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Kaleidoscopes To You, and to whomever you gift them to

Mar 17, 2023

Karl Schilling of Kaleidoscopes To You demonstrates attaching a piece of mirror inside a brass kaleidoscope body at his workshop in Manly.

Karl Schilling of Kaleidoscopes To You at work on one of his pieces.

Kaleidoscopes To You owner Karl Schilling shows off the 'Wonder Wheel,' the toy that inspired his lifelong love of kaleidoscopes.

Karl Schilling pulls down a toy kaleidoscope from the top shelf.

It's the Wonder Wheel, made by toy manufacturer Stevens Toys out of Herman, Missouri. He credits it for sparking his lifelong love of kaleidoscopes.

"I'm that much of a kaleido-nerd that I had to go and visit the factory when it was still open," he says.

Schilling's "kaleido-nerd" workshop serves as the headquarters of his business Kaleidoscopes To You in Manly, just off the intersection of U.S. Highway 65 and Iowa Highway 9. The complex of buildings includes an office, gallery, warehouse, shipping, metal shop, wood shop and glass-blowing studio. Parked outside is Schilling's car. Its plates read KALEIDO.

The Wonder Wheel was his first kaleidoscope.

"I cut it open. It was some tin and some plastic parts. I was disappointed. It seemed like it should be more complex, because to me, the images were amazing."

Shilling and his family started making kaleidoscopes out of stained glass in 1982 in Spring Green, Wisconsin, at the House of the Rock tourist attraction. From there, the family added a second store in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, and a third in Galena, Illinois. During college, Schilling opened a fourth location in Red Wing, Minnesota, called The Glass Scope. Co-owner Jean Schilling, his wife, also comes from an entrepreneurial family. Her mother owned and operated The Plant Ranch, a florist and greenhouse with locations in Manly and Mason City.

From 1994 to 1997, the Schillings operated Crystal Kaleidoscope at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. They were operating five stores in three states before merging the businesses and going online in 1998 as, headquartered in Manly. Between closing the floral business in 2007 during the Great Recession, expanding their warehouse in 2011, and with an ongoing expansion of the glass-blowing workshop, the company's journey has ebbed and flowed. Now the business primarily operates online via its website

"I've had to keep reinventing myself" Schilling says.

Years ago the Schillings had part time employees helping with manufacturing and shipping. "Now it's down to pretty much just us," he says.

Schilling has streamlined offerings, shrinking the catalog from more than 1,900 items to around 700, and has an average order size of $127 per box.

"The Great Recession was a great learning time for me. It was tough, but we still had orders coming in almost every day." In September 2019, The Schillings were named 'Entrepreneurs of the Month' by the NIACC John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center and the North Iowa Area Small Business Development Center.

If any random household shelf or trinket box in America contains a kaleidoscope, chances are it wasn't bought by the owner but was a gift. It's a seasonal business, with holiday sales making up about 25% to 30% of yearly sales.

Schilling's designs, along with around a dozen other artists' work, make up the online catalog, from plastic toy kaleidoscopes to hand-crafted fine art kaleidoscopes, teleidoscopes (which refract images and light in front of the lens, as opposed to within the instrument) and hand-made marbles, jewelry and glassware. They also fill corporate orders for kaleidoscopes sold at gift shops or as promotional giveaways, and custom orders with laser and wood engraving.

The website is easy to navigate and filled with detailed information about the pieces, some complete with videos that showcase an item's unique design and optical pattern.

The gallery is now by appointment-only, but yields some amazing views from Schilling's collection, from Victorian-era pieces that follow closely the design of the earliest kaleidoscopes, to wonderfully ornate stained-glass patterns smattered with a rainbow of colors, all crisscrossing through the light in beautiful symmetry.

Schilling says he's been blessed. He considers himself "just lucky to make a career of selling and making kaleidoscopes, bringing joy to people worldwide, but only in America can I make a living selling things people do not need, but want."

While drinking alcohol can help you fall asleep, it has been proven that this results in less quality sleep overall.

Alexander Schmidt is an Education/General Assignment Reporter for the Globe Gazette. You can reach him at [email protected] or at 641-421-0527.

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MANLY — As you drive north on Highway 65 into Manly, you’ll seea friendly flower shop and nursery called The Plant Ranch.

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