Seeing Double: An In-Depth Guide to Stereoviews, Their Collectibility and History

February 11, 2024

Introduction to Antique Stereoviews

Stereoviews, dating back to the mid-19th century, are a captivating form of stereophotography, offering a three-dimensional experience through binocular vision.

Typically presented as pairs of slightly offset images, stereoviews provide depth perception when viewed through a stereoscope device.

Collected for their immersive qualities, they depict a wide array of subjects, from landscapes to historical events, serving both entertainment and educational purposes.

Let’s take a double-look at these captivating glimpses of the past, as we explore the world of antique stereoviews.

Table of Contents

The Birth of Stereophotography
Stereograph or Stereoview: Which Is It?
Antique Stereo Viewers and Stereoscope Devices
The Production of Early Stereoviews
How Stereoviews Were Marketed and Sold to the Public
Popular Stereoview Subjects and Themes
The Decline of Stereoviews
Famous Stereoview Makers & Publishers
Comparing Mass-Produced to Rare Stereoviews
The Collectibility and Value of Stereoviews
Unlock the Value of Your Stereoviews

The Birth of Stereophotography

Wheatstone’s Stereoscope and the Art of Seeing in Depth

Born in 1802, in Gloucestershire, England, Sir Charles Wheatstone was a science enthusiast from the start. His curiosity and knack for learning shone through during his early years.

Venturing into the realm of electricity in the 1820s, Wheatstone teamed up with William Fothergill Cooke to create the Cooke-Wheatstone electric telegraph, patented in 1837. This groundbreaking system, using multiple wires and needles, revolutionized communication.

One of Wheatstone’s most enduring contributions was his work on binocular vision and the stereoscope.

In 1838, he invented the stereoscope, an optical instrument that creates a three-dimensional effect by presenting slightly different images to each eye. This groundbreaking invention laid the foundation for stereophotography, including the later development of stereoviews.

The Dual-Image Technique: A 3D Wonder

The technique used in stereoviews involves presenting two slightly different images to create a compelling three-dimensional effect. This method relies on the principles of binocular vision, capitalizing on how our eyes perceive depth.

To achieve this, two nearly identical photographic images are taken, each capturing the scene from a slightly different viewpoint.

Circa 1879 stereoview of Nez Perce Chief Joseph and Yellow Bull in Washington DC with Col. A.B. Meacham and an interpreter. (Sold by Britannic Auctions for $850 in 2022)

Subsequently, these images are placed side by side on a card or similar medium. The intentional small offset between these paired images mirrors the natural separation between a person’s eyes. This process brings depth and 3D realism to the viewer’s experience.

The dual-image technique, central to stereoviews, is the basis for many stereoscopic imaging methods. By mirroring human vision, stereoviews offer an immersive experience, transcending flat imagery to create a visually rich and dynamic representation of the scene.

Stereograph or Stereoview: Which Is It?

The terms “stereograph” and “stereoview” are frequently used interchangeably, though they carry nuanced differences in specific contexts. Generally, both terms describe images crafted for stereoscopic viewing.

Here’s a breakdown of how the terms are commonly understood:

What is a Stereograph?

A stereograph refers to any two-dimensional image or photograph designed for stereoscopic viewing.

This broad term covers different formats like prints, cards, or digital images, specifically paired to produce a three-dimensional effect when observed through a stereoscope.

Unlike some terms, “stereograph” doesn’t limit itself to a particular physical format or medium.

What is a Stereoview?

A stereoview is a distinct type of stereograph, usually linked with a physical card or print crafted for stereoscopic viewing.

These stereoviews commonly present two nearly identical images side by side, often mounted on cards that adhere to specific sizes and formats, creating a unique category within the broader term “stereograph.”

Circa 1870s stereoview of an African American family in Georgia, captioned “Uncle Ben’s Cabin”.

The term “stereoview” gains specificity, especially when referring to physical cards or prints from the 19th century, the peak period of stereoscopy. Unlike the more general term “stereograph,” “stereoview” is intricately associated with this particular type of stereograph.

In essence, both terms refer to images tailored for stereoscopic viewing, but “stereograph” is a broader umbrella covering various formats.

On the other hand, “stereoview” zooms in on a specific type of stereograph, often mounted on cards or prints. The interchangeability of these terms exists, but their usage can vary based on context.

Antique Stereo Viewers and Stereoscopic Devices

A stereo viewer or stereoscope viewer is a specialized handheld device crafted explicitly for the immersive experience of stereoviews.

Within these portable gadgets, lenses collaborate to merge two almost identical pictures. As your eyes align through the lenses, they seamlessly converge on the paired images, magically transforming them into a mesmerizing 3D view.

The design of the stereo viewer ensures the effective fusion of the two images, providing a more vivid and realistic perspective on historical scenes. See stereosite.com for illustrations of glass stereo slides, stereoscopes and antique stereocameras.

Antique stereoviewing devices. The stereoview card would be placed in the holder, and the viewer would look through the two glass viewing windows to experience the 3D effect

Pioneering Stereoscope Companies and Their Optical Innovations

A few 19th century companies share a common thread in their historical involvement in the production of optical instruments, specifically stereoscopes.

Each played a role in manufacturing stereoscopes and producing a wide range of stereoviews, contributing to the popularity of stereoscopic viewing.

  • Brewster & Company: A prominent maker of optical instruments, including stereoscopes, founded by Sir David Brewster.
  • Holmes, Booth & Haydens: Known for producing stereoscopes and stereoviews during the 19th century.
  • Kilburn Brothers: Pioneers in stereography, Benjamin West Kilburn and his brother Edward produced stereoscopes along with their extensive range of stereoviews.
  • H.C. White Company: Henry C. White’s company was a significant player in stereoscope production, creating stereoscopes alongside their stereoview offerings.

Lesser-Known Stereoscope Makers Around the World

CompanyAbout the CompanyYears Active
Gem Albumoscope CompanyA lesser-known company that produced stereoscopes, often featuring compact and portable designs.Late 1880s to early 1900s
Wheeler & Wilson Manufacturing CompanyKnown more for their sewing machines, this company also ventured into stereoscope production.1851 to late 1870s
Van NostrandWhile recognized for publishing stereoviews, D. Van Nostrand also produced stereoscopes.Late 1870s to early 1900s
Langenheim BrothersThis Philadelphia-based company, known for their early involvement in photography, also manufactured stereoscopes.1843 to late 1860s
Pike & SonsA relatively lesser-known maker of stereoscopes, they contributed to the production of optical instruments during the 19th century.Mid 1850s to late 1870s
Darlot & CieA French company primarily known for their photographic lenses, they also produced stereoscopes.Late 1850s to early 1900s
Hempel & BetzA German optical company that, in addition to its lenses, engaged in the manufacturing of stereoscopes.Late 1860s to early 1900s
American Optical CompanyWhile known for a range of optical products, including lenses, microscopes, and eyeglasses, the company also produced stereoscopes.Late 1860s to early 1900s
Queen & CompanyRecognized for their contributions to scientific instruments, Queen & Company also manufactured stereoscopes.Mid 1860s to late 1880s
Hugo Meyer & CoA German optical company that, besides its lens production, engaged in stereoscope manufacturing.Late 1860s to early 1900s

The Production of Early Stereoviews

Let’s take a closer look at how these pictures were made and the tools that were used.

Early stereoviews were captured using a few different techniques, with notable examples being daguerreotypes and albumen prints. The daguerreotype process, an early form of photography dating back to approximately 1839, involved exposing an image onto a silvered copper plate.

Another widely used method was albumen prints. Here, a paper base was coated with egg white and salted with silver nitrate. This unique combination allowed photographers to create detailed and clear images.

Glass Slides (1850s – 1890s)

Most early steroviews were produced on glass slides. The transition from glass slide stereoviews to paper stereoviews (which are the most common form of stereoviews on the market today) marked a significant shift in the stereoscopic imaging industry.

While glass slides were the primary medium for stereoviews in the early years, advancements in printing technology and materials gradually led to the adoption of paper as a more cost-effective and convenient alternative.

Glass slides were produced using delicate glass plates coated with photosensitive emulsion, requiring meticulous handling and specialized equipment for printing and coloring. On the other hand, paper stereoviews were typically printed on cardstock or heavy paper using lithographic or photographic printing techniques, allowing for faster and more economical production.

The transition from glass slides to paper stereoviews began in the late 19th century, gaining momentum as printing technologies improved and demand for stereoscopic imagery grew. By the early 20th century, paper stereoviews had largely replaced glass slides as the preferred medium for stereoscopic viewing due to their affordability, portability, and ease of production.

Gelatin Silver Prints (1870s – 1900s)

The gelatin silver print became popular for the production of stereoviews roughly around the 1870s. This process used gelatin emulsions with light-sensitive silver salts. This upgrade gave photographers more flexibility and efficiency in their work.

The shift to gelatin silver prints marked a significant evolution in making stereoviews, showing how photographic techniques kept getting better during this era.

How Stereoviews Were Marketed and Sold to the Public

Stereoviews were commercialized, marketed, and sold through various channels during their heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Initially, stereoviews were primarily produced and distributed by photographers, studios, and publishing companies specializing in stereoscopic imagery.

To market stereoviews, photographers and publishers often created catalogs showcasing their collections of stereoscopic images, highlighting popular subjects such as landscapes, travel scenes, historical events, and cultural phenomena. These catalogs were distributed to retailers, bookstores, photography studios, and other outlets where stereoviews were sold.

Stereoviews were sold individually or in sets, packaged in specially designed stereoview mounts or albums for display and storage. Generally, stereoviews were affordable for middle-class consumers, with individual views typically priced between a few cents to a quarter each.

Retailers selling stereoviews included photography studios, general stores, department stores, souvenir shops, and mail-order catalogs. Additionally, traveling salesmen, known as “stereopticon agents,” often peddled stereoviews door-to-door or at public gatherings such as fairs and exhibitions.

The accessibility and affordability of stereoviews, coupled with the growing interest in stereoscopic entertainment and education, contributed to their widespread popularity and commercial success during this period.

Stereoviews captured a wide range of subjects, showcasing the diverse interests of people during their heyday. They captured images of expansive landscapes, exciting travel scenes, pivotal historical events, and everyday life.

These versatile images weren’t just for entertainment – they played a role in education as well.

Antique Stereoview of the Moon
Underwood & Underwood’s view of a full moon, published in 1899

Used as learning tools, stereoviews depicted various subjects like anatomy and geography. Crafted for educational purposes, these images provided viewers with visual stories, helping them grasp complex topics. This educational aspect revealed how adaptable stereoviews were, transforming them from mere entertainment to instructive tools across different disciplines.

The extensive range of subjects covered in stereoviews not only satisfied the public’s curiosity about the world but also kept them popular throughout the mid and late 19th century.

The Decline of Stereoviews

In the early 20th century, stereoviews saw a decline due to several factors.

New technologies like motion pictures and television provided more dynamic experiences, overshadowing static stereoscopic images. Changing entertainment preferences, economic pressures, and a reduced availability of stereoscopes added to the waning demand.

Cultural shifts, influenced by World Wars, evolving education methods, and the shift to color photography, further impacted the decline.

Despite this, there’s been a resurgence in interest among collectors and photography enthusiasts, appreciating stereoviews as valuable artifacts offering a unique glimpse into 19th-century visual culture.

Famous Stereoview Makers & Publishers

Now we’ll meet some of the visionaries who shaped the world of stereoviews.

These pioneering companies shared a common goal – bringing the beauty of the world to eager viewers through the lens of stereography.

TitleStereoview Description
Stereoscopic Studies of Anatomy by Dr. Thomas W. Evans (1858)Dr. Thomas W. Evans, a dentist, commissioned stereoviews depicting anatomical studies. These rare and somewhat unconventional stereoviews, intended for medical education, have been sought after by collectors.
Views of Japan by Uchida Kuichi (c. 1890s)Stereoviews capturing scenes of Japan during the late 19th century by Uchida Kuichi, a Japanese photographer, are highly valued for their cultural and historical significance. Sets of these stereoviews have achieved considerable prices at auctions.
California Series by Eadweard Muybridge (1872)Eadweard Muybridge, known for his contributions to motion photography, created stereoviews as part of his “California Series.” Views featuring landscapes and scenes from California have been prized by collectors.
Stereoscopic Gems of American and Foreign Scenery by R. R. Hayes (1860s)This series by R. R. Hayes includes stereoviews depicting landscapes, landmarks, and cultural scenes. Complete sets of “Stereoscopic Gems” have been sold at auctions for notable prices.
Expedition Stereoviews by Timothy O’Sullivan (1860s)Stereoviews taken during various western expeditions, particularly those by Timothy O’Sullivan, have achieved high prices at auctions. Scenes of the American West, including geological formations and Native American life, are highly coveted.
Stereoviews of the Civil War by various photographersStereoviews documenting the American Civil War by photographers such as Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner are valuable artifacts. Views capturing significant moments and locations during the war have been auctioned for substantial sums.
Stereoviews by Kilburn BrothersCertain stereoviews by Kilburn Brothers, such as those documenting the aftermath of the Chicago Fire in 1871, have been recognized for their historical importance. Individual views from this series have achieved significant prices at auctions.
The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak by William Henry Jackson (1872)This iconic stereoview, capturing the majestic landscape of the Rocky Mountains, was part of the United States Geological Survey’s exploration. In 2010, a rare stereoview of this image sold for over $700 at auction.
The Mammoth Plate Portfolio by Carleton Watkins (1861-1866)Carleton Watkins, renowned for his large-format photographs, produced a series known as “The Mammoth Plate Portfolio.” A complete set of this portfolio, including stereoviews of Yosemite and other landscapes, achieved high prices at auctions.
African American Stereoviews by Thomas Houseworth & Co.Stereoviews depicting African American life during the 19th century have gained historical significance. Sets of stereoviews by Thomas Houseworth & Co., featuring scenes of African American individuals and communities, have attracted attention and high bids at auctions.

Comparing Mass-Produced to Rare Stereoviews

Understanding the contrast between mass-produced and rare stereoviews is essential for beginning collectors.

Mass-Produced Stereoviews

Widely accessible and economically priced, mass-produced stereoviews flooded the market when they were first made. They commonly featured standardized subjects, appealing to a broad audience. These stereoviews, while enjoyable, represented popular prints of their era with widespread availability.

Factors Affecting the Value of Mass-Produced Stereoviews

In the 19th century, mass-produced stereoviews opened access to stereography, but factors like abundance and standardization impact their collector’s value.

While some mass-produced stereoviews hold historical and educational significance, considerations such as condition play a crucial role in assessing their overall worth. The sheer volume of production also affects their rarity today, influencing their collectible value.

Standardization and Mass Appeal

As stereoviews gained popularity, standardized formats and common themes, like landscapes and travel scenes, contributed to their mass appeal. Although these views often captured interesting locations around the world, their rather common nature lessened their uniqueness.

Condition and Wear

Mass-produced stereoviews were often handled frequently, leading to wear and tear. Views in pristine condition tend to hold more value, but the prevalence of well-worn copies can affect overall market demand.

Educational Purpose

Many mass-produced stereoviews were created for educational purposes, showcasing subjects like geography, anatomy, and historical events. While valuable for educational use, their widespread availability may limit their value in the collector’s market.

Diversity of Stereoview Makers

With numerous publishers entering the market, not all achieved widespread recognition. Stereoviews from lesser-known makers or regional publishers may not command the same level of demand as those from more prominent names.

Rare Stereoviews

Rare stereoviews stand out as collectors’ items due to limited production, unique subjects, or historical significance.

Their rarity can stem from a photographer’s limited output, an early production date, an uncommon theme, or connections to significant events. Collectors value these views for their exclusivity and deeper connection to specific historical moments.

Rare stereoviews offer collectors a unique perspective on extraordinary aspects of 19th-century visual culture, contrasting with the mainstream appeal of mass-produced counterparts.

Examples of Some Desirable Rare Stereoview Makers and Subjects

“Stereoscopic Studies of Anatomy” by Dr. Thomas W. Evans (1858): Dr. Thomas W. Evans, a dentist, commissioned stereoviews depicting anatomical studies. These rare and somewhat unconventional stereoviews, intended for medical education, have been sought after by collectors.

“Views of Japan” by Uchida Kuichi (c. 1890s): Stereoviews capturing scenes of Japan during the late 19th century by Uchida Kuichi, a Japanese photographer, are highly valued for their cultural and historical significance. Sets of these stereoviews have achieved considerable prices at auctions.

“California Series” by Eadweard Muybridge (1872): Eadweard Muybridge, known for his contributions to motion photography, created stereoviews as part of his “California Series.” Views featuring landscapes and scenes from California have been prized by collectors.

“Stereoscopic Gems of American and Foreign Scenery” by R. R. Hayes (1860s): This series by R. R. Hayes includes stereoviews depicting landscapes, landmarks, and cultural scenes. Complete sets of “Stereoscopic Gems” have been sold at auctions for notable prices.

“Expedition Stereoviews” by Timothy O’Sullivan (1860s): Stereoviews taken during various western expeditions, particularly those by Timothy O’Sullivan, have achieved high prices at auctions. Scenes of the American West, including geological formations and Native American life, are highly coveted.

“Stereoviews of the Civil War” by various photographers: Stereoviews documenting the American Civil War by photographers such as Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner are valuable artifacts. Views capturing significant moments and locations during the war have been auctioned for substantial sums.

Stereoviews by Kilburn Brothers: Certain stereoviews by Kilburn Brothers, such as those documenting the aftermath of the Chicago Fire in 1871, have been recognized for their historical importance. Individual views from this series have achieved significant prices at auctions.

“The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak” by William Henry Jackson (1872): This iconic stereoview, capturing the majestic landscape of the Rocky Mountains, was part of the United States Geological Survey’s exploration. In 2010, a rare stereoview of this image sold for over $700 at auction.

“The Mammoth Plate Portfolio” by Carleton Watkins (1861-1866): Carleton Watkins, renowned for his large-format photographs, produced a series known as “The Mammoth Plate Portfolio.” A complete set of this portfolio, including stereoviews of Yosemite and other landscapes, achieved high prices at auctions.

“African American Stereoviews” by Thomas Houseworth & Co.: Stereoviews depicting African American life during the 19th century have gained historical significance. Sets of stereoviews by Thomas Houseworth & Co., featuring scenes of African American individuals and communities, have attracted attention and high bids at auctions.

The Collectibility and Value of Stereoviews

Now that you have a foundation on the history, process and evolution of stereoscopic images, we can look at value. The collectibility and value of stereoviews hinge on several key factors that grab the attention of discerning collectors.

Rare Stereoviews

Firstly, rarity plays a vital role.

Stereoviews considered rare due to limited production or having distinct historical importance tend to attract extra attention and appreciation. This aligns with a fundamental principle in collecting – rarity inherently boosts an item’s value.

View of the Presidential box where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. From H.T. Anthony’s “The War for the Union” stereoview series published to commemorate the Civil War.

For instance, B.W. Kilburn’s late 19th-century series, “The War for the Union,” stands out for its optical clarity and historical documentation of the Civil War, showcasing the blend of rarity, historical significance, and condition that gives them an elevated collectible value.

Historically Significant Stereoviews

Another crucial factor is the historical significance of stereoviews.

Views that capture pivotal historical events or feature notable figures from the 19th century tend to be more desirable. Stereoviews documenting significant moments, like scenes from the Civil War, showcase the historical depth that enhances their market value.

The Condition of Antique Stereoview Cards

Equally important is the condition of both stereoviews and accompanying stereoscopes.

Pristine examples with minimal wear, well-preserved imagery, and intact mounting significantly increase their appeal to collectors. On the flip side, instances of degradation, like fading or tears, can notably reduce their market worth. This scrutiny aligns with meticulous grading standards prevalent in the expansive realm of antique and vintage collectibles.

Should You Try To Flatten Stereoview Cards?

No! The old stereoview cards are *meant* to be curved. The curved shape happened during their production, and made the cards easy to stack, store and ship. If you try to flatten antique stereoview cards, you’ll crack and ruin them.

Unlock the Value of Your Stereoview Collection with Britannic Auctions

With our expertise in antique stereoviews, Britannic Auctions specializes in online auctions that showcase the beauty and historical significance of these captivating artifacts. Contact us today for a complimentary valuation of your collection and let us help you unlock the value of your cherished stereoviews.

EXPLORE & LEARN

Learning Guides

In-depth guides on the world of collecting and valuing books, postcards, photography and more.

Have an antique in your attic and wonder what it's worth?

Get Alerts for the Dickensiana Auction

 

Join our mailing list for email alerts on the 2023 Charles Dickens auction.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for whatever you collect!

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions.

Let us know your area of collecting or interest and we'll send you updates on that particular subject.

INTERESTS

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions.

Let us know your area of collecting or interest and we'll send you updates on that particular subject.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions which feature vintage Hollywood memorabilia, photos and collectibles.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions which feature collectible militaria items.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions which feature fine antique books, rare volumes, and manuscripts.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions which feature vintage postcards, RPPCs and collections.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions which feature antique photography, albums and important images.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions which feature first edition books and collections of firsts.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions which feature antique and vintage collectibles related to ocean liners and famous ships.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Get auction updates for similar items

 

Join our mailing list to receive periodic email alerts on our upcoming online auctions which feature magic and gambling related books, props, advertising and ephemera.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Britannic Auctions

Be the First to Know with Auction Alerts!

Join now for exclusive alerts on must-have collectibles. Don't miss your chance to be ahead of the pack!

Thanks! You'll be hearing from us soon.

Don't miss this auction!

 

Join our mailing list to receive email alerts on this and future online auctions.

Thanks for your interest! You'll be hearing from us.

Britannic Auctions

Be the First to Know with Auction Alerts!

Join now for exclusive alerts on must-have collectibles. Don't miss your chance to be ahead of the pack!

Thanks! You'll be hearing from us soon.