Stereoscope Ancestor to Today’s Photography

Between 1858 and 1920, stereoscopes and an assortment of views were commonplace in middle and upper class parlors across America.

Wannabe travelers could sit in the comfort of their favorite soft chairs and explore unfamiliar foreign and domestic lands in three dimensions, unlike those in two dimensional books and magazines. I fondly recall a late 1940s playtime activity from my early childhood that occurred during visits to my Grandmother Cox’s house. I often removed a shoebox full of photo cards from her living room closet and viewed them in 3D by means of a wooden device known as a stereoscope.

Sir Charles Whetstone developed the technology in 1833, but it was not until the arrival of photography that it became commercialized. Prior to 1850, the viewers were bulky with thick glass plates. In 1859, renowned physician, poet and humorist, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and Joseph Bates perfected a practical and inexpensive compact viewer that quickly became the standard for the industry.

Each card had what appeared to be two identical photographs positioned side-by-side horizontally. In reality, they were shot 2.5 inches apart (the approximate distance between the eyes) using a special camera with duel lenses and shutters. The stereoscope allowed the images to be combined into one picture, giving the illusion of 3D. It was quite impressive for its time and became exceedingly popular with the masses.

The unique gadget consisted of a folding handle, enclosed viewfinder and sliding cardholder. The instructions were straightforward: “1- Place a view card between the metal clips on the side. 2- Hold the stereoscope by the handle. 3- Look into the viewer with your free hand and slowly move the slide containing the view card backward or forward until the view comes into focus.”

 A 1902 Sears, Roebuck & Co. (“Cheapest Supply House on Earth, Chicago”) catalog listed an assortment of scopes, ranging in price from 24 cents for a cherry frame model with medium sized lenses to $1.87 for a polished rosewood one having pure white glass lenses and nickel-plated trimmings. The cost of a dozen views was 54 cents for colored, 36 cents for black and white, and 95 cents for higher quality images. Slide subjects ranged from travelogues to natural disasters to entertainment events.

One mixed box of slides might present the pyramids and tombs of Egypt; Yellowstone Park; hunting, fishing and camping life; building of the Panama Canal, the San Francisco Earthquake, the 1892 Chicago World’s Fair, the Spanish-American War and even some comedic or pun ones.

Johnson City became the subject of at least one stereoscopic view. The card photos show a west-to-east scene of a crowd of bystanders along the railroad track on Main Street. The picture was likely a promotional product since the city at that time boasted of a foundry and machine works, ice factory, two insulator pin factories, a steam flouring mill, a 125-ton capacity furnace and one cannery.

Over the years, many of the millions of stereoscopic views that were manufactured were destroyed, discarded or recycled at paper drives during both World Wars. Those remaining are frequently soiled and faded with age. Fortunately, many were preserved in pristine form.

The prized shoebox containing my grandmother’s viewer and 3D cards disappeared over a half-century ago without any family member recalling what happened to them.