Stereographs and Stereoscopes

Images Shot With Special Double Lenses Became Popular Entertainment

Photograph of a 19th century stereoscope
A 19th century stereoscope. Black Archive/Getty Images

Stereographs were a very popular form of photography in the 19th century. Using a special camera, photographers would take two nearly identical images which, when printed side by side, would appear as a three dimensional image when viewed through a set of special lenses called a stereoscope.

Millions of stereoview cards were sold and a stereoscope kept in the parlor was a common entertainment item for decades. Images on the cards ranged from portraits of popular figures to comical incidents to spectacular scenic views.

When executed by talented photographers, stereoview cards could make scenes appear extremely realistic. For example, a stereographic image shot from a tower of the Brooklyn Bridge during its construction, when viewed with the proper lenses, makes the viewer feel as if they are about to step out on a precarious rope footbridge.

The popularity of stereoview cards faded by about 1900. Large archives of them still exist and thousands of them can be viewed online. Many historic scenes were recorded as stereo images by noted photographers including Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady, and scenes from Antietam and Gettysburg can seem particularly vivid when viewed with the proper equipment that shows off their original 3-D aspect.

History of Stereographs

The earliest stereoscopes were invented in the late 1830s, but it wasn’t until the Great Exhibition of 1851 that a practical method of publishing stereo images was introduced to the public. Throughout the 1850s the popularity of stereographic images grew, and before long many thousands of cards printed with side-by-side images were being sold.

Photographers of the era tended to be businessmen fixated on capturing images that would sell to the public. And the popularity of the stereoscopic format dictated that many images would be captured with stereoscopic cameras. The format was especially suited to landscape photography, as spectacular sites such as waterfalls or mountain ranges would appear to jump out at the viewer.

In typical use, stereoscopic images would be viewed as parlor entertainment. In an era before films or television, families would experience what it was like to see distant landmarks or exotic landscapes by passing around the stereoscope.

Stereo cards were often sold in numbered sets, so consumers could easily buy a series of views related to a particular theme. 

It's apparent by viewing vintage stereoscopic images that photographers would try to choose vantage points which would emphasize the 3-dimensional effect. Some photographs that might be impressive when shot with a normal camera can seem thrilling, if not terrifying, when viewed with the full sterescopic effect.

Even serious subjects, including very grim scenes shot during the Civil War, were captured as stereoscopic images. Alexander Gardner used a stereoscopic camera when he took his classic photographs at Antietam. When viewed today with lenses that replicate the three-dimensional effect, the images, especially of dead soldiers in poses of rigor mortis, are chilling.

Following the Civil War, popular subjects for stereoscopic photography would have been the construction of the railroads in the West, and the construction of landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge. Photographers with stereoscopic cameras made considerable effort to capture scenes with spectacular scenery,  such as Yosemite Valley in California.

Stereoscopic photographs even led to the founding of the National Parks. Tales of spectacular landscapes in the Yellowstone region were discounted as rumors or wild tales told by mountain men. In the 1870s stereoscopic images were taken in the Yellowstone region and they were shown to members of Congress. Through the magic of stereoscopic photography skeptical legislators could experience some of the grandeur of Yellowstone's majestic scenery, and the argument to preserve the wilderness was thereby strengthened.

Vintage stereoscopic cards can be found today at flea markets, antique stores, and online auction sites, and modern lorgnette viewers (which can be purchased through online dealers) make it possible to experience the thrill of 19th century stereoscopes. 

Sources:

"Stereoscopes." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, edited by Thomas Riggs, 2nd ed., vol. 4, St. James Press, 2013, pp. 709-711.

"Brady, Mathew." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography, edited by Laura B. Tyle, vol. 2, UXL, 2003, pp. 269-270. 

"Photography." Gale Library of Daily LifeAmerican Civil War, edited by Steven E. Woodworth, vol. 1, Gale, 2008, pp. 275-287.

 

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McNamara, Robert. "Stereographs and Stereoscopes." ThoughtCo, Jun. 14, 2018, thoughtco.com/stereographs-and-stereoscopes-1773924. McNamara, Robert. (2018, June 14). Stereographs and Stereoscopes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/stereographs-and-stereoscopes-1773924 McNamara, Robert. "Stereographs and Stereoscopes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/stereographs-and-stereoscopes-1773924 (accessed June 19, 2018).