If stereoviews allow us a journey through time, stereoscopes are the vehicles that take us there. Antique stereoscopes are simple yet elegant devices that come in a variety of forms. Holding an antique handheld stereoscope, you can imagine the excitement someone else may have felt receiving it as a present for their birthday or Christmas. On the other hand, you also have floor stand semi-automated stereoscopes, that were designed to contain over a thousand stereoviews. These served as a media center in the living rooms of the rich, meant to amaze every visitor, and perhaps even spark a bit of envy. Think of them as the antique equivalents of the latest flat screen TV models! In some ways, antique stereoscopes are witnesses of time, bringing old and forgotten moments back to life. In this section, we will introduce different types of antique stereoscopes and their history, and share tips on building your own stereoscope collection and restoration of these antique treasures.
written for the stereosite by Keita Wangari, USA
3D filmstrip viewers are a family of stereo viewers that gained prominence in the early 20th century. In fact, it was a small filmstrip viewer called Tru-Vue that re-introduced 3D viewing as a mid-century pastime, made it more affordable than earlier stereoscope sets, and paved the way in the hearts and minds of consumers for the popular 3D reel & card viewers that would come later. For this reason, Tru-Vue has often been called “the missing link” in stereoscopy. Although Tru-Vue was the most commercially successful filmstrip stereo viewer in the United States, maybe even worldwide, it wasn’t the first. Here, in chronological order, I present some of the most interesting mid-century filmstrip viewers, including those that came before Tru-Vue, co-existed and competed with Tru-Vue and those that followed much later. The scope of this article doesn’t include 3D viewers like Stéréo Alain, Celde, Pendoplast and Stereo-foto that use stereo transparencies in a roll format.
Dating to around 1914, this 3D filmstrip viewer is an accessory to the Homéos stereo camera (which is said to be the world’s first 35mm stereo camera) and was created by the French industrialist Jules Richard who helped spread stereo photography to the masses with the popular Vérascope line. The Homéos viewer is a small wooden viewer that can be found with different variations on the design. One has film canisters on the side to hold the film, a long handle underneath that rotates the film and a lever to adjust the lenses. Another can be found without those features and still another can be found where the eyepieces are shaped differently.
Hollywood Filmoscope, 1920’s
In 1929, an ad in the L.A. Times advertised the first showing of the Hollywood Filmoscope, “a new device that moves a series of views on motion picture film before your eyes in plastic relief.” It sold for $2.50 with extra films going for 50 cents. All 15 films available for it were Hollywood-related. Although this small metal viewer says Hollywood on it, an article in the Santa Ana Register dated March 15, 1929 stated that a Laguna Beach, CA company called Craftsman Studios signed a contract to produce 200,000 Filmoscope devices. According to that article, the device should say “Made in Laguna Beach, California” on it but I’ve not seen any with that wording. Patent was applied for in 1928 by Andre Barlaiter and granted in 1931. The device is rare and the films are extremely rare.
Colleen Moore Magic Theatre
Colleen Moore was a famous silent movie star with a passion for building doll houses. In the late ’20s, she spent today’s equivalent of $7M to build an elaborate dollhouse. In the 1930’s, the Magic Theatre viewer and its accompanying film served as an advertising piece for the dollhouse. The cardboard version consists of 2 separate pieces — one piece is inserted completely inside the other. The wood version, which may be an early prototype, is one piece. A complete set with intact viewer, film, and brochure, all in good condition, is rare.
This viewer has ties to today’s DeVry University and at least one of its films has ties to the Olympic swimmer Jam Handy. The DeVry stereo viewer out of Chicago was created by the movie projection company DeVry Corp which was founded by Herman DeVry. It competed with Chicago-based Tru-Vue by also selling films of the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair. In addition to the 6 films for the world’s fair, DeVry partnered with the Jam Handy Picture Service (also out of Chicago) to produce a 56-frame commercial film for Goodyear. Besides being an Olympic swimmer, Jam Handy’s company was well-known for producing tons of training films for the military and auto companies. As for the tie to DeVry University, in 1931 the same Herman DeVry founded DeForest Training School (named after his friend), it was renamed DeVry Technical Institute in 1953, then renamed DeVry Institute of Technology in 1968, then came partnerships, stock, acquisitions and a DeVry Inc came to be, then a DeVry Education Group and somewhere in the mix DeVry University was born.
An ad in the Dayton Daily News dated February 26, 1939 announced “the amazing ‘Novel-viewer’ as “a new scientific marvel” that could be obtained, along with the Treasure Island film, for 10 cents plus one seal from a 1 lb can of Cocomalt. Like DeVry, Novelview (also known as a Moviescope) was yet another competitor to Tru-Vue and was produced by the Novelart Company in New York. There are approximately 65 unique film titles, the rarest and most valuable being a series of baseball films. There are 2 versions of the viewer — one with a silver faceplate that slides in and out to advance the film and one a brown faceplate and a knob to advance the film. The silver version can usually be found as part of a radio promotion package advertising Jack Armstrong’s Jungle Adventure. The film, featuring Jack Armstrong in Africa, was a promo sponsored by Wheaties on the Jack Armstrong radio show. A complete version of that package with viewer (not rusted), intact film, brochure, and box is hard to find.
The Tru-Vue filmstrip stereo viewer was produced by Rock Island Bridge & Iron Works in Rock Island, Illinois, United States. As mentioned earlier, Tru-Vue ushered in a whole new generation of 3d viewing. I could spend 10 pages going through its history, marketing, and the evolution of its viewers in the decades before and alongside View-Master. However, in the interest of space in this article, I’ll just highlight a few things and then write a separate article just on Tru-Vue. Joshua H. Bennett invented the first Tru-Vue stereoscope after experimenting with the concept for many years and brought the idea with him when he came to work for Rock Island Bridge & Iron Works in 1933. Originally, the device was used to document and showcase the dam being built over the Mississippi river but the opening of the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago presented a whole new marketing opportunity that they took advantage of. Tru-Vue would go on to create numerous styles of viewers, over 400 consumer films and many commercial films. They would eventually lose business to Sawyer’s View-Master and become acquired by them.
The elephant in the room: almost an exact copy of the 1940’s Tru-Vue stereo viewer is the differently spelled “True-View” filmstrip viewer from S.E.L. (Signalling Equipment, Ltd) out of England. There are a couple of different theories as to how they came to produce exact replicas of Tru-Vue’s viewer, packaging, instruction sheet — everything! — without suffering harsh consequences from Tru-Vue. I discovered a new clue in a 1949 article where Tru-Vue’s chief sales rep Fred B. Ingram stated, “England is out at the moment, because of the pound devaluation. Previously, London was one of our big foreign markets.” Given that particular insight, it makes sense that a “different” version would suddenly appear in that market and quickly capitalize on the absence of the original Tru-Vue by visually duplicating Tru-Vue’s assets. Their films are different though — a set of 30 filmstrips focusing on London scenery, the Betram Mills’ Silver Jubilee circus, British railways and other England-related subjects.
Verascope F40, 1940’s
Out of France in the late 40s & early 50’s, this beautiful filmstrip viewer was a companion to the F40 camera. It takes in light from a diffuser on its top and has a reversing prism behind each lens so you can view image pairs in 3D directly from the camera, without having to cut, flip and mount the images. The first version was mahogany & chrome. A later version was made from black bakelite and was designed to completely contain the filmstrip inside the unit. Both could be mounted on a stand which is extremely hard to find today.
This small bakelite stereo filmstrip viewer from API, Ltd in England is fairly hard to find, as are the films. The viewer came in at least 3 colors that I’ve seen and there are about 204 Sightseer films ranging in topics from city scenics (Oxford, London, Canterbury, Edinburgh, etc.) to Locomotives, Madame Tussaud and a Dog Show.
Jumping a couple of decades ahead to the ‘70s, Japan hosted its first world fair in Osaka in 1970 called Expo ’70 — the theme was Progress and Harmony for Mankind. Thanks to Gakken in Japan producing this plastic panoramic filmstrip viewer, we can see panoramic views of the fair in 3D! In addition to 5 series of films from the Expo, Pan-Pet produced films on golf, trains and nudes.
Lastly, we’ll again take a 2‑decade jump to the 90’s to take a look at this the battery-operated, cartridge-based, panoramic stereo filmstrip viewer 3Discover by 3D Vision in Canada. You can advance the film in either direction using the buttons on top of the viewer and it makes a cool, and oddly satisfying, whirring sound as the picture changes. There are over 20 cartridges available, covering subjects from travel to the solar system to insects to Celine Dion and the quality of the color images is superb.
Keita Wangari (Cupertino, California, USA)
My love of stereoscopy, which is focused on the viewers rather than the images, started when I stumbled across a Century of Progress World’s Fair Tru-Vue viewer in an antique shop 3 1/2 years ago and I’ve since amassed a large collection of stereoscopes from all over the world, mostly from the mid-century time period (1935–1965). I’m particularly fond of branded 3D viewers used for advertising, folding 3D viewers, cardboard 3D viewers, and mid-century 35mm stereo filmstrip viewers like Tru-Vue, DeVry, Novelview, Filmoscope, and Sightseer.
written for the stereosite by Pascal Martiné, Germany
Why Restore? Guiding Principles
A lover of antiques also loves the stories they come with and the traces those stories have left – something which we call ‘patina’. We must thus ask the question of why one would even consider restoration, a process which will surely alter an object.
Water stains, cracks, even the loss of parts — are these flaws worthy of restoration? Don’t we have to preserve the artifact as it is, with its history intact? This is certainly a valid arena for debate. For me personally, there are some very good arguments for restoration. However, one should always err on the side of caution. These are applicable to antiques in general, but are particularly relevant when considering stereoscopic antiques:
Firstly, it is usually a goal of mine to restore the functionality of stereoscopes and stereo cameras to a point where they are still usable as intended. This also includes conservation, ensuring that functionality will not be lost in the coming decades.
Secondly, things like dirt or water damage might prevent us from understanding how an object may have looked originally, or how comfortable it may have been to use; in short, how the object would have appeared to its contemporaries. This, in my opinion, is also part of historical research on a particular object.
Inevitably, antiques are only ever available in limited quantities. Their current owners might not always consider them to be worth preserving, although the Internet now makes it easy to get background information and estimate the demand for objects. Nevertheless, a stereoscope or stereo camera that is in poor condition is less likely to find a buyer, and might therefore permanently disappear. In addition to a measureable increase in value, a restoration is often the last resort in saving an object that has already survived destruction for a century or more.
I have already mentioned that the patina of an antique is a considerable attraction, and it is desirable in any case that the age of an antique remains obvious to the observer. When I restore a stereoscope or stereo camera, I am not trying to give the impression that it is a modern product. It is also not my intent to improve its performance from how it was originally constructed, even if later models from the same manufacturer did exactly that.
When considering restoration, I always ask myself one very simple question: What would this stereoscope look like today if it had never disappeared from its owner’s living room, but had been cherished and cared for continuously for over 100 years?
Disassembly and Reassembly
Looking at an old stereoscope, it is easy to see that the moving parts are worn, and that freely accessible surfaces show abrasion. This is usually the result of normal use and superficial cleaning. Stubborn dirt is mainly found in corners and cracks, or behind levers, cranks, knobs, or the oculars. Normal use mainly leaves behind dust and bodily fluids, such as sweat, which has hardened from decades of storage in damp and poorly ventilated rooms.
Whether you want to perform a relatively superficial cleaning or a full restoration, it is important to disassemble the stereoscope as much as possible! There are four main reasons for this:
First, there are some areas that you simply cannot reach at all, e.g., the inside of the openings through which the eyepieces are moved when focusing. But it is precisely in these places that further abrasion tends to happen when the stereoscope is in use.
Second, different materials require different cleaning techniques. Cleaning wood with liquids damages metal parts and, conversely, polishing metal makes neighbouring shellacked wood parts look dull and scratched. Without completely disassembling an object, there is no way of completely cleaning the areas of transition from one material to the other.
Third, cleaning sometimes requires the application of some mechanical force to the object. Not to mention clamping parts that need to be re-glued, using a hammer to fit in missing parts, or replacing lost nails. If everything is still assembled, you may loosen, bend, or break intact connections in doing so.
Finally, this is also about the philosophy of restoration. We want to work conservatively throughout the entire process and, if possible, even reverse processes of decay. However, if you were to clean an object without dismantling it first, you may actually accelerate the process of decay. This is because wear will inevitably continue on the freely accessible areas by your cleaning activity, while dirt in cracks and crevices has not ever been reached. This might lead to a situation where you have to apply new paint because you rubbed the worn old paint off the already worn wooden surface even though you really only wanted to get to the back of a Bakelite knob.
A small standard toolbox is ideal for dismantling, since it usually contains screwdrivers in various sizes as well as flat-nose pliers and side cutters.
If you want to fix, grip or pull something with the flat-nose pliers, remember to use a piece of fabric or cork to prevent the pliers from scratching your surface. You can use the side cutter to loosen (not to cut off!) small nails. This is especially useful for removing things like manufacturer’s labels.
The most important tool, however, is the screwdriver. Stereoscopic antiques typically utilize slotted screws exclusively (not Phillps head or Allen head). For the smaller screws, you may have to resort to watchmaker’s tool sets, but standard screwdrivers can usually be used successfully here. However, especially the larger screws used in antique stereoscopes tend to have much narrower slots than modern screws of the same size. So, a modern screwdriver of the proper blade width won’t fit in the slot, while a watchmaker’s screwdriver which is thin enough to go in the screw slot won’t be wide enough to apply the mechanical force necessary to turn the screw. My recommendation: Buy a large screwdriver with a comfortable handle and a blade about 4 mm (i.e. 1/8 in) wide and grind the blade down to be much thinner — as flat as a butter knife.
If with the right tools, many screws will still refuse to loosen straight away. If the shanks are metal, carefully spray the head with some penetrating oil, e.g. spray-on WD-40, and leave it to do its job. Sometimes you will have to do this multiple times before unscrewing is possible.
If the screw head is recessed deep into the wood, it helps to carefully scrape the head free with a knife.
If the screws are dirty, you can scrape out the slot in the screw with the corner of the screwdriver head. It might also help to loosen the screw by trying to turn it back and forth a little at first. If it gets difficult and you have to use more force, hold the neck of the screwdriver to keep it from slipping and scratching the surface.
I have come across different makes and models of stereoscopic antiques time and again over the past few years and it is impossible to give a complete explanation. Still, there are a few things in common.
For example, eyepieces or lenses can usually be unscrewed and disassembled by hand. Beware of too much pressure! If you grip them too tightly, you may break or bend the eyepiece mounts or the threaded rings! It’s best to place your palm flat against the entire ring and then twist. If your hand keeps slipping, try putting on rubber gloves.
Levers that do not have a screw can sometimes be amazingly easy to pull out. Often, however, nipped nails also serve as pins for holding them in place. If this is the case, these levers are generally impossible to detach.
If prismatic lenses or glass panes are held in place with pieces of wood glued inside the device, see if you can gently break off these pieces of wood with your bare hands. You can also use a knife or a screwdriver as a lever. Make sure that any damage you may cause will not be visible from the outside and consider whether it is worth dismantling this part of your object for the restoration.
Depending on the order in which you do things, you won’t have to dismantle everything at once. For example, it is advisable to keep eyepieces assembled when you are not working on them so that you don’t have too many small parts out at a time. A type case or a magnetic tray is ideal for storing the smallest parts.
The mechanisms inside larger table stereoscopes can usually be taken out of their casings and cleaned without further dismantling is necessary.
When reassembling the device after cleaning, you will notice that screws or nails may no longer grip because the hole has gotten too large. To fix this, spread some wood glue on the tip of a toothpick, insert it into the hole in the wood, and then break it off. To prevent the screw from changing its position, you can use a small nail to prepare a hole in the screw’s original position by hand.
Expect having to replace rusty screws and not be able to reuse small nails. It’s important to check your local hardware store for suitable replacements before dismantling.
Cleaning and Finishing
The majority of my restoration process consists of very thorough cleaning.
Lacquered Surfaces with Glossy Finish and Bakelite
I use the same cleaning fluid for shellac-polished wood, lacquered metal with a glossy finish, and Bakelite parts. There used to be a product from the German company Clou for polishing shellac – a water-based suspension that contained a little soap and pumice powder as an abrasive. The liquid soap was ideal for loosening encrusted dirt, and the abrasives smoothed the surface without leaving any visible marks. The fluid was applied with a ball of cloth and, after drying, polished with a clean cloth until it was shiny. Unfortunately, this product was discontinued.
Two years ago, I finally came across an alternative that is easy to make at home. There are many different polishing pastes for car paint that contain abrasives. Look for a water-based product and above all, make sure it does not contain any wax or silicone. Dilute the product with water until it has reached the consistency of milk.
The application is then exactly as described above – there will probably be some light clouding on the surface after the product has dried (likely due to the abrasive), but it can easily be wiped off with a damp cloth. Afterwards, you should dry the surface quickly with a fresh, clean cloth and polish it until it is shiny.
A final treatment is optional after cleaning. Bakelite gets a nice, even shine if you treat it with colourless wax. Usually there are specific products for the care of antique wooden furniture. After rubbing the wax in, let it dry completely and polish it briefly, and thoroughly, with a dry cloth until it shines.
The same treatment is also useful for wood with a shellac surface; isolated scratches or blunt spots can be concealed well this way. However, be careful to apply very little wax and avoid unnecessary contact with the surface for several days after polishing. The wax takes a long time to dry completely because it cannot be absorbed into the wood. Don’t worry about overdoing it. You can completely remove excess wax with a soft cloth. I strongly advise against treatment with standard liquid oily standard furniture polish! The oil penetrates even the smallest cracks in the paint and pulls into the wood underneath. This results in dark spots, that will be irreversible or at least visible for a long time.
Caution: Repairs to wood, metal and Bakelite parts must be made before the final treatment of the surface!
I generally try to change the original surface as little as possible. An exception is waxed wood, as there are water stains under the wax layer and new wax that is applied to the surface combines seamlessly with existing wax residues (in contrast to lacquer).
If the dirt is just superficial, I resort to the same method I explained in the previous section. In the case of water stains, heavily bleached wood, or partial loss of the wax layer, I remove the old wax layer or loosen it. To do this, I rub the wood thoroughly with a bale of the finest steel wool (grade 0000), which I regularly soak in cleaning gasoline. This process washes off the old wax and at the same time smooths the surface. The result always looks terrifying. Surfaces appear spotty and extremely clouded, like a badly wiped school blackboard.
Do not try to repeat the process until the wood looks even, as this would mean that you’ve sanded off the entire top layer of the wood. This is neither desired nor necessary, and would only distort the original colour. You can always check how the surface will look later as long as the cleaning gasoline has not evaporated and the wood is still damp.
From here there are several options:
a) Deep scratches, breakouts, or other areas where the original surface has been completely removed and which therefore emerged brightly before removing the wax layer can be re-coloured with wood stain (water-based without any wax components) in the appropriate colour.
b) If the wood in general, or in larger areas, looked very pale and colourless, you can rub the entire wood with linseed oil varnish. Let the varnish take effect briefly, rub off any excess liquid with a cloth and let it dry sufficiently!
c) If, by and large, the wood looked even and had a nice colour before removing the layer of wax, skip both of the above steps and apply a new layer of wax straightaway. Use a colourless wax made for wooden furniture. There are often special products for antiques. Distribute the wax with a piece of cloth. Too much wax won’t harm your surface, but it will cause you to have to polish more. For starters, the surface should feel like your hands after putting on hand cream. Let the wax dry long enough and rub it off briefly and vigorously, creating a satin gloss. Rubbing for too long will heat up the wax, causing you to merely smear it around. If in doubt, let it dry again. Cracks and ridges are easily polished with a brush. If at the end you still see rubbing patterns, you have probably used too little wax, or the wood has soaked up too much of it. In this case, just repeat the process.
Caution: repairs to the wood must be made before oil and wax are applied!
Cleaning metal parts that have not been painted or tempered is generally very easy, but might require patience and focus. For stereoscopic antiques, you’ll mostly encounter brass, and possibly nickel-plated brass. Rub off any dirt or stains with the finest steel wool (grade 0000) without applying too much pressure. Not all stains can be completely removed, and you always have to consider when to stop. There are limits to cleaning, especially with nickel-plated brass.
Tempered metal can sometimes be cleaned at least a little with penetrating oil and a cloth. But be very careful: even a little too much pressure will cause the colour to come off.
The cleaning of the mechanical work of table stereo viewers is mostly done by simply removing dust, dried-on oil, or graphite. I use a toothbrush on which I put penetrating oil, for example spray-on WD-40. I rub larger areas clean with an oil-soaked cloth. Oil the moving parts, but otherwise rub off all of the oil afterwards. Do not use sandpaper or steel wool. Unfortunately, I speak from experience when I say that these leave permanent traces.
I use Vaseline or modern coloured shoe polish to care for leather. I make sure not to use any products with grease, as it tends to react with the leather in the long term, making it brittle. Further information can be found within the book restoration community if needed.
Repairing and replacing
In comparison to possible serious damage, everything that has been said so far is relatively manageable. If a stereoscope or stereo camera is not only heavily soiled, but has parts that are broken off, permanently stuck together or have even disappeared completely, you must always decide on a case-by-case basis. Still, there are a few common methods that I would like to address briefly:
Bone glue was most frequently used in antiques, and we cannot produce it today without great effort. That is why I myself use modern glue for my restorations. I make sure, however, that it doesn’t contain any solvents, because I don’t know to what extent those solvents might attack the materials.
Usually wood glue takes some time to dry, making it is essential to hold the parts together with clamps. Don’t forget to put wood or cardboard underneath the clamps to avoid scratching the surface. I also use white bookbinding glue for leather or textile. Bookbinding glue retains some elasticity and dries clear.
White glue that spills out from cracks when gluing things can be easily scraped off with a fingernail once it has hardened a bit. Any leftovers can then be wiped off with a damp paper towel.
Superglue is useful for broken Bakelite parts and two-part resin epoxy is suitable for metal parts that are subject to stress.
Bent metal parts are very common. Mostly they are not cast metal parts, but rather wires, stamped sheet metal or the like. If you are careful and think carefully about where to start, most parts can easily be bent back into shape. I mostly use flat-nose pliers for this. Don’t forget to put a piece of fabric between the pliers and the metal part! I usually only use only one pair of pliers while I hold the part with my bare hand. I like to think that that gives me a better sense of how much strain the metal is under when bending.
Coloured Wax Putty
It is not uncommon for antiques to be infested with household pests, e.g. woodworm. After dismantling, it makes sense to treat the infested parts either with a pesticide, or put in the oven. The tell-tale holes in the wood can usually be hidden well with coloured wax. Coloured wax is also good for filling in small cracks or imperfections, both in wood and in Bakelite.
Even after a number of restored stereoscopes, you can still discover new things! Many stereoscopes have two metal rings in their wooden casings, through which the tubes of the eyepieces move when we adjust the focus. Felt or velvet was always used inside these rings. However, one can often no longer find the slightest trace of it. If you look closely, you might at least see the glue residue. I definitely recommend putting a thin layer of felt back on. This prevents the metal tubes from being scratched and, above all, stabilizes the guide when setting the focus, which often remains a bit wobbly without felt.
Although I said at the outset that restoration is sometimes the last chance to save an antique from destruction, there are also those that are too damaged to save. Keep an eye out for these objects. Sometimes they can serve as a source of replacement parts. In particular, the eyepiece frames and Bakelite parts were made by large manufacturers, and are the same for most stereoscopes. The same thing is true for screws. Even if you ever need to replace a piece of wood, it is certainly preferable to use a vintage piece of wood that might allow you to keep the original shellac surface.
I would like to return to my guiding question: “What would this stereoscope look like today?” Restoring always brings me closer to a possible answer even though this remains always just an approximation. Another picture that I used in my article was to reverse a process of decay. This means, restoration is always like a journey into the past and even if you restore regularly, you will never know where it leads you. Another aspect is becoming kind of intimately familiar with the object you are working on, examining it closely, deciding wether to do a step of restoration or not and still being excited. Turning an old and forgotten stereoscope into a truly personal object is invaluable. It’s more than just finding it. In some way it’s also recreating it and literally becoming involved in its history.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.