Stereo views take you on time travel to old Norway
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
Scientists understood the optics of stereoscopy before photography was even invented. An early version of the stereoscope had been perfected by 1838. But it took the pioneering work of Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot for people to begin to experiment, seeking to discover methods of applying the stereoscope to photography. In 1849, Scottish scientist and man of letters Sir David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope in 1816, improved upon a stereo camera with twin lenses about 2½ inches apart, about the same distance that separates a person’s eyes.
Based on the principles of binocular vision that each eye records a slightly different image that the brain fuses into a single image, by using a stereoscopic instrument with dual lenses, it became possible to see a single image as both images appear to merge and take on three-dimensional depth. First in the early 1850s, daguerreotypes were combined with viewing lenses into a single frame or case for stereoscopic viewing.
Stereographs were put on display for the first time to an eager public in London’s Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations 1851, also called the Crystal Place after its most imposing structure. Conceived by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, this celebration of England’s industrial superiority turned out to be the first in a series of World’s Fairs that exhibited items of culture and industry.
Among some 14,000 exhibits from 23 countries, millions of visitors viewed the photographic displays from six countries. Photographers from Great Britain, France, and the United States submitted the majority of examples, but the American installation was applauded for both its quality and diversity. Stereo photographs had already existed in the 1840s but interest peaked at the Crystal Palace Exhibition when Queen Victoria herself took notice.
Fortuitously, two German brothers, William and Frederick Langenheim (active 1840-1874), who had opened a successful Daguerreian portrait studio in Philadelphia in 1842, took part in the Crystal Palace Exhibition. They demonstrated early photography processes in London, exhibiting a multi-image panorama, as well as paper prints of Philadelphia views. Surely the new stereograph would have fascinated them.
The Langenheims brought the new format back to their Philadelphia studio and were the first to travel to picturesque areas of the country, including the Catskills, Niagara Falls, Washington, D.C., and New York City, to produce images that they turned into saleable stereo views, thus establishing an American market. Glass examples did not work, but paper prints could be handled easily and produced in great quantities.
By 1859, stereo mania had taken hold of America. Noted physician, poet and essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes was captivated by the phenomenon and wrote two long articles in the Atlantic Monthly: “The Stereoscope and Stereograph” in June 1859 and “Sun Painting and Sun Sculpture” in May 1861. Holmes extolled the virtues of this new modern way of seeing the world. He also whittled a wooden stereoscope whose design was cheaper and better than viewers imported from Europe.
In “The American Stereoscope” published in The Philadelphia Photographer, January 1869, Holmes wrote, “This simple stereoscope was not constructed by accident, but was the carrying out of a plan to reduce the instrument to its simplest terms. Two lenses were necessary, and a frame to hold them … I felt sure this was decidedly better than the boxes commonly sold, and it was far easier to manage, especially with regard to light, and could be made much cheaper than the old-fashioned contrivances. I believed that it would add much to the comfort and pleasure of the lover of stereoscopic pictures.”
But even Holmes had a problem convincing people of the superiority of his device. He finally persuaded Bostonian Joseph L Bates that “there was something in my skeleton stereoscope” and after Bates made small improvements, he sold examples very quickly. The rest is history, as the simple hand-held stereoscope that Holmes invented–more convenient to handle and less expensive than earlier models—became the most popular of all versions of the basic stereo viewer. In addition, the name “stereograph” that he coined was immediately adapted worldwide. Both the instrument and the name are still used today.
For a reasonable sum, stereo views provided the ordinary person entertainment, education, and an artistic experience, a view to the world beyond normal reach. Photographic entrepreneurs quickly discovering a voracious demand, worked to supply the need. Among them were self-taught photographers, immigrants from Norway, who visited the old country and then produced photographic views to appeal to the homesick feelings of newly minted Americans.
Mass-market publishers, all in fierce competition with each other, were selling thousands of images, mainly guides and catalogues, by the early 1900s. They published views from around the world, giving the stereo a strong educational focus. The seemingly endless subjects enticed consumers to discover the stereograph’s illuminating portal to the wonders of the world.
Stereographs serve as important primary historical and cultural sources. As time travel, they provide a seemingly inexhaustible wealth of information concerning time and place and help to illuminate broader questions, such as the Norwegian-American experience.
All images from Cynthia Elyce Rubin
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.