The Stereoview: A Window into the Past
August 28, 2006
Author: Seth A. Bergstein
Figure 1: Stereoview of the Flat
Iron Building, Fifth and Broadway New York City, NY by
the Keystone View Company, copyright 1903
On a chilly autumn morning I trudged behind my parents, wanting
to be anywhere but where I was. A frown enveloped my 10-year-old
face, as I gazed at tables and tables of other peoples stuff
stretched out endlessly in the rolling landscape. I knew Id
be stuck here all day. My father strode ahead confidently, knowing
the Brimfield Antique Market would land him another treasure for
his collection. My mother perused old Fiesta ware a few tables back.
She worked slowly, methodically, always fearing a quick pace would
result in an overlooked gem.
I grimaced from table to table, my preservation roots not yet
established. Something stopped me cold: a Victorian stereoscope,
very much like the instrument depicted in Figure 6. Next to it was
a box filled with stereoviews paired photographs mounted
on cardstock that when placed inside the stereoscope, create
a startling three-dimensional effect. I popped in a view labeled
Flatiron Building, New York City. I loved wandering around
the lobby of that building with my grandfather, and hooted out loud
as I beheld a 3D adventure to the landmarks infancy. A similar
image appears above in Figure 1.
Figure 2: Stereoview
of California Street by Eadweard Muybridge, circa 1870,
published by Bradley & Rulofson, San Francisco (no copyright
It had rained just before the photograph captured the streetscape.
Some of the dapper businessmen, dressed in 1900 period garb, still
held their umbrellas aloft. The Flatiron Building, barely a decade
old, towers over the scene. A horse-drawn trolley crosses Broadway,
its steeds caught mid-gallop. I could actually SEE the horses
furry feet. I felt drawn within this enchanting scene, glued inside
the stereoscope, marveling at every detail. A passion was born.
Figure 3: Detail
of 1870 Muybridge view.
Stereo photography appeared on the heels of the earliest photographic
processes. The first stereoviews, made in the 1850s, were daguerreotypes,
mounted in their own viewing case. The invention of the now-ubiquitous
Holmes stereoscope (see Figure 6), as well as the development of
efficient and cheap photographic processing, placed the stereoview
in the parlor of thousands of Victorian homes. At the height of
production in the 1870s, stereoview sales reached into the millions.
Folks pored over the views, eager to glimpse the towering Calaveras
Sequoias or take a trip inside the nations Capitol building.
In essence, stereoviews became a mode of travel, much like television
or the internet. Unlike a traditional photograph, it placed viewers
inside the scene perhaps to San Franciscos Montgomery
Street in 1865, standing among a throng of folks watching Lincolns
funeral procession. Nearly every town across America sported a stereo
photographer, who documented everything from local events to the
construction of main streets, churches and bridges. And here is
their value. To the casual viewer, collector, or preservationist,
these images offer snapshots of numerous historic streets, many
of them now historic Main Streets, at various times from the 1860s
to the 1930s. They are time portals. I would like to share two such
journeys with you.
Figure 4: Stereoview
of California Street, west from Sansome Street by H.C.
White Co., copyright 1905.
Scans of two stereoviews appear on this page. They are of
the same location, San Franciscos California Street, taken
from very similar perspectives. These two views open windows onto
the same place, yet from two distinctly different historical periods.
The earlier image, (Figure 2) taken by famed Western photographer
Eadweard Muybridge in the 1870s, depicts a street dominated by a
handsome assemblage of cast iron and masonry buildings. The Bank
of California is clearly visible, second from the right. The streetscape
is low, in proportion, open. One can envision the tophatted men
who just rode to work in the horse-drawn carriages parked along
the street. Inside the stereoscope, I can stride past the dozing
horses and cross to the bank (Figure 3); or stop at Old St. Marys
church, halfway up Nob Hill. A peek up the hill proves that the
famous Fairmont Hotel remains decades in the future.
Figure 5: Detail
of 1905 H.C. White view.
Alongside this image is essentially the same view (Figure 4)
taken in 1905, barely a year before the Great Earthquake of
1906. Note what has changed as well as what remains
in an image produced some 30 years later. This image depicts a crammed
street teeming with all forms of transportation. The earliest skyscrapers
dwarf the Bank of California, no longer one of streets more
prominent buildings. A journey up Nob Hill passes an older Old St.
Marys, smack in front of the Fairmont Hotel (Figure 5), its
terra cotta cladding glittering with youth. The stereoscope provides
a glimpse into these unique visions of our past. I feel the scene
in a much deeper manner than an ordinary photograph as if
I am some traveler to another time.
Figure 6: Stereoscope
No other medium documented streetscapes with such regularity
as the stereoview. From the 1860s well into the 1900s, entire
streets nationwide were photographed; their creators not realizing
that they were producing a record of our built environment. For
a sample of the many websites devoted to stereo photography, please
see the Resources section. Upon
discovering this treasure trove of information, I quickly became
a connoisseur of early California views. Little did I know that
specific images from my collection would prove useful in the documentation
phase of historic preservation projects. In a coming article, I
will explain how handy they can be to the historian, preservationist,
or armchair traveler of any age. And they are great fun.
on this article