room” there, which could be accessed for a yearly fee and was furnished with “five microscopes and object glasses, together with every accommodation for the use of these instruments. It is intended to add a library and an extensive collection of microscopic objects.”

It is uncertain whether the subscription service ever got off the ground but it seems not to appear in later catalogues. Instead, Smith, Beck & Beck began to offer small microscopic object collections to be purchased in a case. I suspect this allowed them to avoid being caught in the minutiae of high volumes of individual slide subjects and during the 1860’s, this approach seems to have been a popular one.

1863 catalogue – “Collection of two dozen objects in case”

1864 catalogue – “Series of two dozen popular objects in case”

                                   “Series of six dozen educational objects in mahogany case”

1865 catalogue – “Collection of two dozen objects in case”

It is likely that “the case” mentioned above was one such as this, they would have been reasonably cheap to make and owing to the leather spine, could have been put together into as many frames as the customer desired. The example in question would have held twelve dozen.

Perhaps not as robust or imposing as one of their glazed fronted mahogany cases with drawers but certainly a lot more scarce! Apart from one section, all of the elastic remains present although it should be noted that its original taughtness has been lost over the course of one hundred and sixty years. A very unusual piece relating to one of the towers of the Victorian microscopy industry.

The earliest history of the company can be traced back to around 1839 when James Smith set up as a microscope manufacturer. His entering into business was as a result of his close association with Joseph Jackson Lister and Charles Tulley, the former being responsible for the development of achromatic lenses for use in microscopy. Smith had previously manufactured brass work for Lister’s early experiments and was encouraged by him. The Beck brothers were nephews of Lister and Smith initially took on Richard Beck as an apprentice, finally culminating in the formation of a partnership between the two men (Smith & Beck) in 1847. The other brother Joseph Beck had himself been apprenticed at the renowned company of Troughton & Simms and moved to Smith & Beck in 1851, he finally joined the partnership fully in 1857 whereafter the firm became Smith, Beck & Beck. Smith retired in 1865 and the firm was renamed to R&J Beck trading from 31 Cornhill, London. The company continued long after all the partners had died and were a significant manufacturer of optical equipment during both World Wars. 

This example is easily attributed to the companys early period owing to the short lived trading dates of Smith, Beck & Beck from 1857 until 1865.

Circa 1860

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