Stereoscopes: Entertainment from the Past

 Stereoscopes: Entertainment from the Past
An assortment of antique stereoscopes and stereoscopic views, ca. 1889 – 1921.

During the month of June, the Rosenberg Library exhibited several types of antique stereoscopes. A stereoscope (also referred to as a stereopticon or stereo viewer) is an optical instrument with two eyepieces used to impart a three-dimensional effect to two photographs of the same scene that are taken from slightly different angles. Stereoscopes were wildly popular sources of entertainment during the Victorian era.

Stereoscopic, or three-dimensional photography, creates an illusion of depth by manipulating the binocularity of human vision. Each eye sees a bit differently, but the brain combines the two so that we see a single image with spatial dimensions. Stereoscopic views use two nearly identical photographs, side by side, for the left eye and the right eye, respectively. When viewed through the special lens of a stereoscope, the two flat images appear as one three-dimensional image.

British scientist Sir Charles Wheatstone invented the first patented stereoscope in 1838. Wheatstone began experimenting with stereoscopic drawings as early as 1832, before the development of photography. Once photographic technology was discovered, the principles of stereoscopy and photography were combined for use in a stereoscope. Although his was the first, Wheatstone’s stereoscope was not as widely received as the version developed by American physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1881. The Holmes stereoscope remained the most common type until 1939.

Between the 1850s and the 1930s, stereoscopes and stereoscopic views were produced by the millions. When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were presented with a stereoscope at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, they were delighted with this new technology. Its popularity grew in Europe, and soon soared among Americans. Because it was an affordable means of entertainment, stereoscopes could be found in most households. Typical scenes depicted on stereoscopic views were vast landscapes, portraits of famous people, architectural wonders, and everyday scenes. Stereoscopes allowed viewers to see images of people and places all around the world. For those who weren’t fortunate enough to make the “Grand Tour,” stereoscopes provided a stay-at-home version of international travel.

Underwood & Underwood, a Kansas-based company, was one of the largest and most successful producers of stereographs. The company was started by brothers Bert and Elmer Underwood in 1897. It manufactured millions of stereographic slides, many of which were sold as boxed sets. These sets featured photographic views of nearly every country in the world and were sold to schools for educational purposes. Underwood & Underwood was assumed by another company, Keystone, in 1921.

As interest in motion pictures, newsreels, and illustrated magazines grew, the novelty of stereoscopes waned. By the 1930s, stereoscope production had declined significantly. However, these unique devices are appealing collectors’ items today.

Past Treasures