This exhibition of Keystone “Tour of the World” stereographs reintroduces them to a modern audience. It explains their scientific and historical background, and illustrates their connections to 19th and early 20th century US nationalism and imperialism. These artifacts are an important part of history because they laid the foundations for modern VR, travel documentaries, and 3D movies. Additionally, along with postcards, stereographs were the social media of their day, and both contributed to the rise and spread of mass-produced short-form visual culture.
Today, when people discuss 3D, it is mainly in the context of 3D movies. However, 3D movies are just the tip of the stereoscopic iceberg. “3D” is a popular term to refer to stereoscopic media. Stereoscopy’s linguistic roots come from the Greek words stereós, meaning “solid,” and skopeō, meaning “to see.” Binocular vision, or the ability to see using two eyes, is the basis for stereoscopy; each eye sees a slightly different image because it views its surroundings from a different angle. In stereopsis, the brain then fuses these two images and uses the differences between them to create depth perception. This is what allows people to perceive three-dimensional space, hence the term, “3D.” Stereoscopy itself is a process or technique that people use to create stereoscopic media. Stereoscopic media usually consist of two or more slightly different images, and come in many forms, including illustrations, films, and stereographs. A stereograph consists of two photographs of the same scene, taken from slightly different angles, spaced about 2.5 inches apart (the average distance between two human eyes), and mounted on a card. When the audience views the stereograph through a special binocular-like device called a stereoscope, the two photos fuse in an optical illusion, and the photos’ content seems to exist in three-dimensional space (Klein, Cure 18).
Stereographs have a long and complex history. In 1832, the British physicist Sir Charles Wheatstone invented the world’s first stereoscope, which was table-sized and constructed of mirrors and prisms (Klein). Later, he described the theory of stereoscopy in his June 1838 paper, “Contributions to the Physiology of Vision – Phenomena of Binocular Vision.” Wheatstone’s stereoscope was too large to be practically useful. He used carefully constructed drawings in it because photographic technology was not advanced or widespread enough for him to utilize it yet. Antoine Francois Claudet was the first person to apply stereoscopic technology to photography in 1839, but had mixed results. The first successful application of stereoscopy to photography was not until 1849, when a Scottish scientist named Sir David Brewster created a smaller portable stereoscope and a binocular camera, or a stereoscopic camera with two lenses, that captured two discrete yet similar images at once. Before Brewster invented the binocular camera, photographers had to take two separate photographs from different perspectives at an exact distance apart. This method was time-consuming and unreliable, issues that Brewster’s design addressed.
Around the same time, photography had also advanced sufficiently to use in stereographs. Scientists and photographers had recently discovered faster, more flexible, and more efficient photographic processes. For example, French photographer Louis Daguerre built on his 1829-1833 partnership with Nicephore Niépce, who took the first photograph, and presented his own daguerreotype process in 1839. Daguerreotypes used light-sensitized copper plates to produce positive, singular visual reproductions of their subjects. They were very popular, but their key shortcomings were that they took time to create, and the process created positives, so publishers couldn’t reproduce the images. Therefore, in 1841 British photographer Henry Fox Talbot presented his own photographic process, the calotype, which used silver iodide on paper negatives. Negatives are faint, inverted latent images that can be created much faster than direct positives, because they require shorter exposures to light to form their images: 1-3 minutes as opposed to 10-20 minutes. Most early stereographs were calotypes (Leggat).
Combined, these advances in photography, the stereoscopic camera, and the stereoscope led to a boom for stereographs. When Brewster presented Queen Victoria with a stereoscope during the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, the stereoscopic field’s popularity skyrocketed to even greater heights. Furthermore, the new collodion photographic process made the system of creating and printing mass reproductions of stereographs more efficient and reliable (Klein).
Stereographs were perceived as a trustworthy resource by consumers. As historian Robert Silverman notes, companies presented the stereograph as an “instrument that created a more valuable representation of the physical world than the human eyes produced” (Wajda). Additionally, stereographs were consumed at a higher rate and volume than other rhetorical mediums. Photography was also particularly salient as a rhetorical medium because early photographs were trusted immensely by the public as exact replicas of truth; the idea that images could be staged or doctored to express a particular message had not been adopted within the public conscious yet. Stereographs’ increased ability to transmit messaging and impact implicit biases reinforces the importance of their study, especially considering publishers of stereographs often utilized layers of information to lead the viewer to specific conclusions (Fleckenstein).
As the public’s demand for stereographs and stereoscopes grew, many companies formed to satisfy it. Beginning in 1854, the London Stereoscopic Company sold affordable stereoscopes and stereographs for pennies per item, all while it sent out photographers to capture new stereoscopic photos. By 1862, it had one million stereographs in its catalog (Thompson 21). The American Stereoscopic Company brought stereoscopy to the United States in 1854. Their stereographs’ popularity increased after US stereograph collector Oliver Holmes created a simple, cheap stereoscope for the viewing public to use (Malin 405). Holmes also coined the term “stereograph,” from the Latin roots for “solid” and “writing.” While British stereographs emphasized ancient landmarks and buildings, US stereographs focused on landscape and scenic views. On both sides of the Atlantic, stereographs that depicted foreign countries and peoples were popular, because international travel during the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century was prohibitively expensive for the emerging middle-class audience. Stereographs became a way for them to virtually tour the world using an affordable method (Thompson 21). In Europe, stereographs also let people continue the tradition of the Grand Tour, or the 1600-1830 practice of visiting historic sites to gain knowledge, authority and prestige. Instead of doing so in person, they did so virtually, using stereographs to see and experience these sites (Stakelon 409). In the process, they became “proper” educated citizens. Stereographs often exoticized and Othered their nonwhite and poor subjects and contrasted their lives and environments with depictions of historic sites, pristine cities, and idealized families. They achieved this through their image style, content, form, and text. Ultimately, these depictions created and reinforced broader cultural narratives of technological, racial, and socioeconomic progress for their audiences (Malin 407-418).
In the United States, the physical presence of stereoscopes and stereographs themselves became a status symbol within middle and upper class society in the north in the late 19th century. A culture writer in the late 19th century noted that “by owning stereographs, [viewers] did not need to aspire toward expensive travel, education, or art collecting,” as ownership and display of stereographs was itself alone an indicator of status, and that there was not a “parlor in America that does not have a stereoscope” (Fleckenstein). Parlors constituted a social setting American citizens could manipulate to assert their social status through objects such as the stereograph. Stereoscopes and stereographs were thus kept in American parlors as a status symbol to indicate specific values of cosmopolitism, worldliness, and education. The historical role of the stereoscope as a status symbol was unique to American, white northerners belonging to the middle and upper class, and did not have the same social role in Europe.
By the late 19th century, stereograph makers had started advertising their products to schools as instructive media that were superior to books. They claimed that stereographs and stereoscopes would help children focus and pay attention, specifically by training them to notice images’ foregrounds, midgrounds, and backgrounds. This style of “object lesson” proved to be very popular and led to a booming educational stereograph market. For example, the Keystone View Company, which made the stereographs this website features, claimed that every US city with 50,000 or more people used the Keystone System in their schools (Thompson 22).
Eventually, however, stereographs began to decline in popularity. This happened for several reasons. One was that the elite and upper class looked down on them because of their popularity with the middle class, while another was the existence and spread of pornographic stereographs, which in turn led to crackdowns in Britain and France. The stereograph’s decline in popularity did not occur uniformly across nations, as the stereograph was a popular medium had passed as a fad in Europe by the 1880s, while it was still immensely popular in the United States well into the turn of the century. However, the public gradually shifted its attention and collection craze to other rival forms of media, like the postcard, which was officially introduced in 1869 and had its boom in the 1910s. Although companies continued to produce stereoscopic media into the middle of the 20th century, they did so in smaller numbers and for niche audiences. Today, the general public has largely forgotten about stereographs and stereoscopes, and those that survived have become collectors’ items (Thompson 84).
The Keystone View Company produced most of these “Tour of the World” stereographs in 1909. They are also presented here in the modern “Wiggle-GIF” format, which uses animation principles to provide an approximation of 3D without needing a stereoscope. Viewing them on at eye level, on a larger screen, and/or from farther away can help provide this approximation.
These artifacts (figures 1 through 10) are clear examples of stereographs as educational media, virtual tours, and rhetorical frames for stereoscopy as a high tech, middle class, white visual perspective.
Figure 1 visually foregrounds the donkey and the bananas, while the non-white harvest workers are in shadow and face away from the viewer. This symbolizes and parallels early 20th century US nationalistic and imperialistic narratives that believed non-white colonial peoples needed white civilization to better themselves. It also emphasizes the importance of sending colonial goods, like bananas, to the US. Figure 2’s text reinforces this by providing the viewer with educational facts about bananas, like a modern tour guide would, and notes that Costa Rica exported its entire banana crop to the US.
Similarly, figure 3 visually foregrounds the cowboy, while the cattle are in the background. Supporting this, figure 4’s text frames cattle ranchers and cowboys as replacing rather than killing and displacing the Native peoples and animals that used to live on the plains; it claims they “flitted away.” Figure 4’s text also creates a frame where cowboys and cattle ranchers “tamed the West” by bringing it civilization, i.e., the railroad. As such, figures 3 and 4 reinforce the same 20th century US nationalistic narrative that figures 1 and 2 do.
Finally, figure 5 portrays an idealized white middle class family at home in a staged scene. This scene includes a young man holding a postcard, and an elderly lady looking through a stereoscope, which reinforce the narrative of stereoscopic technology as a vital part of being and becoming a “proper” middle class family. Figure 6’s text emphasizes the US’s empire, and its glory and uniqueness compared to the countries and peoples that other Keystone “Tour of the World” stereographs depict. Moreover, it implies that the foundation for all of the US’s success is the “American Home,” as it depicts it here.
Figure 7 presents a high-angle view of NYC from 1909 which shows orderly, clean streets and neat rows of buildings. This contrasts with the lived experience and conditions of cities urban workers endured: crowded tenement housing, exposure to biohazards, and inequitable labor conditions. These harsh urban realities conflicted with Victorian-era beliefs in the power of the free market and the “City Beautiful” movement; stereographs often supported the latter. In the northern United States, the middle and upper class were the primary audience for stereographs and publishers utilized framing tools such as those in the aforementioned stereograph to reflect Victorian-era sociopolitical outlooks.
Figure 9, the last stereograph in this set, is an excellent example of an educational stereograph. Stereograph sets were sometimes marketed as educational tools and sets were specifically manufactured for classrooms. Stereographs are arguably one of the first visual mass mediums utilized as visual aids in classrooms.
Overall, through the combination of their image content, style, form, and text, figures 1-10 exemplify stereographs as educational media, virtual tours, and vehicles for a high tech, middle class, white visual perspective. Together, figures 1 through 10 also provide the viewer with an idealized narrative of technological, racial, and socioeconomic progress, as seen through a stereoscope.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
- How did this exhibit make you feel?
- What did you think was the most interesting or important takeaway?
- Can you think of other media, histories, or exhibitions that connect to stereographs?
- If you created your own exhibition of stereographs, what would you include?
- How do you think you would share and experience this exhibit with others if it was in a physical museum?
- What part of this exhibit would you want to learn more about?
Cure, Monica. “INTRODUCTION: The Frankenstein Postcard.” Picturing the Postcard: A New Media Crisis at the Turn of the Century. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis; London, 2018, pp. 1–38. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctv80c9gb.3.
Fleckenstein, Kristie S. “Materiality’s Rhetorical Work: The Nineteenth-Century Parlor Stereoscope and the Second-Naturing of Vision.” In Rhetoric, through Everyday Things, edited by Scott Barnett and Casey Boyle, 125-38. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016.
Klein, Alexander. “What Is ‘Stereo’ or ‘3D’?” Stereoscopy.com, Stereoscopy.com, 2005, www.stereoscopy.com/faq/whatis.html.
Leggat, Robert. “Stereoscopic Photography.” A History of Photography, 2003, www.mpritchard.com/photohistory/.
Malin, Brenton J. “Looking White and Middle-Class: Stereoscopic Imagery and Technology in the Early Twentieth-Century United States.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 93, no. 4, Nov. 2007, pp. 403–424. EBSCOhost, http://electra.lmu.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tru e&db=hft&AN=509869866&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Stakelon, Pauline. “Travel through the Stereoscope.” Media History, vol. 16, no. 4, Nov. 2010, pp. 407–422. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/13688804.2010.507476.
Thompson, Clive. “The Illusion of Reality: The Shocking Power of Virtual Reality Was All the Buzz Once before–about 150 Years Ago.” Smithsonian, vol. 48, no. 6, Oct. 2017, pp. 18-88. EBSCOhost, http://electra.lmu.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rgm&AN=125316415&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Wajda, Shirley. “A Room with a Viewer.” In Hard at Play: Leisure in America, 1840-1940, edited by Kathryn Grover, 113-21. Amherst: The University of Massacusetts Press, 1992.
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