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Brief History of Stereographs

Stereographs in the West

The 3-D Exhibit

Sources

Where To Get 3-D Glasses

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Historical Photography of the American West in 3-D

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"Rough Rider" Cowboys Saluting President McKinley
Reception at Los Angeles, California, 1901
Underwood & Underwood
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The 30 images in this virtual exhibit were created from stereographs in the collection of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Donald C. & Elizabeth M. Dickinson Research Center. The original stereo photographs were manipulated using the Adobe Photoshop program to create anaglyphs, images that, when seen with red/blue "3-D" glasses, allow the viewer to see the photographs as three-dimensional.

The original stereo photographs, affixed to a stiff backing 7 inches wide and 3½ to 4½ inches high, are seen as three-dimensional when viewed with a stereo viewer. Stereograph images are typically black & white or sepia in color, not the red/blue coloring of the anaglyphs in the exhibit. Viewmaster reels and viewers, which are still made today, are based on the same principle. However, Viewmaster images differ because they are transparent, in full color, and much smaller than the images used with a stereograph viewer.

Stereographs are NOT two identical images printed side-by-side. A special stereographic camera has two lenses with the center of the lenses placed approximately 2½ inches apart (the distance between the eyes of a typical adult) that takes two simultaneous photographs. When the printed photographs were placed on a stereograph card with the center of the images the same distance apart, the three-dimensionality of the original scene is recreated when seen through a stereo viewer.

Brief History of Stereographs

The earliest stereographs were daguerreotypes, photographic images recorded on sensitized sheets of silver-plated copper. These were not ideal for stereoscopic use because each image was unique with no possibility of reproduction and the shiny surface was difficult to view. As various metal-, glass-, and paper-based photographic printing processes were developed, they were adapted to stereographic use with varying degrees of success. Paper-based photographic printing was first used in 1852 and was by far the dominant method for producing stereographs.

stereoviewereyes.jpgStereoscopic viewers also went through an evolution, beginning in 1850 with Sir William Brewster’s invention of the lenticular stereoscope. This tabletop device was a closed box, which could be opened on the sides to admit light, with two adjustable lenses. Other inventions included viewers that could hold up to 200 stereographs on an endless belt, similar to CD and DVD jukeboxes in use today. Oliver Wendell Holmes invented the familiar handheld stereoscopic viewer; it was marketed and improved by his friend Joseph L. Bates. Holmes did much to encourage the popularity of stereographs, writing two enthusiastic essays on the subject for Atlantic Monthly, noting especially their educational possibilities.

The London Stereoscopic Company was one of the earliest mass-producers of stereographs, and by 1858 had amassed a list of more than 100,000 titles. Although there were other American manufacturers, the primary United States mass-producers were Underwood & Underwood, Keystone View Company, and H. C. White. These companies would have more than 10,000 titles in print at any given time. At the turn of the 20th century, the mass-producers were selling the cards at the rate of six for one dollar when purchased in lots of a dozen or more at a time. Examples of Underwood & Underwood and Keystone cards are featured in this virtual exhibit. In keeping with the educational function promoted by stereograph manufacturers, some mass-produced cards featured text on the reverse that provided background or commentary about the scene depicted. The text can also provide interesting insights into the prejudices and concerns of the era in which they were written.

The London Stereoscopic Company was one of the earliest mass-producers of stereographs, and by 1858 had amassed a list of more than 100,000 titles. Although there were other American manufacturers, the primary United States mass-producers were Underwood & Underwood, Keystone View Company, and H. C. White. These companies would have more than 10,000 titles in print at any given time. At the turn of the 20th century, the mass-producers were selling the cards at the rate of six for one dollar when purchased in lots of a dozen or more at a time. Examples of Underwood & Underwood and Keystone cards are featured in this virtual exhibit. In keeping with the educational function promoted by stereograph manufacturers, some mass-produced cards featured text on the reverse that provided background or commentary about the scene depicted. The text can also provide interesting insights into the prejudices and concerns of the era in which they were written.

In the early 1880s, the half tone or lithographic printing process became commercially viable, and this allowed stereographic images, many of which were originally published in true photographic editions, to be printed very inexpensively. These half tone stereographs, both multicolored and monochromatic, were produced to be sold very inexpensively, sometimes as little as three-cents per card. Sears Roebuck Company and Montgomery Ward Company both sold inexpensive lithographic stereo cards to mail order customers.

Smaller companies and individual photographers in Europe and the United States also got into the stereograph business. Local stereographic publishers were generally one of four types: stereographic specialists who focused on local subjects, resort photographers that limited their work to the tourist trade, studio photographers who produced stereographs as a sideline, and opportunists who produced a few views of an unusual event like a train wreck to be sold as souvenirs and then often resold the negative to a large-volume publisher. The card stock, label, and imprint used differed between publishers and this allows an individual card to be related to others produced by the same publisher.

stereobox.jpgThematic series and boxed sets were another way stereographs were sold. For example, series documenting World War I, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, and exotic travel destinations such as Japan and the Middle East were popular with stereo card purchasers. The Dickinson Research Center owns a boxed set of 100 multicolored lithographic stereographs called the “Sportsman’s Series,” probably originally sold by the Montgomery Ward Company. This series includes a variety of hunting and fishing views, but also, unaccountably, a number of American Indian scenes.

Stereographs were widely popular in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Although one of the primary selling points was always their educational content, perhaps the best way to think about stereographs is as the television or DVD of their era. In a time when few people traveled for pleasure, one of the main reasons people collected stereographs was to serve as a relatively inexpensive way to “travel” without ever leaving home. Other stereo card collectors might focus on images of trains, animals, or lighthouses, similar to the way someone today might collect science fiction or western films on DVD.

After 1920, the Keystone View Company was the only major stereograph publisher left in the world. As other companies ceased production Keystone would purchase their negatives and would sometimes issue them under their own name. For example, both Underwood & Underwood and Keystone issued some of the same views. Keystone ceased regular production in 1939, but continued to manufacture views for the optometric trade. Individual cards could still be ordered from Keystone as late as 1970.

Stereographs in the West

stereocard.jpgDaguerreotypists were active in Texas and California in the early 1850s, but San Francisco photographer C. E. Watkins probably created the first Western stereographs when he took more than a 1000 views of Yosemite and the giant sequoias sometime before 1865. Some of the major Western regional photographers who also took stereo views included Watkins and Thomas Houseworth of California, Charles W. Carter and Charles R. Savage of Utah, and Charles Weitfle of Colorado. This exhibit includes a Charles Savage stereograph of a Ute family. Other major sources of stereographs of the western United States and its peoples included photographers for government survey expeditions and railroads. The exhibit includes examples of both. John K. Hillers’ stereograph "Chu-ar-ru-um-peak Shooting a Rabbit" was taken on the John Wesley Powell’s Survey of the Colorado River, and Northern Pacific Railroad photographer F. Jay Haynes shot the stereograph "One Days Hunt in Dakota." Mass-producers Underwood & Underwood and the Keystone View Company were also major players in the production of Western-themed stereographs.

The 3-D Exhibit

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Click the photograph to enter the 3-D Exhibit.
Have your 3-D glasses ready!

Sources

Darrah, William C. Stereo Views: A History of Stereographs in America and Their Collection. Gettysburg, Penn.: Times and News Publishing Co., 1964.

Darrah, William C. The World of Stereographs. Gettysburg, Penn.: W. C. Darrah, 1977.

Where To Get 3-D Glasses

Many people have a set of anaglyphic (red/blue) 3-D glasses around the house, perhaps left over from attending a 3-D film. To purchase 3-D glasses to view this or other 3-D content, simply search for "3-D glasses" on Google or another search engine to find a wide variety of dealers that sell inexpensive anaglyphic 3-D glasses. To make 3-D glasses at home, check out this page at the United States Geological Service website: http://terraweb.wr.usgs.gov/TRS/kids/glasses.html.

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