Stereographs Brought the World to 1800s Parlors

Miss Genevieve Duffin of Chicago writes: "Whatever happened to stereographs?"

Stereo views - double images of photographs viewed through a stereoscope - have been largely dismissed by historians. But in the 19th century, stereographs were overwhelmingly popular, not only as a parlor amusement but as a means of acquainting oneself with the world.

Stereography was invented in 1832 by British scientist Sir Charles Wheatstone, and became popular in 1851 after Queen Victoria displayed interest in a stereographic exhibition at London's Crystal Palace. In 1860, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. invented the Holmes Stereoscope, which looked like a pair of binoculars upon which a small stand was mounted. The demand for stereographs grew so rapidly in the United States that the government put a revenue stamp on all stereographic images to help finance the Civil War.

There were no photographs in newspapers, so photographers went all over the world to make stereographic images of portraits, modes of transportation, and scenic views. During social gatherings, guests would trade cards, which sold for 15 to 25 cents apiece.

Interest in stereoscopes diminished in the early 20th century but enjoyed a resurgence with the circulation of World War I battlefront views. During World War II, the need for cardboard and scrap paper led to the loss of many of these images. But aerial stereographic views were used during that war as a tool to observe the topography of invasion sites.

Today, Imax 3-D films use stereographic binocular principles, albeit with color optic precision on a two-story curved screen. But the fascination of experiencing sights such a Formula One racetrack or an Amazon rain forest can be equated to people a century ago seeing locomotives, Abraham Lincoln, or the pyramids for the first time.

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