Walter White – mail order microscope slides

Walter White (b. 1841) was an English chemist and pharmacist who owned and operated a drugstore in Litcham, Norfolk. He demonstrated his serious interest in microscopy by having memberships in several microscopical clubs simultaneously and by writing articles for popular science journals such as England’s Hardwicke’s Science Gossip and America’s The Microscope. White also produced a line of inexpensive microscope slides and sold a Damar specimen mounting medium, purportedly of his formulation.

The slides that White made were aimed at the amateur microscopists who were interested in making permanent slide mountings. The slides he provided were temporary dry-mounts made of cardboard with a circular opening cut through the center. The central hole was covered with double glassine layers for holding a specimen in place. Glassine is a paper that has been made transparent by repeatedly passing it between two steel rollers while applying pressure — a process termed supercalendering. Although the product is transparent, it is not of sufficient optical quality to enable clear, magnified viewing of the encased specimen. White’s temporary one-by-two-inch rectangular cardboard mounts were also much lighter than those made from the standard one-by-three-inch glass slides. Cardboard slides were not breakable, and combining that feature with their low weight made them perfect for distribution through the postal service.

Walter White’s name is printed on the paper ring glued over the glassine that serves as the slide’s coverslip. With all slide orders, White included a folded sheet that identified all the slides he had available for sale. The purchaser would find a pencil-written number on one of the cardboard mounts and match it to the numbered list to identify the specimen he had. The sheet also served as an advertisement for the other slides that could be purchased. A second sheet provided cursory slide-making instructions that were not particular to the specific slides in the order.

Not many of White’s cardboard slides have made it into contemporary collections. Their intent was to be cut open, have their contents removed and used for making a permanent mount or other purpose, and then discarded. White’s cardboard and paper slides did not stand up over time. The paper became unglued during humid conditions, and the tiny contents lost. The slides looked cheap and toy-like, and the lack of identifying information on them contributed to them having a short half-life.



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        What made White’s slides enjoyable acquisitions for microscopists was his skill in producing extremely thin slices of specimens, evenly done from edge to edge. Sectioning specimens with such finesse is a difficult task for amateurs. To withstand the stress and pressure of being cut into ultrathin sections, a sample requires treatment with boiling, chemical soaks, dehydration, and embedding in paraffin. The lengthy processing and extra equipment needed to create thinly sliced materials were incredibly daunting, particularly so when all that an amateur usually wanted was a single slice. For the professional slide maker, however, once a material was prepared correctly, hundreds of slices could be made from it.

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The slides are identified by a number that matches numbers on a sheet enclosed with the slides listing the complete inventory White in the sales inventory.

Walter White advertised his slides in popular science-related magazines and journals. He sent an examination set of his temporary mounts to John Ellor Taylor (1837–1895), the editor of Hardwicke’s Science Gossip. Taylor made several permanent mounts using White’s sectioned materials and wrote a positive review that he published in Hardwicke’s. The article highlighted the low cost and the high-quality slides one could make using the microtome-sliced specimens obtained from White’s cardboard slides. Taylor’s piece ran in the 1888 issue of the monthly magazine Hardwicke’s. The article listed the 180 items that White could provide through mail order and served to markedly increase his business. The success spurred White to repeat his issuing of free sample slide sets to magazine and journal editors. He was again successful with Charles W. Smiley, editor of The Microscope, a monthly journal aimed at an audience of amateur microscopists in the United States. Smiley not only wrote a stellar review about White’s specimen-sectioning skills but also agreed to become the distributor for White’s slides in North America. Again, as an editor, Smiley served well to popularize and advertise White’s temporary slide mounts.

The August 1894 issue of The Microscope opens with an illustrated article by Charles Smiley titled “Vegetable Sections Seen beneath a Microscope.” The piece begins with Smiley crediting the materials that he used to Walter White. He included four quality engravings of White’s botanicals, pricing information for his cardboard and glassine slides, and instructions for purchasing specimens of the reader’s choice. Smiley refers readers back to the magazine’s January 1893 issue, which contains a reprint of a complete listing of White’s inventory of slides. In the September 1895 issue of The Microscope, Smiley mentions that he just received a large shipment of White’s slides. This notice establishes that White was still conducting the temporary slide distribution on this date.


White also tried selling a microtome of modified design for amateur microscopists. His modification added an inclined plane to a microtome’s screw advance mechanism. White claimed the added movement provided improved advancement control and consistency of thickness between successive slices. White also published a separate article about the functional strategy of the device, including diagrams, in Hardwicke’s Science Gossip.

        Walter White kept his pharmacy business until he turned it over to his son during his later years. White’s son did not continue to sell microscopy items after his father retired. His dropping of this part of the pharmacy business suggests that the father’s microscopical endeavors never developed beyond being a hobby.

While Charles Smiley was serving as the editor for The Microscope, he also assumed the position of Commissioner for the United States Department of Fisheries, Washington, DC. After several years of service, he was removed from the office. The March 1891 issue of the Times (New York) reported that Smiley’s recall from office was for the reasons that “His statistical work on the U.S. Commercial Fishing Census was deemed to be worthless,” “he devoted too much time to private ends,” and he “created an agency atmosphere fraught with political infighting.”

An advertisement in the journal The Microscope for renewing a subscription and to purchase Walter White’s microscope slide preparation materials.

How to footnote this page: Reiser Frank W. (2021, June) Walter White – mail order microscope slides. Searching an Invisible World for Its Tiniest Things.