Two Pictures, One Scene: The Stereoscope and The Stereograph

Trust a Victorian man to wax eloquent about something new and visually exciting.

In the mid-1800s, the invention of the stereoscope caused quite a stir.

The stereoscope, now long eclipsed by film to the point of being unknown by most people today, is a tool for viewing a pair of separate images side by side (a “stereograph”), creating a 3D scene for the viewer. It makes the image look larger and farther away as the two images merge together.

Occasionally, modern artists still use stereoscopes as tools for viewing their art.

A Holmes style stereoscope with metal and velvet.

A Holmes style stereoscope with metal and velvet.

In 1859, Oliver Wendell Holmes, editor of The Atlantic at the time, praised the stereoscope in his article “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph”. He described the stereograph view as such: “Many persons suppose that they are looking on miniatures of the objects represented, when they see them in the stereoscope. They will be surprised to be told that they see most objects as large as they appear in Nature.”

To see such a simple device through the eyes of someone newly acquainted with the piece, long before moving pictures emerged, offers a refreshing perspective on simpler times, when even some forms of photographs were still new. “The photograph has completed the triumph, by making a sheet of paper reflect images like a mirror and hold them as a picture.”

Who knows if Holmes is the example or the exception for this deep stereoscope fascination, but either way he paints an elegant and romantic picture of the item:

The Leaning Tower of Pisa on a stereograph.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa on a stereograph.

“I sit under Roman arches, I walk the streets of once hurried cities, I look into the chasms of Alpine glaciers, and on the rush of wasteful cataracts. I pass, in a moment, from the banks of the Charles to the ford of the Jordan, and leave my outward frame in the arm-chair at my table, while in spirit I am looking down upon Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.”

Though Holmes might have had another good reason to praise the stereoscope: he himself created a new stereoscope design that remained in production for a century. However, he purposely did not patent the design, making it available for wide use.

Just think of all the possibilities stereoscopes offered in the 19th century. Before we achieved the ability to feed a few words to a computer screen and see a picture of Paris, or of the Egyptian pyramids, or anything else we put to mind, and even before mass production allowed any image to be seen by many people, these exciting and exotic destinations could be seen in 3D form by those who had never seen them before in their life. Wouldn’t that be a transforming experience?

In a great article by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic, Alexis suggests that in his long-winded piece, Holmes uses the

A stereoscope on The Saturday Evening Post

A stereoscope on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1922

stereoscope as a metaphor for other events occurring at the time. Alexis writes that Holmes hints at the coming of the Civil War, using his discussion of the photography negative and positive as metaphors for the increasing tension between the South and North. I’ll let you read the rest of the article yourself for some well thought-out analysis.

The stereoscope lost popularity around the 1920s when moving pictures came in vogue, but a similar plastic tool, the Viewmaster, is still used by kids today.

How do you think you would react to stereoscopes if you lived in the 19th century? Better yet, what brings you a sense of awe today like what people might have felt at the stereoscope back then?

3 thoughts on “Two Pictures, One Scene: The Stereoscope and The Stereograph

Leave a Reply