Early Victorian microscopists “J.W.” and “H.E.”:
connections to professional slide-maker John Barnett

by Brian Stevenson
last updated April, 2020

Microscope slides with customized cover papers printed with “J.W.” or “H.E.” appear with some frequency (Figures 1-3). Intriguingly, the same cover paper is imprinted with both initials (Figure 1). Moreover, other cover papers are known that have exactly the same pattern but are imprinted with the initials “J.W.” and “J.B.” (Figure 3). “J.B.” was professional slide-maker John Barnett (1816 1882), who began that trade circa 1850. Although the identities of “J.W.” and “H.E.” are not known, some clues can be gleaned from their known microscope slides.

Figure 1. Ca. 1850s microscope slides with cover papers bearing initials “H.E.” and “J.W.”. The third slide from the left has lost its specimen-identification label, showing that the cover paper is printed with both sets of initials. Note that each maker covered over the other person’s initials with a specimen label. The three slides on the right used either off-the-shelf papers or were not papered at all, but each bears a specimen label that appears to be the same as that on the “J.W.” slides.


Figure 2. Variants such as this are seen occasionally, with a specimen label written in the hand as on the “J.W.” slides shown in Figure 1, but with the “H.E.” initials showing on the cover paper. Was “J.W.” occasionally careless?


Figure 3. Ca. 1850s microscope slides with cover papers bearing initials “J.W.” and “J.B.”. The middle slide shows both sets of initials. “J.B.” was professional slide-maker John Barnett.


The maker of slides that show the “J.B.” initials is known to have been John Barnett, a prolific professional slide-maker who was active between ca. 1850 until his death in 1882. Barnett’s distinctive handwriting is easily recognized. An extensive, illustrated essay on Barnett’s life and works is available elsewhere on this site.

Printing two sets of initials on the same paper would likely have reduced their price. Production of custom-printed papers would require setting up a specific printing plate, and having two customers instead of one would permit a large production run and lower cost per unit. The second set of initials becomes irrelevant when the customer / slide-maker places a descriptive label over the second initials.

It is possible that “J.W.”, “H.E.”, and Barnett knew each other, and coordinated printing. Alternatively, the printer may have arranged their sharing, offering discounts to customers who did not already know each other.

The font of “J.W.” on papers that also have “H.E.” is different from that on papers with “J.B.” (compare Figures 1 and 3). The handwriting is also different on those two types of slides. It is possible that there were two different microscopists with initials “J.W.

Barnett’s earliest microscope slides were produced when he lived in the Clerkenwell section of London. Slides of the type shown in Figure 3 can be firmly dated as having been used by Barnett in the early 1850s. That implies that “J.W.” and “H.E.” were also Londoners, and probably were also active microscopists during the 1850s.

I am not aware of any duplicates of “J.W.” or “H.E.” slides. That suggests that neither person was a professional slide-maker (who would have produced numerous copies of popular mounts), and both were amateurs who prepared these slides for their own enjoyment.



Thank you to Howard Lynk and Craig Downing for sharing ideas and images.