Artifact Corner: Episode 19

Hi Everyone and welcome back to artifact corner. Today we will be looking at some stereoscopes or stereoscopic photography. This stereoscope was taken in front of our house in 1864, at the time of William Swetland’s funeral. You can see our beautiful fence in the foreground, along with the family gathering for the funeral. The attire really helps to date this card. The women’s full skirts are very indicative of the earlier part of the 1860’s, because by 1868, 1869 skirt silhouettes were starting to slim down.

Stereoscopic photography was invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1832. He developed the binocular device that allowed you to view these images, making them three dimensional. The viewer allows each eye to see the image separately which creates the three dimensional effect. Stereoscopic photography really hit it’s hay day in the mid 1800’s. In 1856, the London Stereoscopic Company began sending photographers around the world to create cards for over 100,000 different places around the world.

Most middle and upper class homes had a stereoscopic viewer and began collecting cards. This is basically the “virtual reality” of the 1800’s. Some people found that the original viewers were causing headaches. In 1861, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Joseph Bates invited a hand held viewer that allowed the user to adjust the focal distance, thereby avoiding headaches. People flocked to buy this less expensive version of the viewer. In 1873 there was a financial crash that caused many companies to go out of business, leading many stereo card makers to shutter their doors as well. Thanks to this, the popularity of the cards and viewers declined.

As with all things, stereoscopic photography is having a bit of a resurgence. In 1922 The London Stereoscopic Company was dissolved. In 2008, Brian May (the guitarist for the band Queen) decided to form a modern day version of The London Stereoscopic Company. They have to this day published nine books of stereoscopic pictures. Some were taken by photographers from the 1850’s and 60’s, while other have been taken by Dr. May himself. He has been a fan of stereoscopic photography from childhood, and has been taking stereoscopic photos for most of his life. They have also created a new viewer that can be stored flat, and with the books, making it easy to store on bookshelves.

We at the museum have hundreds of these cards. Our family clearly appreciated the entertainment and novelty of stereoscopic photography. Imagine how fascinating it would be to see images of far away places in 3D, especially when photography was still so new, and drawings or portraits had previously been the only way to see distant lands. We hope you enjoyed this glimpse into Victorian entertainment. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,