After reading an article about stereo views in the current Victorian Homes magazine, it dawned on me: My fascination and infatuation with the Victorian era began when I discovered Victorian stereographs in the 1970's. When I picked up my first Holmes stereoscope, placed a card in the holder, peered through the dual lenses and saw real Victorians come to life before my eyes, I was hooked!
I began collecting stereoscopes and stereo cards, and whenever I saw a box full of them at an antique store or fair, I just had to look through the whole box. I collected all types of cards, and tried to find out as much as I could about their history. Stereography amazed me. Sure, I had Viewmasters when I was a kid, but I guess I was never impressed with the quality or the subject matter. Maybe I was drawn more to the Victorian stereo views because of my interest in both history and photography. Stereo cards were a very affordable way to collect early original photographic items, while peeking into an era long past.
First, a little history. Stereo photography came about not long after the dawn of photography itself. A stereoscope was on display at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, and Queen Victoria really took to the idea. Soon, stereoscopes became very popular in England. At first, they were made in the prevailing photographic medium, the daguerreotype. These were soon modified to become positive images on glass, and were viewed through Brewster stereoscopes, models with the light source coming from behind. In the late 1850's, Oliver Wendell Holmes invented a handheld stereoscope, which really took off in America. Paper card stereo views were produced from the early 1850's until the 1930's. Through the years, stereo views were made in almost every medium known to photography. Millions of different views were created throughout the world during the Victorian era.
From tabletop models, to backlit and handheld models, and even penny arcade models which stood on the floor and were loaded with hundreds of views to flip through, stereo photography was a hit. Every family had a viewer and some stereo views. Sets of stereo cards could be bought around different themes. The most widely successful theme was travel photography. The great stereoscopic manufacturers sent their photographers to all the corners of the world to bring back views. Other popular themes included comic views, natural and manmade disasters, the Civil War, exhibitions, and views of celebrities. Different types of stereographic cameras were also produced and perfected during this time. Stereo photography died out around 1930, then resurfaced in the 1950's when Viewmasters, Realist cameras and 3D movies were the rage.
What makes a stereo view appear so realistic? We have two eyes, and because our eyes are separated by a couple inches, we see a slightly different image with each eye. The brain melds these images into something we can understand. This separation of our eyes helps us to judge spacial relationships of different objects to each other, because we can see slightly around the objects. Sometimes things in the foreground are so close we have to almost cross our eyes so as to bring both images from each eye into focus. Things in the middle ground are easier to see, and we can tell what items are in front of others. Objects that are a great distance away appear flat because both eyes are virtually seeing the same image, and there is no depth perception. Stereographic photography takes advantage of the way our eyes see two slightly different images. Two photographs are taken, one slightly to the right or left of the other. These images are mounted and viewed with a special viewer that allows the left eye to see one picture and the right eye to see the other. Your brain fuses these images together, just as it would if you were viewing the images live, and you get the effect of seeing the image as if you were really there.
In my next post, I'll talk more about the different types of Victorian stereo cards in my collection, and show you how to make and view your own stereographs!