The kaleidoscope was invented in 1816 by Sir David Brewster. It was originally an optical curiousity. Early kaleidoscopes had very little practicle use. In 1818, there was a proposal that it could be used to draw numbers in a lottery, if numbers were placed in the viewing area.
There were some kaleidoscopes produced in the nineteenth century which had the flavour of a scientific instrument about them, very much like an early microsope. They were skillfully constructed and of high quality. They are rare and command high prices today. You will be lucky to find one on eBay today. Expect to pay around £500 for a good one.
The kaleidoscope had much more commericial value as a toy. You could buy them cheaply by the early twentieth century. The Army & Navy Stores catalogue of 1907 lists kaleidoscopes for 10d. (10 old pence see Old money)
From the 1940s, the Steven Manufacturing Co of St Louis, Missouri, USA was selling a kaleidoscope with a detachable cap that you could fill with anything you liked. They cost 50c.
The original ones had a tube made of plastic. From the 1950s, the tube was made of card and decorated with coloured patterns. Steven made kaleidoscopes up to the 1980s, changing the design of the tube to keep up with contemporary fashion.
They are quite common today and sell for between $7 to $25, or £5 to £20. The Deluxe model, with interchangeable caps, is the most desirable.
In the UK, Chad Valley made metal-covered kaleidoscopes with coloured patterns on the outside.
Green Monk made kaleidoscopes featuring cars, trains and boats, as well as characters from popular childrens' TV and literature. The Magic Roundabout is the most common, but also look out for Rupert Bear designs (from 1982) and Disney characters, such as Mickey Mouse. Chad Valley also made Disney kaleidoscopes.
There is a strong market for antique-looking kaleidoscopes. Chesnik-Koch has been in business since 1980. They make some beautiful brass kaleidoscopes. They use stained glass wheels to produce the patterns. Chesnik-Koch Kaleidoscopes are very collectable and can sell for up to £200.
Some are made from stained glass and other from brass. Stained glass bi-plane kaleidocopes are collectable.
How much is my kaleidoscope worth?
Quality reproduction or vintage style
- Chesnik-Koch - £110 to £220
- Airplane or bi-plane stained glass - £40 to £80
- Stained glass - £10 to £150
- Brass - £10 to £150
- Wood - £5 to £30
Vintage toy kaleidoscopes
- Early twentieth century - £20 to £40
- Magic Roundabout - £5 to £10
- Postman Pat - £0 to £5
- Disney - £5 to £30
- Green Monk - £5 to £20
- Steven - £5 to £20
- Chad Valley - £5 to £10
Buy vintage kaleidoscopes
By Steven Braggs, December 2020