Welcome to the inaugural episode of Time Travel Tuesday! This series will focus on aspects of history illustrated by objects in our collections. In today’s post, we’ll be talking about stereographs.
Have you ever watched a movie in 3D or spent hours staring at a Magic Eye image hoping to see whatever was hidden in all the abstract colors? 3D imaging is somewhat of a novelty, even today, but the impulse to create two dimensional images that look 3D has been around a lot longer than you might think. In the early decades of the 19th century, inventors began devising ways to create the illusion of a three dimensional view, even before advances in photographic technology made it possible to quickly and inexpensively create direct representations of the world.
Early 3D photographs (and drawings) were called stereographs or stereograms. Stereoscopy, the technique used to create stereographs, works because our eyes see at slightly different angles from each other. When your eyes work together, in stereo, you perceive a three dimensional view of your surroundings. Close one eye and the world flattens. By placing a slightly different image to be viewed by each eye independent of the other, your mind is tricked into seeing a three dimensional scene.
The first stereoscope was invented by a man called Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838. Wheatstone’s original apparatus employed a system of mirrors to reflect two slightly different images to the eyes. Six years later, David Brewster improved on Wheatstone’s design, doing away with the mirrors and instead using prisms in a closed case. Stereoscopy became all the rage in Victorian England. Even Queen Victoria was bitten by the stereo bug. The Great Exhibition of 1851 brought the stereoscope to an international audience and around 1860 Cambridge native Oliver Wendell Holmes invented his own version of the stereoscope.
The Holmes Stereopticon, also known as the American stereoscope, was incredibly popular. In the years following its invention, which Holmes declined to patent, thousands upon thousands of stereoscopic images, also known as stereographs, were produced for viewing through a stereoscope. They were cheap and readily available, making them a truly democratic amusement.
The CHC has a number of stereographs as part of the Postcards and Stereographs Collection, depicting historical monuments, notable residences, churches, Harvard University, and landscape views.
Washington’s Headquarters (Prof. Longfellow’s Residence), Cambridge. Not dated. Produced by American Stereoscopic Views.
The Washington Elm. “Under this tree Washington first took command of the American Army. July 3rd 1775.” Not dated. Produced by A.E. Alden, Boston.
Vicinity of Boston. Park and Garden Series. Not Dated. Produced by C. Seaver, Jr. Photographer. Labeled on reverse “Residence near Mt. Auburn.” This is the only color stereograph in our collection. See below for more information.
Updated: It was recently pointed out to us by an eagle-eyed commenter that the above image is, in fact, a house formerly in Roxbury. This house appears in a painting of Roxbury in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, below:
Stereographs were mass produced as souvenirs. People visiting Cambridge could purchase these cards and bring them home with them to relive their trip. This is evidenced by the frequent inclusion of historical information on the back of the cards.
Elmwood, Birthplace of James Russell Lowell, Cambridge Mass. Not dated. Produced by Underwood & Underwood Publishers.
[Reverse] Elmwood, Birthplace of James Russell Lowell, Cambridge Mass. Not dated. Produced by Underwood & Underwood Publishers.
Especially interesting in this example is the inclusion of multiple languages at the bottom of the card. Visitors who spoke French, German, Spanish, Swedish, or Russian could read for themselves what was depicted in the stereograph.
Reverse of a stereograph card of Hollis Hall dormitories. Several cards with this historical description pasted to the back are present in our collection, and indication of just how common these types of cards were.
Other cards included a list of other available stereograph images. This card depicting a scene in Mount Auburn Cemetery is an example.
While difficult to make out, the design to either side included the description “Rural Cemeteries, United States.” Based on information on the reverse, we know this is Mount Auburn Cemetery. Not dated. Publisher not specified.
Reverse of above. Someone, perhaps the original owner of this card, underlined “12. Lawn and Chapel” under Mount Auburn, Cambridge, indicating the subject of the photograph.
Unfortunately, many cards do not include any information at all to identify them. However, occasionally the original purchaser chose to identify the subject themselves, perhaps to help them remember their visit.
Memorial Hall, Harvard University. No identifying information is present on the front of this card.
Reverse of above. “Memorial Hall” “Harvard” Cambridge Mass. June 1874. A. F. F.
Interest in stereoscopy has continued to the present day. Tutorials on creating your own stereoscopic images are available online. So if you live in Cambridge and want to experience a little bit of time travel for yourself, give it a try and show us what you come up with!
Victoria and Albert Museum
American Antiquarian Society