It feels like technology is always striving for a more immersive experience now. We have televisions the size of walls so that we feel like we are part of the film. We use social media to feel like we are connected with one another and immersed within a digital world. We have virtual reality (VR) headsets that give us the illusion we are living within a different world. While this is all based on new technologies, the desire for an immersive, vivid illusionary experience has been around for hundreds of years. In the 2000s, it is VR, in the 1950s, it was 3D, and all the way back in the 1850s, it was photography and the stereoscope.
The Early Days of Photography
While it is hard to imagine a time before photography, attempts had been made since the 1700s to produce images on light-sensitive emulsions, but it was not until 1838 when Louis Daguerre and his daguerreotype process made commercially available photographs possible. Daguerreotypes were dark, moody images that required several minutes of exposure to develop and were not easily reproduced. In 1847, Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard introduced the first commercially available method of producing prints using negatives. This method, the albumen print, used the protein structures found in egg whites to adhere photographic-developing chemicals to paper. In the 1850s, and for the next fifty years, albumen prints became wildly popular, in part thanks to the stereoscope.
The first stereoscope was a means of demonstrating how our sight functions. In 1838, Charles Wheatstone published a paper documenting a phenomenon he had noticed regarding how our eyes perceive images. Wheatstone noticed that if you drew two images from slightly different perspectives and then viewed them side by side, you would perceive them as having a three-dimensional effect. He used a device, the stereoscope, to show this phenomenon in action. The device was a large board with a divider down the center. On either side of the divider, an image was placed, both slightly different perspectives of the same image. He accounted for this effect by noting that our eyes see from slightly different perspectives, but when taken into account together, in stereo, you can perceive in three-dimensions.
A decade later, David Brewster took this discovery a step further, crafting a handheld device that allowed you to insert cards with two images on them into the device, which, when viewed, created a stereo image. Brewster’s stereoscope used a new technology, the albumen photograph, so that viewers could experience the world in a novel way. The photograph was new technology, allowing people for the first time to see images of distant places and peoples, art, and cultures. The stereoscope brought these images to life, creating an immersive experience previously unknown.
As you can guess, the stereoscope was an instant success. There was such demand for stereoscope images that Brewster’s company, The London Stereoscopic Company, at one point offered over 10,000 different cards in their catalog. It was not until the late 1850s that the stereoscope came across the Atlantic in earnest. Oliver Wendell Holmes, an American author and surgeon, had the means to purchase a Brewster model and was so impressed by the technology that he penned an essay in The Atlantic expressing his awe. In this essay, he decided the photograph cards used in stereoscopes needed an identifying name, so he dubbed them “stereograph” (meaning “solid” and “writing” in Latin roots). Holmes wanted as many others as possible to be able to experience the stereoscope, so he developed an easily manufactured version that could be cheaply produced. This started a stereoscope boom in the United States.
Because of Holmes’s actions, the stereograph was somewhat affordable for the time period and thus became a popular means for people to experience events and places across the globe. Stereographs were also used as early forms of photojournalism, with images from The Civil War and the Spanish-American War being distributed. The two most popular image genres for stereographs were travel-related or humorous. In the Victorian Era, travel was still limited to only the most wealthy families and individuals, but stereographs allowed people to travel through photography. In one sitting with your stereoscope, you could see European castles and cathedrals, then images of Yosemite and the American west, followed by the Pyramids. The comedic images were often staged scenes with situational humor of the time, like a woman sneaking out of her home for a tryst with her lover, sometimes with text as a punchline.
The applications of the stereoscope were not limited to entertainment. Astronomers found the technique used in producing stereograph photography useful in tracking changes in the moon and stars. Artists used it as inspiration and as reference materials. Much like many modern technologies, the stereoscope eventually found its way into schools as a device to help students learn about a variety of subjects, from geography to science and history.
By the early 1900s, the stereoscope was waning in popularity. Replaced by postcards and then radio, it was no longer seen as the hot new thing. The technology has lingered on for years, though, with the 3D glasses fad of the 1950s (and 1980s), and notably in a device that probably looks much more familiar: the View-Master. Introduced in the 1960s, the View-Master was an updated version of the stereoscope, with several color-image pairs set on a reel instead of a card. Versions of the View-Master still live on today, and while it has been over a century since they were popular, you can also find stereoscopes and stereographs in shops and online.
There are many people who collect stereographs like one would postcards. It is honestly quite fun to see what places and things were deemed worth taking photos of back then, and surprisingly – some of the photography is quite good. While we all might not have the taste, or space, for collecting stereographs, they can be framed and included in home décor. I went to college in Chicago and have a stereograph from the Columbian Exhibition in my hallway. It reminds me of not only my past but also serves as a reminder that things always change, but images and memories live on.
Megan Shepherd is a curator, freelance writer, and artist. She has worked in fine art museums for a decade and holds two Master’s degrees in the field. When she takes a break from art, she enjoys science-fiction books, antiquing, backpacking, and eating her weight in Dim Sum.
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