Play—whether via imagination or with perspective—never stops being important to a person’s development. A look at playthings in Santa Clara’s archival collection of scientific instruments.

What at first look like a distorted drawing or a jumble of shapes transform into something else—something whole, different, new—through children’s playthings. Several scientific instruments (though today, we might classify them as toys) from the 1800s are part of Santa Clara University Library, Archives and Special Collections that use mirrors to achieve optical wonders.

Toys, says Jui Bhagwat, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology, need not be this complex to captivate interest and facilitate growth. “In the absence of actual toys, everyday objects or materials without a specific function like cardboard boxes can inspire fantastical role play,” she says. “One could argue that all play is transformative, because each play experience sets off a cascade of cognitive, social, and emotional developmental changes.” No matter our age, play transforms our perceptions of the world and our understanding of our place in it.

anamorphoscope, circa 1800s, in SCU Archives & Special Collections

“Catalogue of Microscopes, Accessories and Sundries” from James W. Queen & Co. of Philadelphia as a “fine optical toy,” this anamorphoscope uses a mirror to restore a distorted image to proper proportions. Long before Queen came on the scene, Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci would play with perspective, stretching images so much that they could only be seen accurately when viewed at an angle. In the 1920s, French inventor Henri Chrétien used anamorphosis to project an image much wider than its original form, paving the way for widescreen films. Meanwhile, artists and political activists alike use anamorphosis to disguise caricatures, scenes, and messages from a casual spectator. Only those willing to play with and question perspective can see the truth.

Kaleidoscope, from SCU Archives





The kaleidoscope was invented by accident in 1816 by Scottish physicist Sir David Brewster, who was experimenting with refraction. By placing long mirrors in a brass cylinder to reflect an image, Brewster found the tube transformed reality. He called it a kaleidoscope from the Greek words for “beautiful,” “form,” and “to view.” The item in SCU Archives dates to the 1870s and was built by Jules Duboscq. Adjustable mirrors change the angle of colored glass beads, producing endless patterns. Though it might seem like these scopes do not serve a purpose, Bhagwat says play, though “not essential to survival or livelihood,” nonetheless “nourishes us by providing opportunities for being creative, social, and uninhibited.”



This seven-mirror apparatus—also built by Jules Duboscq in the 1870s— demonstrates the full spectrum of color from a beam of sunlight. Just think of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover to understand how white light from the sun can be dispersed into a series of colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet) through the prisms of the mirrors. Playing with perspective never stops being important, even as adults. Play, in this way, can lead “to different things for different people,” says Bhagwat. “For some, it might tease out questions about why and how light creates patterns, for others it might set off ideas for how certain colors work together in art, design, or fashion, and for some it might just be a quiet moment [of reflection].”

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