The Stereoscope in America

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The Stereograph as an Educator
Thomas J. Schlereth. Victorian America

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Original Holmes Stereoscope

At what many consider the first World's Fair, the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, Queen Victoria expressed delight with a new "machine," the stereoscope. This medium had its first heyday in the U.S. in the 1860s and 70s when the statesman Oliver Wendell Holmes created (and deliberately did not patent) a streamlined, much more economical viewer than had been available before, featured on the left (Darrah, 2). America's fascination with stereographs quickly outweighed that of Europe's, perhaps in part because it fulfilled a middle-class desire for self-improvement and cosmopolitanism and possessed many of the benefits the "Grand Tour" offered at a much more affordable price (Darrah, 2).

Selling stereoscopes and stereographsClaims that there was a stereoscope in every parlor in America came as early as the 1860s (Darrah, 2), but in their second wave of popularity in the 1880s-1910s, the availability of stereographs could be quantified: Underwood & Underwood, one of the three major stereographic companies in this period, produced over 25,000 images per day (Darrah, 47), and an estimated 300 million stereographs were issued between 1854 to 1920 (Wadja, 112). Selling at six for a dollar, most stereographs captured the interest of middle class consumers, but a few companies catered to the working class, providing similar views at 3 cents a piece or 85 cents per 100 (DeLeskie, 69). Found in drugstores, distributed through mail-order catalogs, given away as premiums by cereal and tea companies, and canvassed cross-country by college students (including a young Carl Sandburg), it is no wonder that many scholars consider the stereoscope as the first mass photographic medium prior to cinema or television (see Trachtenberg, Reading, 17).

White Oak Cotton Mills, 1909Coinciding with the popularity of this new technology was an increasing interest in visiting—and viewing—factories, especially in the early years of the 20th century (Nye, 127). In 1900, for example, the Heinz Company hosted 20,000 visitors at its plant in Pittsburgh (Nye, 113). Sometimes companies themselves sold sets of "company tours" (most notably Sears), but primarily major stereographic publishers did so, to satisfy consumers' fascination with the "combination of complexity and order they found in plants and mills" (Nye, 113). After 1905, Underwood & Underwood started packaging these tours in immitation book bindings, calling them the Underwood Travel System, reinforcing their connection with "edutainment" suitable for the whole family. Other stereographic companies followed suit.

Around the turn of the century, the stereoscope began to move, along with education in general, from the parlor to the public school. Underwood & Underwood and the other company with the widest distribution of the period, the Keystone View Company, actively marketed sets of 600 or more views to schools for instructional purposes. This shift also accompanied a desire for more experiential education, promoted by educators such as John Dewey, which the stereoscope—while clearly a representative form of knowledge—claimed to offer. Mass-market companies also recommended the stereoscope as a tool to convey the basic tenets of “economic geography,” a way of organizing and understanding the world through its labor systems.

Along with the educational sets, the immensely popular “Tours of the World” and “Underwood Travel System” as well as individually sold cards worked to give Americans homogenized ways of seeing labor in America and in foreign lands. Underwood Travel SystemIn a time of conflicting messages about industrialization and an increasing amount of visual and statistical information, the “highly structured presentation of visual and text-based information provided viewers with a familiar framework with which to approach change” (DeLeskie, 121). Stereographs standardized the way images were constructed, what was worth looking at and how to look at images. Although much of the praise for the stereograph's unique ability to portray reality came from stereograph manufacturers themselves, and thus remains a bit suspect, Holmes, in addition to creating an affordable viewer, did much to differentiate the stereograph from other forms of two-dimensional images—specifically painting here, but Holmes' emphasis on depth makes it applicable to non-stereoscopic photographs as well:

The first effect of looking at a good photograph through the stereoscope is a surprise such as no painting ever produced. The mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture. The scraggy branches of a tree in the foreground run out at us as if they would scratch our eyes out. The elbow of a figure stands forth so as to make us almost uncomfortable. (The Stereoscope and the Stereograph, 1859)

The stereoscope's distinctness was not always so apparent, so photographers enhanced the three-dimensional quality by using techniques such as long lines of perspective or circular borders (like a wreath, for example), around portraits. Methods of creating three-dimensional reality also resembled the composition of the "natural history museum's habitat group with its sculpted foreground, less detailed posterior foreground, and painted background. In fact, curator advice articles and stereoscopic photographer trade magazines contained similar tips on the use of at least three planes of vision" (Strain). The consciously constructed cultural environment of the diorama appeared in even greater relief with the three-dimensional stereographic image.

Since companies often reproduced negatives for decades, and photographers distributed copies to multiple publishing companies, the same images were likely to be seen numerous times, reinforcing the other images and insuring consistency in what the viewership saw (DeLeskie, 106; Darrah, 8). Publishers rarely identified photographers by name, and many companies seem to have followed Underwood's model for determining subject matter:

Perhaps long experience in what kinds of pictures would sell led Bert Underwood [who spent many years as a stereograph canvasser before he and his brother founded their company] to a theory and practice in photography which became the standards which all future photographers employed by Underwood were expected to follow (Darrah, 47).

This standardization of the storehouse of visual images was significant, as Jeb Fowles indicates: “For the first time in human history, such a large proportion of a population was looking at an extended but finite set of carefully produced secular images" (91).

In the process of naturalizing and standardizing a particular visual perspective of the factory system for middle-class audiences, the viewer was oriented further through various methods of recontextualization. Viewing images through a stereoscope, typically with all periferal vision blocked, gave one a sense of "being there," yet, as is the case with all photographic images, the viewer was distanced from the subject (whether they were machines or laborers), which became abstracted and objectified. Text, printed on the back of the cards, often accompanied stereographic sets, which oriented individuals within the scene geographically and culturally and thus mediated the ways in which they saw the image. The stereoscope's presence in the parlor and the schoolroom domesticated and authenticated it further, and comments by renowned scholars included with the sets added to its authority. Underwood & Underwood and Keystone View Company commonly inscribed text on the back of the cards or provided companion booklets, which gave additional context for the images. Geographical placement along with cultural commentary encouraged viewers to come to specific conclusions, to come away from the viewing experience with a common understanding of what they had seen.

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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