Travel the world from your armchair!
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
The stereoscope and stereograph, or stereo view, long ago captured America’s creative imagination. An early version of the stereoscope had been perfected by 1838, but it was early photographic pioneers who experimented with applying the stereoscope. In 1849, Scottish scientist and man of letters Sir David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope in 1816, improved upon a stereo camera. Based on the principles of binocular vision, a stereoscopic instrument with dual lenses mounted two identical photographs side by side such that they merged to take on three-dimensional depth, placing the viewer smack dab in the middle of the view.
The stereoscope was displayed for the first time in London at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851. Conceived by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, this celebration of England’s industrial superiority turned out to be the first in a series of World’s Fairs exhibiting items of culture and industry. Among some 14,000 exhibits from 23 countries, displays of modern photographic invention impressed some six million visitors, including Queen Victoria herself.
Two German brothers, William and Frederick Langenheim (active 1840-1874), owners of a successful daguerreian portrait studio in Philadelphia, brought the stereo format back to America and were the first to travel to picturesque areas producing scenic images that they turned into stereographs, thus establishing an American market for these cardboard double images.
By 1859, stereo mania took hold of America. Noted physician, poet, and essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes invented a simple hand-held stereoscope, more convenient to handle and less expensive than earlier models. It became the most popular version of the basic stereo viewer, and the name “stereograph” that he coined was immediately adapted worldwide and continues to be used today.
Photographic entrepreneurs discovered a voracious market for this new way of looking at the world. Publishers offered an unparalleled selection of pictorial materials—landscapes, tours of the world, scenes of contemporary events, and series of images that told stories, including staged vignettes that were often humorous or sentimental in nature—all of which offered the public never-before-seen images that entertained and educated. You could travel the world without leaving your armchair.
The stereograph business diminished but rebounded in the 1880s, thanks mainly to mass-market retailers and door-to-door sales. Companies like Underwood & Underwood sent teams into communities to canvass neighborhoods. Their “boxed set” was an educational tool that focused on countries, and the back of the stereograph held detailed information on the view and the country. The series on Norway remains interesting even today for its wealth of cultural knowledge.
The John Anderson Publishing Company of Chicago, publisher of Skandinaven (1866-1941), America’s largest and most influential Norwegian-language newspaper, produced books and stereographs, including a series entitled Norske Prospeketer, Byer, Grupper, etc. In December 1876, the company opened Skandinavens Boghandel. As the leading bookstore for Norwegian books, it also sold “Stereoscope Pictures of Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish cities and scenery” for the price of $1.75 a dozen.
Individual photographers also sold stereographs and marketed them to the Norwegian-American audience in various ways. According to American stereograph historian William Culp Darrah, Kurt Knudsen in Bergen during the 1860s and 1870s produced more than 750 different views of Norway with captions in Norwegian. A number were distributed in America through Christian Engell in Spring Grove, Minn. Waldemar Selmar of Bergen produced views between 1885-1900, “many of which were sold to Norwegian families who had emigrated [sic] to the United States.”
Andreas Larsen Dahl (1844-1923), from Valdres reported his profession as “daguerreian artist” in the 1870 U.S. census. Working out of De Forest, Wis., he traveled as a freelance photographer supplying the artistic needs of early homesteaders primarily in Dane County, Wis. Many of his photographs show pioneer families in front of their homes surrounded by prized worldly possessions. He also published multiple series of stereographs, among them “The Synod at Decorah (Iowa)” in 1876; “Ole Bull’s Residence in Madison, Wisconsin,” and “The Norwegian Lutheran College: Decorah, Iowa.” Dahl sold these for 25 cents each out of his photography wagon.
On the other hand, Kristen Pedersen Myklebust (1869-1936), born in Hardanger, did not find inspiration in America. He returned home to photograph old country childhood memories, the picturesque scenery of fjords, waterfalls, and mountains. With this “Views from Norway” series published from his Eagle Grove, Iowa, photography studio, Myklebust satisfied the homesick feelings of many of his fellow Norwegians.
Even agents selling tickets for transatlantic passage took advantage of this niche audience and got into the act. The I.T. Relling & Co. of Chicago sold steamship tickets and money drafts for Europe and at the same time became booksellers and publishers.
Although stereoscopes allowed only one person at a time to experience the 3-D sensation, the illusion of depth gave rise to the stereo’s popularity. You could travel to Norway and Norwegian America from your home. Every parlor had a stereoscope and a basket containing stereoscopic views—until 1893, when the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Ill., changed everything. At that time, promoters issued colorful souvenir picture postcards for the first time, and the postcard began its ascent as America’s most popular collectible.
However, all these photographers worked to help us understand today the value of photography and travel.
Cynthia Elyce Rubin, Ph.D., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.
This article originally appeared in the September 20, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.