Stereoscopes

Around the World in … 8 Minutes?

In 1872, when Phileas Fogg was attempting to travel around the world in eighty days, there were no televisions or radios, no computers or DVD players. Instead, there was the stereoscope. A hand-held viewing device, the stereoscope produced three-dimensional views that were as impressive in their time as high tech movies and computer games are today.

The history of stereography can be traced as far back as Euclid, a Greek mathematician and physicist from the third century B. C. Euclid explored the principles of binocular vision and demonstrated that each eye sees a slightly different version of the same scene. A perception of depth occurs when the two versions are merged.

The “double-eyed” or twin pictures that are viewed through stereoscopes are known as stereo grams, stereo views or stereographs. Stereographs consist of two almost identical photographs mounted on a flat card. A special camera with two separate lenses was used to take the photographs. The lenses on the camera were set approximately 2½” apart, the average distance between human eyes. The chosen view would thus be taken from two slightly different angles, each being captured by a different frame of film. When viewed through a stereoscope, the brain perceives the two photographs as one three-dimensional image.

Stereography developed rapidly from its crude beginnings in the 1830s. In 1832, British physicist Charles Wheatstone created a device for producing images that appeared three-dimensional. Bulky and complicated, Wheatstone’s “reflecting stereoscope” became the first patented stereo viewer. By 1844, a new technique for taking stereoscopic photographs was demonstrated in Germany. Shortly after this, a smaller and much simpler viewer was developed in Scotland by David Brewster. Brewster combined Wheatstone’s creation with the pioneering ideas of French photographer Louis Daguerre to create the stereoscope.

Despite Brewster’s achievement, American entrepeneur Oliver Wendell Holmes usually gets credit for the creation of the stereoscope. In 1862, Holmes and his partner, Joseph Bates, developed the Holmes stereopticon. The Holmes stereopticon soon dominated the world market, becoming the standard viewing device for many decades. The stereoscope on display in the museum’s library is a Holmes-style stereoscope known as the Monarch Stereo Viewer. Patented in 1904, this stereoscope was manufactured by the Keystone View Company of Meadville, Pennsylvania.

By 1900, the top stereo companies in the world were American. Though the United States had quickly become the center of the greatest interest in stereography, thousands of companies were established across both Europe and the United States. Three of the more successful were Léon Levy in Paris, the London Stereoscopic Company and E. Anthony & H. T. Anthony in the United States.

Stereography was a commercial success from the very beginning with millions of stereographs being produced between the 1850s and 1930s. Stereographs were so commonplace by 1900 that the Quaker Oats company began giving cards away free with its cereal. Queen Victoria also had a hand in promoting the stereographic craze. Shortly after she “took a fancy” to the stereoscope at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exposition, the stereoscope began to be considered an essential item for every household. By the late nineteenth century, almost every middle- to upper-class home had at least one.

Though stereographs are valued today mainly as an important source of information on nineteenth and early twentieth century culture and values, during their hey-day they were seen as a popular form of entertainment and education. Part of the reason for this popularity was their affordability. Stereographs provided almost everyone, regardless of social status, economic well-being or physical ability, with ample opportunity for amusement and vicarious travel. They showed scenes from daily life, told stories and provided millions of immigrants with a link to their homeland.

The subjects of stereographs were wide-ranging. Everything from street scenes and landscapes to planets and geographic surveys were captured by stereographic photographers. Popular subjects included famous persons, landmarks, theatre, comedy, war and architecture. News and geography did not emerge as dominant genres until the 1890s. By the turn of the century, political events, parades, feats of engineering and natural disasters had become popular. Highly successful stereographic views were often imitated and were reproduced for many years. During a six month period in 1862, for example, over 300,000 views of the International Exhibition in London were sold.

One of the larger collections of stereographs at the museum was donated by Kathern (Derosier) Schneider of Little Falls, Minnesota, Each stereograph in this collection was carefully stamped with the owner’s name (Thomas, Raymond, Louis or Joseph Derosier). The Derosier collection includes twenty-eight sets of stereographs, twenty-two of which show views from around the world. The other six sets include comic or moral tales and views of sites important to Christianity. Each set of photos is colored and mounted on a card with a colored face. All of the views are titled and several have accompanying descriptive text.

The twenty-two “travel” sets in the collection show sites from all over the world. Wonders of the Old World – Foreign Series, for example, shows views from Japan, Rome, Jerusalem, Russia, France, Holland, Palestine, Germany, England, Sweden, Ireland, Scotland, Italy and Venice. The first stereograph in the set shows a parade of Shinto priests in Tokyo, Japan. The view reveals a colorful street scene complete with rickshaws, umbrellas, flags and spectators. Another card gives the viewer a birds-eye view of the famous fountains at the Peterhoff Palace near St. Petersburg, Russia. The set ends with a glimpse of the picturesque Rialto Bridge in Venice. This scene captures remarkably well the special blend of color and light that is a trademark of the Venetian landscape.

When Jules Verne sent his main character, Phileas Fogg, on a mad adventure across the globe in his book, Around the World in 80 Days, travel was much less accessible than it is today. If Fogg had been a practical man, he would probably have purchased a stereoscope and some “travel view” stereographs. In just a few comfortable painless minutes, he could have traveled around the world and saved himself the trouble of a hair-raising, though exciting, adventure.

By Ann Marie Johnson
Copyright 2004, Morrison County Historical Society

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *