Collecting Stereoscopes

written for the stereosite by André Ruiter, The Netherlands

In my pre­vi­ous post I shared some tips about col­lect­ing stere­oviews on online auc­tion sites. This time I will talk about col­lect­ing antique stere­o­scopes for glass stere­oviews from the peri­od 1850 to 1930. Some tips from my pre­vi­ous post can also be applied to stere­o­scopes, so I rec­om­mend to read this post first. How­ev­er, col­lect­ing stere­o­scopes comes with some addi­tion­al chal­lenges that I will address now.

Stereoscope types

There are two types of stere­o­scopes: hand­held stere­o­scopes and table stere­o­scopes. With­in these main groups there are many vari­a­tions and I will not cov­er all of them. The hand­held stere­o­scopes are gen­er­al­ly sim­ple devices to view stere­oviews one by one. A table stere­o­scope offers more func­tion­al­i­ty and this group also includes the sophis­ti­cat­ed mul­ti-view devices. In this post I will focus on a num­ber of view­ers that are read­i­ly available.

Define your goal

First, you have to deter­mine your goal before acquir­ing a stere­o­scope. Do you want to use it for view­ing your col­lec­tion or is it pri­mar­i­ly intend­ed as a dec­o­ra­tive item in your show­case? The first view­ers from the peri­od 1850 – 1870 are beau­ti­ful, but they don’t offer the best opti­cal qual­i­ty. You’re bet­ter off with a lat­er mod­el from around 1910 – 1930 to view your col­lec­tion. I have a beau­ti­ful ear­ly Brew­ster style hand­held stere­o­scope from around 1860. It looks nice in my cab­i­net, but to enjoy my glass slides I pre­fer the Zeiss Ikon view­ers from the late 1920s.

Ear­ly Brew­ster style stere­o­scope from around 1860

Different formats

The most com­mon glass stere­oview for­mats are 45 x 107mm, 6 x 13cm and 8.5 x 17cm. Most stere­o­scopes only sup­port one for­mat. I’ve noticed that the sup­port­ed for­mat is not always men­tioned by the sell­er or an incor­rect for­mat is list­ed. Keep this in mind and con­tact the sell­er if in doubt.

Handheld stereoscopes

A wood­en closed box view­er is a good start to view your col­lec­tion. Find­ing such a view­er is quite easy because they’re wide­ly avail­able. Not much can go wrong with these view­ers and if the sell­er has made a series of good pho­tos, the choice can be made quick­ly. Make sure the lens­es are clear and free of fun­gus and the eye­piece hold­ers are not rusty. Scratch­es on the wood­work are not your biggest prob­lem when your inten­tion is to use it for view­ing your collection.

Zeiss Ikon 628/8 hand­held stere­o­scope for 6 x 13cm stereoviews

Table stereoscopes – slide tray

The show­piece in your col­lec­tion should be (in my hum­ble opin­ion) a beau­ti­ful slide tray mul­ti­view­er. These devices are easy to use, dec­o­ra­tive and pro­vide a good view­ing expe­ri­ence. The dis­ad­van­tage is that they are expen­sive and there is a greater risk that the advance mech­a­nism is not in opti­mal con­di­tion. They often use gears and springs to posi­tion the stere­oviews and to trans­port the slide tray over a rail. These are pre­ci­sion instru­ments and a small devi­a­tion can cause the glass slides to jam.

The most ide­al sit­u­a­tion is to test the device before buy­ing. If this is not pos­si­ble, the advice is to con­tact the sell­er and ask for detailed infor­ma­tion. Keep in mind that not every buy­er is aware of what they are sell­ing. The stere­o­scope may be inher­it­ed and the sell­er may have lit­tle knowl­edge of the device and how it works. This will become clear from the answers you’ll get. If the sell­er has no clue, just move on or take the risk. If the sell­er has some knowl­edge about the the view­er, ask if it can show all images one by one, with­out get­ting jammed. If this is the case, you’re prob­a­bly good to go.

After receiv­ing your stere­o­scope, I rec­om­mend you test it with some unin­ter­est­ing glass stere­oviews from your col­lec­tion. You don’t want to destroy your pre­cious stere­oviews because of a jam­ming viewer.

Tax­iphote slide tray stere­o­scope for 45 x 107mm glass stere­oviews by Jules Richard
Planox Stéréo­scope Mag­né­tique for 6 x 13cm glass slides

About auction houses

Some­times stere­o­scopes are offered by an auc­tion house. They auc­tion large num­bers of objects at the same time and are not nec­es­sar­i­ly spe­cial­ized in stere­oscopy. You can ask if the device is in good con­di­tion, but often they sim­ply do not know and don’t have the skills or time to per­form a test.

Slide tray included please…

If you want to use your desired stere­o­scope with slide trays, it’s good to ask if at least one tray is includ­ed. When buy­ing a Tax­iphote or Métas­cope, this is less impor­tant because these slide trays are rea­son­ably avail­able. Find­ing a slide tray for a Polyphote or Mul­ti­phote can be a big challenge.

Table stereoscopes – chain type

An alter­na­tive to the slide tray device is the chain type revolv­ing stere­o­scope. These are the most sim­ple mul­ti-view devices and they often sup­port both glass stere­oviews and paper stere­o­cards. They pop up on auc­tion sites reg­u­lar­ly for rea­son­able prices. Because of their sim­ple mech­a­nism they are often in good work­ing order, but the view­ing expe­ri­ence of these devices is gen­er­al­ly not very good and replac­ing stere­oviews is cum­ber­some. I have some chain type view­ers as I like their appear­ance, but I don’t use them often for view­ing my collection.

Chain type revolv­ing stere­o­scope for 45 x 107mm glass stere­oviews by Jules Richard
Chain type stere­o­scope for dif­fer­ent for­mats by Mattey

How is it presented?

Pay atten­tion to how the stere­o­scope is pre­sent­ed on the online auc­tion site. Some sell­ers ask $1000 for a table view­er, but all you can see are some blur­ry images and a descrip­tion “good con­di­tion”. I can­not rec­om­mend these sell­ers. I pre­fer sell­ers who take the trou­ble to show a series of good pho­tos with an exten­sive descrip­tion. It’s no guar­an­tee for a sat­is­fy­ing acqui­si­tion, but at least it’s a good start.

Don’t hes­i­tate to ask for extra images when in doubt. If the price is high, you should expect a sell­er to help you. It’s also a good way to get a feel for the sell­er. How quick­ly does the sell­er respond? Do you get com­pre­hen­sive answers? It can all help you to pur­chase with confidence.

What’s a good price?

In my expe­ri­ence, sell­ers gen­er­al­ly ask too much for a stere­o­scope or have a high start­ing bid. This applies to both hand­held stere­o­scopes and the table mod­els. Hand­held stere­o­scopes are eas­i­ly offered between $200 and $500, but a price between $100 and $250 for a device in good con­di­tion is more real­is­tic. If it’s in mint con­di­tion or rare you can pay more. For a table stere­o­scope with slide trays in good con­di­tion you should think between $500 and $1,000. I bought my Tax­iphote for $800, which is a good price as it’s in excel­lent con­di­tion. How­ev­er, this same Tax­iphote type is eas­i­ly offered for $1,500. My price esti­mates are based on the Euro­pean mar­ket. I’ve under­stood that the prices of stere­o­scopes in the Unit­ed States are much higher.

André Ruiter (Putten, The Netherlands)

I’m a Dutch pho­tog­ra­ph­er who spe­cial­izes in con­cep­tu­al black & white pho­tog­ra­phy. My pho­to projects are based on his­toric themes.
While work­ing on a project about the First World War bat­tle­field of Ver­dun in France, I dis­cov­ered French glass stere­oviews. This result­ed in my great inter­est in stereo pho­tog­ra­phy and I am now a pas­sion­ate col­lec­tor of French and Ger­man stere­oscopy antiques from 1850 to 1930.
On my web­site I share my black & white pho­tog­ra­phy and blogs about stere­oscopy his­to­ry and my col­lec­tion.

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