Dynamos, Niagara Falls Power Co., NY
Keystone View Company, c. 1900-1910
Keystone-Mast Collection
University of California, Riverside

By the end of the 19th century, a growing number of Americans began to question the benefits of mass production and industrialization. They cited, among other things, the degrading effect of industrial work on laborers, both physically and mentally. The 1890s also saw two of the most vocal and violent outcries against industrial labor practices in history: the Homestead Strike of 1892 and the Pullman Strike in 1894. At the same time, the factory system was becoming one of the primary ways of defining American society in contrast with other, especially non-European, societies. Many began to see mechanization of almost all facets of everyday life as an inevitable aspect of the progress of American civilization.

Stereoscope from the 1860sMuch of the debate surrounding the merits and downfalls of industrialization took place through the growing number of images, especially photographic images, available to a wider and wider audience. Countless historians have commented broadly on the impact that photography had on late 19th-century American consciousness. A smaller number have discussed the widespread presence of the stereoscope (shown on the right) in the middle-class Victorian parlor as a quintessential source of didactic entertainment.

Distinct from other forms of photographic images in its ability to render views in three dimensions, the stereograph, or stereocard is a cardboard mount with two virtually identical images placed side by side (actually the photographs are taken approximately 2 1/2 inches apart, the average distance between the eyes). From the beginning, this new "machine" was associated with a means of armchair traveling—of knowing the world—in a much safer and, often, just as authentic or more authentic way. Simply by placing a stereograph in front of the binocular-shaped viewer, one could see faraway lands, exotic peoples, or, closer to home, the massive dynamos at Niagara Falls (see above)—all from the comfort of ones own parlor.

Although now considered by many a quaint oddity, the stereoscope in its heyday (1880-1910) gave millions of Americans standardized views (both aesthetically and ideologically) of labor and industry. This site examines a number of ways that mass-produced stereographs reinforced and extended claims supporting and justifying industrial capitalism in America, claims which in all likelihood reflected a middle-class viewership's growing understanding of the factory system. Fears of moral, spiritual, and cultural dissolution and complexities that emerged from rapid industrialization were contained, ordered, domesticated, and authenticated in part through the images viewed through the stereoscope. The images in this site and the descriptions that mediated them helped to homogenize and decontextualize labor and industry for a mass audience confronting one of the most significant changes of the latter half of the 19th century.

Choose a 'tour' from the library by clicking on a title Introduction The Stereoscope in America The Great Emancipator The Industrial Sublime Racial Division of Labor Conclusion and Sources
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