I remember visiting my grandmother’s home where Betty lived the last ten years of her life. I followed the sound of voices down a set of stairs into the basement and found my mama and aunts going through her belongings. The cabinet that encased her kaleidoscope collection was at the back of the room. Grabbing a handful of newspapers that was stacked on the floor, I made my way to the cabinet and lifted the hook latch to unlock the glass pane doors of my aunt’s cabinet. Slowly, I began to remove the scopes from the shelves, carefully wrapping each scope as I went, and gently placed them in a large carboard box. I had never opened the doors to my aunt’s collection without her being with me. It felt like an invasion; a violation of her privacy and property. But Betty was gone, and now they were my property. There were so many of them; large scopes, tiny scopes, fragile scopes, and scopes that could easily double as a truncheon. Some were made of wood, some were made of stain glass, others were made of brass, and one of my favourites was encased in marble (or was it soap stone?). But despite the variety of the scopes, they all had two things in common: They had been hand-picked by my aunt, and they were beautiful.
Eventually, after finding her cabinet of scopes a permanent spot in our dining room, I spent my spare time researching the history of the kaleidoscopes. Some of the scopes had identifying markings on them so they were easy to catalogue. Others were more difficult to trace. I quickly learned, however, that kaleidoscope collecting is taken very seriously in the United States, and Aunt Betty’s collection had many of the best scopes American artists had to offer. When I found out that there was a society for makers and collectors of kaleidoscopes (Brewster Kaleidoscope Society), I joined with the hope that I would find additional information on the artists behind some of the more magnificent looking scopes.
Over time, my eye became discriminating. Within a second of looking into the eye cap of a scope, I could see the level of craftmanship, or lack thereof. It’s not the just quality of the mirrors. The angle of the mirrors (they must be seamless), the amount of light the chamber allows in, the objects in the cells, and clarity of the glass all impact the final product.
One lesson I learned when comparing the different kaleidoscopes is to never judge a scope from its exterior. Very cliche, I know, but true nonetheless. The collection had exquisite examples of creative genius in regard to exterior aesthetic beauty, and yet once you peer inside the chamber, it takes only a brief moment to realize that an equal amount of time and care has not been invested into the integrity of the interior. Of course, the opposite is true, as well. One humble looking scope has a tarnished brass chamber and is only the length of my pinky, and yet peek inside the teeny-tiny opening and one’s eye is met with the most illustrious array of red, blue, pink, orange, yellow, and green stones, all perfectly aligned and clear as can be. Finding cohesion between the interior and exterior of the kaleidoscope has been achieved in less than 15 of the 60 scopes in my aunt’s collection. They are also the most expensive.