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American Agriculturist Microscopes

Bringing Microscopy to Rural America

Richard Van Vleck

Agricultural magazines in the 19th century were the prime source of advertising read by rural families. In addition to farm machinery, there were many ads for sewing machines, washing machines, patent medicine and musical instruments. Inexpensive microscopes were offered to farm families both in advertising and as premiums for sending in one or more new subscriptions. The microscope was proclaimed valuable to farmers to detect disease in plants and animals, the degree of goodness of seeds, adulteration of fertilizer, insect pests, etc. In addition to farmers, it was also claimed useful to all classes to detect adulteration of coffee, tea, spices and sugar. Low cost premiums were offered by The American Agriculturist for a small number of subscriptions or even a single subscription. These usually included a selection of agricultural books, and frequently, a simple microscope.

The American Agriculturist Microscope

In 1877, The American Agriculturist announced that every subscriber could receive a microscope with their 1878 subscription for an additional 40 cents. Non-subscribers could purchase the microscope for $1.50. The publisher claimed that 125,000 of these hard rubber stand, 3 lens microscopes were manufactured for the 1878 mailing. This model, especially with its original cardboard box, is highly sought by collectors. Unlike the great variety of “household” and small drum microscopes which were being imported from France in the 1870's, The American Agriculturist microscope was made in America and designed by Bausch & Lomb, which may explain its interest to U.S. collectors. For a time, The American Agriculturist ran a column entitled “The Young Microscopists’ Club”, in which techniques for using and modifying this microscope were presented. Stands made from wood , or even a window shade fixture were offered up as ways to provide the American Agriculturist microscope with an inclination joint. A cigar box mount allowed for the use of a mirror under the microscope for transillumination. And, a cardboard eyepiece collar was devised to remedy an acknowledged defect in this highly touted toy; the wire lens standard tended to poke users in the eye. I experienced this problem several years ago when I tested (played with) this microscope, however, I hadn’t yet delved into the literature to discover this aftermarket fix.

Other Microscope Premiums in Ag Magazines

The American Agriculturist first mentioned the value of simple microscopes in 1858, in the “Boys and Girls” column and announced their tentative plan to offer such a microscope as a premium in the near future, if they could find one made “on this side of the Atlantic”. They apparently did not, because the first microscope premium appears to have been the “Excelsior” pocket and dissecting microscope, patented in 1874 by J.J. Bausch and made by Bausch & Lomb. The price was $2.75 or seven subscriptions. In 1877, both the “Excelsior” and “Abbott’s Pocket Microscope” were offered. The Abbott’s microscope cost $1.60 or 4 subscriptions. It was manufactured by L.G. Abbott, No. 103 Beckman St., New York.

In 1879, The American Agriculturist compound microscope was introduced. This high quality Bausch & Lomb microscope came with a two button objective and rack and pinion focus. The japanned iron double trunnion stand along with the typical B&L hard rubber stage and revolving diaphragm set this instrument a step above the multitude of similar sized “household” microscopes. And, to make certain no one confused it with these others, the words “American Agriculturist Compound Microscope” were boldly cast in the iron foot. As an added touch, a clip-on camera lucida was included with each microscope, as well as a walnut case. Subscribers could purchase this microscope for $10. The price to non-subscribers was $15 and a subscription cost only $1.60, so, anyone wanting the microscope likely became a subscriber.

As examination of pork for Trichina cysts became the rage, The American Agriculturist jumped on the bandwagon, again offering a high quality instrument from Bausch & Lomb, the “Trichine Tester”. This 1881 premium cost $2.50 or three subscriptions. The device, patented in 1882 by Bausch & Lomb, and called the “Trichinoscope”, consisted of heavy glass compression plates and a microscope on a sliding mount for examining the entire area of the compressed specimen. In 1892, a revised version of the American Agriculturist simple microscope appeared. Manufactured by Bausch & Lomb, its three lenses resembled the 1878 version, but included a metal drum base with mirror. The price was $1 or with a subscription, $1.75.

Microscope Advertising in Agricultural Magazines

In 1862, an advertising media blitz brought the Craig microscope to the attention of readers of a multitude of magazines. The American Agriculturist carried the Craig ads in December 1862 and 1863, but did not comment on the microscope, perhaps as a result of their demonstrated fear of “humbugs”. In contrast, Moore’s Rural New Yorker printed the 1862 Craig press release in its entirety, as did the Scientific American, along with a cut of the little Craig that made it appear larger than a full size drum microscope. Henry Craig’s patent for this famous little microscope is actually for the fused lens of crown and flint glass. For an interesting discussion of this instrument, see John Bell’s article in Rittenhouse, vol 8, No.3. And, if you want to acquire one for your collection, be prepared for sticker shock. Several gutta percha versions have been offered recently for around $1000. At $2 each in 1862, the Craig would have been a better investment than a top of the line model from Spencer. In 1872, Moore’s Rural New Yorker carried an ad for “The Globe Microscope” , which appears to have been a Craig type instrument. Bausch & Lomb placed an ad in The American Agriculturist, in 1877 and 1878, for their “New Model Microscopes”, ranging from $20 to $200. The ad notes that their manufacture was under the direct supervision of Mr. E. Gundlach, formerly of Berlin. In 1882, Queen & Co. placed an ad in Country Gentleman with a cut of a large compound microscope. In an 1884 issue of Cultivator & Country Gentleman, a bottle microscope is offered free with a 26 cent subscription to The Cricket on the Hearth. This appears to be the device patented by Daniel Tetlow, in 1883. The same offer had been made in 1882, using a quite different magnifier. Both were called the “New Botanical Microscope”.

1878 American Agriculturist
simple microscope
Accessories for the
American Agriculturist Microscope
American Agriculturist
Compound Microscope
The Trichine Tester
1892 American Agriculturist
Simple Microscope
Other microscope premiums
of the American Agriculturist
The Craig Microscopeother articles

Author - Richard Van Vleck, Email to: Copyright 1996, 1998, American Artifacts, Taneytown, MD. Reprinted from SMMA #22.