The Victorian Television

Before the mid-1800s, the typical household owned very few, if any, illustrations.  Newspapers had no pictures; Periodicals had none until the 1840s. Books contained only expensive engravings. Photography was still a science experiment.

However, once photography became main-stream, a revolution occurred that enabled three-dimensional images from around the world to be available in almost every Victorian parlor—the stereoview.

A British scientist, Charles Wheatstone, first developed three-dimensional viewing using an optical instrument that would be recognizable today as a stereoscope. Wheatstone started his work before photography was developed, and experimented by making pairs of hand-drawn images that produced the 3-D effect. Wheatstone also had the advantage of being able to “free view”, i.e., to see the 3-D effect without using an instrument. (Remember those “Magic Eye” books from the 1990s where you had to make your eyes go all weird to see the 3-D effect.)

The trick is to fool your eyes into perceiving that a pair of photographs taken from two different angles appears to be a single three-dimensional image with the ability to see objects close and far away properly maintained. As one stereoview advertisement claimed:

When you look at it through the wonderful lenses of our stereoscope, the figures stand out so plainly that you almost expect to see them move. It’s just like being there.

Early British Stereoscopes, table top and hand-held models.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., an American polymath, invented a simpler (and cheaper!) viewer which was sold as the “American Stereoscope”.  He purposely did not patent the design, so it became the standard model thereafter in the US. Even today, any reasonably well-stocked antique shop will have one for sale along with shoeboxes full of stereoviews.

Stereoscope based on the Holmes, American Stereoscope. The aluminum hood denotes a relatively modern model, ca. 1900.

With access to affordable stereoscopes, the demand grew for the stereoviews themselves. Their subjects may be divided into two types: views of things one wishes to see, and stereos of things one wishes to remember. The former group includes stereographic portraits of famous personages, ranging from Charles Dickens to Teddy Roosevelt.

Stereoview of Charles Dickens
President Theodore Roosevelt and environmentalist John Muir above Yosemite Valley.
The 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia was the subject of many stereoviews. Here the torch of the Statue of Liberty is displayed to help raise funds to erect the statue’s pedestal in New York Harbor.

Most stereoviews were of foreign and exotic locations that the viewer might never be able to travel to and see themselves, such as the highlights of Europe, the Holy Land, and the American West. However, stereoviews of more near-by sights, such as the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Niagara Falls, were likely bought as souvenirs. In ways not possible before, the world could be brought into the household, something that wasn’t repeated until the television became popular almost a century later.

Many landscape painters, who had started working in the new medium of photography, tried their hands at stereophotography as well. Albert Bierstadt was well-known as a painter of majestic landscapes. With his brothers,Charles and Edward, he traveled throughout the United States chronicling the sights many could only reach through stereoviews. In some cases, Albert Bierstadt depicted the same scenes through both media.

Bierstadt Brothers stereoview of Mirror Lake in Yosemite National Park, top. Albert Bierstadt painting of the same scene, bottom.

In my copy of the 1897 Sears, Roebucks & Co mail-order catalogue, a basic Holmes-type stereoscope cost 25 cents with the views themselves costing from 5 to 10 cents each. Much fancier table-top stereoscopes could be had, made of polished hardwood with optional magnifying lenses for $8.40. In any case, they were inexpensive enough to provide entertainment and vicarious traveling for any household.

If you own a stereoscope, you can follow in the footsteps of your Victorian-age ancestors as the internet is a great source of stereocards to view. Digitized collections can be found at the US Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. An inexpensive stereoscope can be had at the Queen Store, as Queen guitarist, Brian May, has a keen interest in all things 3-dimensional.

The standard size for stereocards is 7 in (17.8 cm) wide by 3.5 in (8.9 cm high (Some stereocards are taller.). You can print out stereocards you find on-line to those dimensions, or sometimes even view the cards directly on the screen by aligning the viewer to the images. It’s also easier than you might think to create your own stereoviews just using your smart phone.

The Crystal Palace was one of the first international events depicted in 3-D.

Viewing stereoscopic images can really pull you into the world of the image, and there’s no easier way to feel like you’re time traveling back to those days–even though you’re separated by time and distance.

2 thoughts on “The Victorian Television

  1. One of my great regrets in life is *not* getting off of my credit card at an antique shop in Placerville and buying a stereoscope and a huge box of cards to go with it. I’ve always found this kind of thing fascinating (I’m sure that’s why I still love ViewMaster reels and museum view-boxes).


  2. They were great pieces of kit. My maternal grandparents (Victorian, English, Working-lower class) had one of these & I remember being fascinated by it as a small boy. They also had several boxes of cards, much as you described.

    Grandad also had a ‘magic lantern’ with boxes of coloured glass slides – some were photographs & others hand drawn. Occasionally, he’d fire it up for we kids & talk about some of the scenes from first hand knowledge (his army service meant he got to see things in between being shot at or speared). Its light source was an oil lamp & I do wonder how many house fires were started by them. It was an accident just waiting to happen.

    The Victorians, even among the interested lower orders, had a much better view of the wider world than we might think. They would be horrified to see how their lives & attitudes are being portrayed today in the current re-writing of history. I think it’s why I enjoy your posts so much – they are much more balanced than the drivel in the MSM.

    Thanks also for the Wheatstone reference – I knew of him from his contributions to electrical engineering, but had no idea he had such diverse interests & inventions to his name. Another example of an upwardly mobile bloke – no formal education but he ended up as a professor at Kings! The world seems to have gone backwards. People such as him & many others you’ve mentioned here wouldn’t stand a chance today!

    Small typo alert – I think the Bierstadts probably travelled the US chronicling what they saw rather than viewing it chronically. That said, they might have suffered from some kind of affliction, so I could be wrong!


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