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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.