Taking in the View: Collecting Stereoview Photographs

Anthony [E. & H. T. Anthony & Co] Civil War view [stereoview photograph], 2507, (Negative by Brady) Wounded at Fredericksburg, VirginiaStereoview photographs (also called stereoscopic photographs or stereographs) did not come into existence until the 1850s, but, as is often the case with scientific advancements, the imaginative vision that gave birth to them was in place years earlier – in this case more than two hundred years earlier. As far back as the early 17th century, visionaries were making drawings of what would develop into the stereoviewer, but stereoviewers (or stereoscopes) would not become a reality until the early 19th century.

Stereoviews are composed of two images that are nearly identical, images that are taken from viewpoints that are a few inches apart, and then mounted on cards. By viewing them through lenses set about eye-width apart, the brain is tricked into combining the images in a way that creates a three-dimensional effect. (All the technology that drives 3-D movies today is largely derived from and built upon the same principles and technology that led to stereoviews.) Sir David Brewster designed the classic box-shape stereoviewer and Sir Charles Wheatstone created the first stereoview in 1833. For the twenty years or so before photography became more widely available, stereoviews were typically drawings. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ invention of a handheld stereoviewer in 1859, which would be manufactured by Joseph Bates, would make stereoviews more convenient and accessible at the same time that stereoviews were becoming more popular due in large part to their ability to make images more widely available, as it would be several decades yet before photographs could be reproduced in newspapers. Victorians would gather in their parlors and pass stereoviewers around, allowing them to be transported to faraway places and to see the wonders of the world that they might otherwise never have seen.

Stereoviews would appear in several different formats before the years of mass-produced curved card mounts in the late 19th century. Photographers experimented with daguerreotype, tintype and albumen stereoviews, in the process recording the rapidly changing physical and historical landscape of the late Victorian years. For instance, images of the landscape of the American West, the development of the railroad system, Native American Indians and their culture, and various mining booms were wildly popular. Stereoviews allowed Americans in particular to see the vastness and diversity of the country. Virtually every small town had a photographer, many of whom were taking stereoview photographs in between the portraits that kept their businesses afloat, and many of these scenes are very rare and very collectible today, in part because they show landscapes that are otherwise often lost to us.

In the mid-1880s, manufacturers found methods to increase the production and availability of stereoviews, with large companies like Underwood & Underwood and Keystone (which would eventually buy out most of the American stereoview market) in America and the London Stereoscopic Company (which was founded in the 1850s and produced hundreds of thousands of stereoviews) in England actively marketing stereoviews to schools as educational tools. Stereoview popularity would begin to wane in the early years of the 20th century, as technological advances made photographs more easily reproduced, particularly in newspapers and magazines, and by the 1920s, even the largest companies had generally ceased production.

Stereoviews remain widely collectible today however and a number of factors influence their value. Rare images are, naturally, more desirable, whether they are rare because few were produced or because they are of a place or event that is not otherwise well-documented. Certain photographers’ work is also collectible, often because of their particular skill at composing the elements that make a good three-dimensional effect, while other collectors focus on glass-plate stereoviews. The quality of the effect itself is also a factor, although to a lesser degree, and early stereoviews are often more desirable because of their scarcity and the quality of the three-dimensional effect. (Stereoviews were initially mounted on flat cards but in later years, in the era of mass production, it was discovered that the three-dimensional qualities of a photograph could be enhanced by cupping the card. The former are flat mount views and the latter are known as curved mount views.) Highly collectible stereoviews can sell for more than $1,500 at auction, but on average, most individual stereoviews sell for anywhere from $5 to $300.