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Past Consultants Historic Preservation and Cultural Resource Management


Issue #2:
The Stereoview: A Window into the Past

August 28, 2006
Author: Seth A. Bergstein

Stereoview of the Flat Iron Building
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 people’s stuff stretched out endlessly in the rolling landscape. I knew I’d 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 landmark’s infancy. A similar image appears above in Figure 1.

Stereoview of California Street
Figure 2: Stereoview of California Street by Eadweard Muybridge, circa 1870, published by Bradley & Rulofson, San Francisco (no copyright date).

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 horse’s furry feet. I felt drawn within this enchanting scene, glued inside the stereoscope, marveling at every detail. A passion was born.

California Street
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 nation’s 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 Francisco’s Montgomery Street in 1865, standing among a throng of folks watching Lincoln’s 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.

Stereoview of California Street
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 Francisco’s 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. Mary’s church, halfway up Nob Hill. A peek up the hill proves that the famous Fairmont Hotel remains decades in the future.

California Street
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 street’s more prominent buildings. A journey up Nob Hill passes an older Old St. Mary’s, 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.

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