By the late 1860s, looking through a stereoscope (like the one below) at the striking three-dimensional images of historic places, world travel, current events, local scenes, and even comical stories was a common form of home entertainment. (My undergraduate students always find this hard to imagine, until they are reminded gently that television, or even radio, was still a way off.) The first stereoscopes (the earliest was invented in 1838) were expensive and large, and the array of images available was rather small. But after Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a Boston physician, poet and amateur inventor, developed the handheld viewer in 1861, the world of stereoviews expanded dramatically. The image below shows a late nineteenth-century stereoscope with the view in place. The holder for the view could be slid back and forth to accommodate the user’s eyes.
When you’ve looked at enough collections of stereoviews (there are many online although you don’t get to experience them in three dimensions), it is clear that photographers made pictures of anything that they thought might sell. Take the one below, where a very handsome spaniel dog is depicted sitting in a gothic-style reception chair with his paw on a small, draped table. He is wearing eyeglasses and a scarf and is holding a Meerschaum pipe in his mouth. What a good dog! Why he is posed across a river or canal from what seems to be a sawmill is a mystery, of course. I am only showing you one side of the card so that you can see the view in more detail. It’s an albumen print and has faded.
Deloss Barnum (no relation that I can find to Phineas T.) was an early practitioner of stereo photography. Only 48 years old when he died in 1873, Barnum apparently had studios in New York City and Boston, but this view is labeled as being from his studio in Cortland, New York. Barnum’s views of New York buildings and foreign scenery are represented in a lot of libraries, but I have not found a catalog entry for this humorous view.
Below is an interesting homemade stereoview, photographer unknown. It doesn’t work well in a viewer; I believe that this is simply two prings from the same negative, put together on a card. The two images have faded differently, suggesting that they were processed at different times. The photograph is interesting because the woman’s head is cut off — it feels like a snapshot at a time when candid photography was very rare.
I guess that the image is from around 1880 on the basis of the cut of the woman’s bodice and skirt. She is wearing an apron and her sleeves are pushed up: she’s been working. The dog is sitting on a kitchen chair, turned backwards to keep him from jumping down. The woman may be holding him steady. The image looks like it was taken by a back door, where houseplants are grouped for the summer. I can imagine the hobbyist photographer trying to get the unwieldy camera — on its tripod with its “wet plate” inserted carefully and the dark fabric hood in place so that the photographer could see the image through the lens — set up and the chair in place before luring the dog onto the chair.
I have some other stereoviews of pet animals, all posed in studios, which I’ll share in a future post. Enjoy these two early ones!