Antique stereoviews are your ticket to time travel, and can tell great stories from the past! Looking at a vintage card through your stereoscope, you can step right into the scene and imagine how things must have been for people in a particular era. The popularity of this medium in the 19th and early 20th century now allows us to view history via this immersive medium. This section is devoted to the magic of antique stereo-photographs. Learn all about the do’s and don’ts of collecting antique stereoviews, and building a well curated collection of your own here. We will also periodically share stereoviews that are part of private collections.
written for the stereosite by Rebecca Kilbreath, USA
It’s probably safe to assume that most people were introduced to 3D images via View-Master. Introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the handheld 3D viewer was a very popular format that sold literally billions of products from the 1940s right on through the 2000s. Here you’ll find a brief history of View-Master, some images from my collection and key content categories that may be of interest to those looking to start or grow their collections.
View-Master was invented by William Gruber in the 1930s, working with Sawyer’s Inc of Portland, Oregon. Sawyers was then called Sawyer’s Photo Finishing Service and was one of the world’s largest producers of scenic postcards.
The View-Master was introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, just a couple of years after the invention of Kodachrome film. View-Master used Kodachrome exclusively until the late 1970s, and because of this, the vast majority of View-master transparencies retain their color and vibrancy over time.
View-Master was originally marketed as an exciting alternative to scenic postcards. The reels were most often sold at photography stores, gift shops at scenic attractions, and via mail order. When I first started collecting, that era was my primary focus. It gave me the opportunity to view these little time capsules, to take a quick vacation to the past.
As my collection grew, so, too did the geographic span of images. View-Master was truly trying to capture photos from every corner of the globe they could get to. There are many reels of far-flung festivals and lots of artisans and people at work, including a man carving ivory in Hong Kong, a woman making filigree silver jewelry in Yucatan, Mexico, a man carving a boat in Panama. There are photos from life on every continent and most major cities, even Russia during the cold war.
There are also many U.S. communities of people represented including Native Americans, Creole and Gullah. Globally, there are groups of people and even entire places that no longer exist. There’s an entire packet dedicated to Zuiderzee, a fishing village in The Netherlands that existed before they built the dams that put the city under water.
I’ve learned a lot about the world and the past through View-Master. And that’s by design.
William Gruber and the folks at Sawyer’s truly believed in this product as an educational tool. There are many examples of educational reels over the years. Notably, in the 1940s, the U.S. military purchased around 100k viewers and several million reels. From range estimators to in-air identification, these tools were used in training. Other educational reels produced included mushroom identification, flower identification, a sweeping history of Chinese art and medical reels dedicated to body dissection.
The educational reels overlap with another key component of Saywer’s View-Master business that was there from the beginning: the production of commissioned commercial reels. Commercial reels sold just about anything you could name, from bourbon to toothpaste to farm animals. Movie preview reels are some of the most sought-after by collectors. They were used exclusively in movie theaters as a way to promote upcoming movies during the 3D movie craze of the 1950s.
Also in the 1950s, Sawyer’s purchased Tru-Vue, the company’s main competitor. While this wiped out the competition, it also captured the licensing rights to Walt Disney Studios. Four years later, Disneyland would open, and the rest is history. It was a wildly successful partnership for both brands that spanned many decades. There in many who just collect View-Master’s Disney items and that’s probably enough to keep a person busy for years.
Another area for collectors and a big thing for Sawyer’s in the 1950s, involved their end-to-end service for personal reels. They sold a View-Master personal stereo camera, film cutter and mounting supplies. The even sold a 3D projector called the Stereo-Matic 500 that required a silver screen and polarized glasses. A budding photographer could do everything themselves from start to finish, but if you didn’t want to make your own reels, the fine folks at Sawyer’s would do it for you via their mail-in service.
The Toy Shelf
Most people associate View-Master with cartoons and pop culture. And that’s partly because, in the 1960s, GAF Corporation purchased View-Master. They leaned heavily into pop culture and kids reels. And, while they saw success, by the late 1970s, cost cutting measures led to GAF switching to lesser film stocks and quality overall dropped. View-Master changed hands a couple more times but by the late 1990s was owned by Mattel and nestled under the Fisher-Price brand, placing it firmly in the preschooler toy aisle.
While that outcome is a bummer for those who don’t care about cartoons and other kids programming, one neat thing about VM is that it’s from literally everyone’s childhood. Any viewer can show you any reel, from 1939 on. So, everybody — from grandma to a modern preschooler — enjoyed the same tactile experience.
There’s something profound in these shared childhood touchpoints.
Many collectors start out by acquiring things they had and loved in childhood. If you were a kid in the 1960s, you might want the Monkees set; in the 1970s, Eight is Enough; in the 1980s, Knight Rider. If you love sci-fi, there’s everything from a visually stunning Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea diorama set to scenes from the set of Dune in 1984. Numerous space-race and NASA-themed reels exist. And many major pop culture franchises are represented including Marvel, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and Harry Potter.
In terms of reels directed at children, it seems the diorama reels in particular hold a special place in the hearts of collectors. The scenes created by Florence Thomas, Joe Liptak and other sculptors who worked at View-Master has had a lasting impact. I know this because I started an Instagram account in the fall of 2020 to share images from my View-Master collection, and I was happily surprised to find so many people who love View-Master. Many of my followers are themselves artists — cartoonists, illustrators, puppeteers and painters — who have told me that View-Master serves as inspiration in their own work today. It’s not hard to understand why.
The sculptors did incredible work, and the diorama reels are well worth seeking out. And those of you with an interest in stereoscopic photography should definitely check them out. The tabletop 3D photography produced for these reels is unparalleled.
Semiotics — Who’s Here and Who’s Not
Of course, it would be ridiculous to not mention that the past is a decidedly problematic place.
With a degree in film studies, I can’t help but think about the meanings and symbols found in compelling images from the past. What did the images say to people at the time? Who did they include? And, sometimes, more importantly, who did they leave out?
Erasure is probably the neatest trick VM ever pulled — it’s something that the dominant cultural narrative excels at. Black adult Americans are often absent from reels though smiling children are represented semi-regularly. The state tour packets often include a few surprises and regular people of all races and classes working regular jobs. Many of the reels produced by the View-Master factory in Belgium include incredible glimpses into places it would be difficult to see otherwise, from cheese being made at an abbey in the 1940s in Switzerland to how tea was made in India in the 1950s. The educational components and the desire to share images from every corner of the globe was sincere at Sawyer’s, and I find the farther from home I get in View-Master reels, the more I learn.
And, for me, that’s one of the key elements of collecting: The thrill of discovery. While I love to see places and people I would otherwise never see, there’s a special place in my heart for the weirder stuff.
I enjoy images of tourists traps, of festivals and kitschy events — like drunken revelers at Mardi Gras or Rio’s Carnival in the 1940s.
A few more weird things I’ve found and loved: There are two entire commercial reels dedicated to Hereford Ranch’s Heifer sale of 1953. Each cow looks alike unless you know something about buying livestock.
The Paris packet is fantastic and includes this image with the caption “tramps live under the bridges of Paris.” I just don’t think they ever would have included such an image in a reel about the United States.
A bizarre FBI packet features a made-up kidnapping plot but takes place at the real FBI headquarters and feautres a 3D photo of J. Edgar Hoover.
And even though kids reels are somewhat outside my wheelhouse, there are many fun ones to be found. I just recently discovered these creepy-hilarious Hugga Bunch reels from 1985.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to View-Master content categories. One of the best things about View-Master is that it covered so many subjects that, as my personal interests have evolved, so, too, has my collection.
Rebecca Kilbreath (Wheaton, Illinois, USA)
I’ve been collecting View-Master reels since the late 1990s but it wasn’t until the dreary pandemic winter of 2020 that I started to share my collection on Instagram. During the day I work as a writer and editor, but in the evenings I travel to the past via tiny 3D photos. Cataloging my collection and thinking about what the images mean as I look at them lets me use my useless degrees in library science and film studies.
written for the stereosite by Martin Schub, USA
At a recent meeting of the VSC, someone asked if there are stereo views of true crime. I’m not a big true crime fan or a stereo scholar, but this seemed like a fun pandemic online research project. What is meant by true crime? It’s a nonfiction genre having to do with actual crimes, usually murder. It’s popular now, but it was popular in the 19th century too‒just think of the penny press and the National Police Gazette. As the joke says, “Crime may not pay, but it sells!”. I was curious to see if it made its way into stereo cards, too.
Almost all the material I found was for Americans. The images you’ll see come only from online sources, mostly the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. I had never heard of any of these murderers, but amazingly, two of them have their own Wikipedia articles and I was easily able to find some material on the rest also. Conversely, I was unable to find material connected to some murderers who are still household names in the U.S., like Lizzie Borden or Alferd G. Packer.
In what follows, I’ve tried to provide a thumbnail sketch of each crime. Accounts from the time often vary, so I’ve tried to present a composite set of the facts which I think are the most likely.
Please note: Most of these stereos are G‑rated, but there are a few which may be disturbing to some people. Specifically, there are two hangings (both shown before the trapdoor opened) and one dead body. Also some of the descriptions of the crimes may be disturbing. These are images of murder and capital punishment, and they’re not pretty.
The first thing that comes to mind for true crime in stereo was Eadweard Muybridge, but more about him later. The second thing was the assassinations of three US presidents: Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James Garfield in 1881, and William McKinley in 1901. This stereo memorializes all 3, in true maudlin turn-of-the-century style, but with great stereoscopic depth!
This is the only stereo I could find of John Wilkes Booth, who shot Lincoln. It’s an accidental stereo, assembled by John J. Richter from two carte-de-visite images where Booth moved a little between exposures. As a result, the depth is a bit exaggerated.
On April 26, 1865, Boston Corbett’s regiment had surrounded Booth and one of his accomplices in a tobacco shed in Virginia. They were under orders to take Booth alive, but somebody shot him anyway. There are doubts about whether it was Corbett, but he took the credit (or blame). He was to have been court-marshalled, but the Secretary of War intervened.
The assassination of Lincoln was part of a broader conspiracy. Booth isn’t in this photo, having already been killed. The hanged were: David Herold, who helped Booth escape, Lewis Powell, who tried to kill Secretary of War Seward, George Azterodt, who was supposed to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson but lost his nerve, and Mary Surratt, who owned the boarding house where the conspirators met, and who was the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government.
This is the old DC jail where Charles Guiteau, who shot President James Garfield, was held and eventually hanged. While he was held here, two attempts were made to shoot Guiteau, including one by one of his guards. People took up a collection for the guard‒that’s how popular Guiteau was.
It took Garfield almost 3 months to die after being shot, so in court Guiteau claimed, “The doctors killed Garfield ‒ I just shot him!”. He’s usually described as a “disappointed office seeker”, but I don’t think that fully captures his weirdness. He literally danced to the gallows, and then recited a poem he had written, titled, I am going to the Lordy. Both he and Booth are characters in the musical Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, parts of which are available on YouTube.
Plain Old Murders
Gaius Jenkins, Lawrence, Kansas Territory, 1858
There was a plenty of shooting in Kansas Territory in 1858 (the photo was taken some years later), over whether the state-to-be would have legal slavery. In this case, though, both men were Free Staters. What they couldn’t agree on was the ownership of a certain piece of land in Lawrence, including the well you see here (the wellhouse is at the far left).
On June 3, 1858, Gaius Jenkins, carrying a revolver, came to get water from the well which both he and Jim Lane claimed. Lane met him with a shotgun. A man with Jenkins shot Lane in the leg, and Lane shot and killed Jenkins. Lane was acquitted at trial and went on to become one of the two first U.S. Senators from Kansas, and overlapping his Senate service, a Union Civil War general, trading atrocities with the Confederates on the Kanas/Missouri border. In 1866 he became depressed and committed suicide.
Thomas Brown and Wife, Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, 1868
Josiah L. Pike murdered Thomas Brown and his wife, a couple in their 70’s, at Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, on May 8, 1868, with an axe. He stole $500 and an overcoat. He doesn’t look at all sorry in this photo. I haven’t found Mrs. Brown’s name mentioned anywhere, so far. A local church group seems to have been determined to save Pike’s soul by showering him with love, and they held his hand, brought him flowers, and had a choir sing to him. Mark Twain, disgusted by this, wrote a short but very snarky essay called Lionizing Murderers.
Jonathan Lunger and Marie Lunger, Ulysses, New York, 1870
You are looking at the remains of a cabin near Ulysses, New York, which was burned to the ground on March 20, 1870. Two bodies, almost completely reduced to ashes, were found inside.
Jonathan Lunger and his daughter had been awakened by a sharp noise. Lunger found his arm covered in his wife Marie’s blood, and standing over her, holding an axe, was Mike Ferguson, a man who hung around near his cabin and whom he sometimes hired. After a short conversation, Ferguson stove in Lunger’s skull with the axe. Ferguson took Lunger’s watch and rifle and their little money and burned the cabin to the ground. He forced 14-year-old Anna to come with him.
Ferguson was caught and Anna was freed and testified at the trial. Ferguson was hanged at Ithaca in 1871. His motive for the crime was never clear.
Georgiana Lovering, Northwood, New Hampshire, 1872
Franklin B. Evans had set some snares for the birds in the woods outside Northwood, New Hampshire. On September 25 of 1872, he asked his 14-year-old niece, Georgiana Lovering, to check his snares, claiming that he had to work. He hid, then followed her into the forest, then raped her, strangled her, and extensively mutilated her body with a knife.
Evans came up with a couple of stories about a mysterious stranger who had run off with the girl, but Sheriff Henry Drew spent a day with Evans driving from town to town to check the story as it changed. Finally, after they had returned to the sheriff’s house, Sheriff Drew locked eyes with Evans and asked him if Georgie were alive or dead. After some seconds, Evans broke and admitted that she was dead. At midnight, he led the sheriff through a swamp to the body. On viewing the body, the sheriff demanded to know where certain body parts had gone to, and Evans led him to a spot where he had buried them under a rock.
Before his execution on February 18, 1874, Evans confessed to another murder and mutilation of a child which he had committed in 1850. He was suspected of committing several others, but denied his guilt in those. He requested that his body be sold to the Dartmouth College medical school for dissection, with the money to go to his son. And that is where we see him here.
Karen and Anethe Christensen, Smuttynose Island, Maine, 1873
Louis H. F. Wagner is the fellow on the left. The position of his hands suggests that he’s trying to hide shackles. Unfortunately, this “stereo” view is really two copies of the same photo, so it has no depth.
On March 5, 1873, Norwegian immigrants Maren Hontvet and her sister Karen and sister-in-law Anethe Christensen were asleep in a house on Smuttynose Island, one of the Isles of Shoals off the coasts of New Hampshire and Maine. Wagner had found out that Maren’s husband John was staying on the mainland that night, and he thought that John had saved up $600 for a new fishing boat. He also knew the house well, having lived there at one time. Breaking into the house, he blundered into Karen, who was sleeping in the kitchen. He beat her with a chair, but Maren managed to drag her into a bedroom and shut the door. Maren screamed to Anethe, in the next room, to run, and Anethe left by her window, but Wagner grabbed an axe and followed, and cut her down. When he came back into the house, Maren tried to get Karen to flee with her, but the badly-beaten Karen didn’t have the strength. Maren went out the window and ran, hearing Karen’s last cries behind her. Wagner searched the house and found $16, then made himself a meal, before rowing back to the mainland.
Wagner escaped from prison but was caught 3 days after in New Hampshire. He was hanged at Thomaston, Maine in 1875, more than 2 years after the crime. The murders were the subject of A Memorable Murder, which appears in many true-crime anthologies. The recent novel and movie, The Weight of Water also involve these murders.
Thomas and Simeon Sturtevant, Halifax, Massachusetts, 1874
William Sturtevant was in debt and thought his grand-uncles had money. On February 15, 1874, he grabbed a long wooden stake and headed to this, their house. Grand-Uncle Thomas was on his way to the barn to feed his cows when William bludgeoned him. He then went into the house and bludgeoned his bedridden Great Uncle Simeon. He rifled the house for money, and on his way out the door he killed the housekeeper, Mary Buckley.
The interest in his execution was so great that tickets had to be issued. Interestingly, Historic New England says that the photographer worked for the county. It would be interesting to know the county asked for stereo photos, or whether he took them to sell for his own business.
Russell and John Allison, Putnam County, Tennessee, 1875
Joseph and George Brassel were brothers who murdered Russell Allison in Putnam County, Tennessee, on November 29, 1875, in the course of an attempted robbery. When a posse came to arrest them, they killed John Allison in the fight. He was Russell Allison’s brother. While in jail, they tried to poison their guards with arsenic which had been smuggled in to them. Then they broke their shackle chains by twisting them back and forth for many hours. Later they tried crawling out under the floorboards, but there wasn’t enough space. Near the end, they converted to the Methodist church. They dictated an account of their lives, which they thought they could sell. It included a list of their other crimes, some quite vicious.
At their hanging, they were allowed to speak to the crowd, and warned them of the evils of alcohol. A long ballad was written about their crimes and execution.
I know there are more true crime stereos out there, based on listings in library and historical-society catalogs. As far as I can tell, though, they don’t form a particularly common stereo genre.
For more stereo true crime, see Richard C. Ryder’s article Murder, Madness, Muybridge, and Gull in Stereo World; those issues are available online (Part 1, Part 2). Eadweard Muybridge was not only a proto-cinema pioneer, but also a great stereographer, and a murderer. Philip Glass wrote an opera about him, called The Photographer. Ryder also proposes a possible connection to Jack the Ripper.
Martin Schub (Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA)
I’m a retired electrical engineer and one-time physicist, I’ve been taking stereo photos since the late 1980’s and I’m a member of the Minnesota Stereo Photography Club. I used a Stereo Realist for many years, followed by a homemade finger-sync digital rig, followed by a homemade StereoData Maker rig, and now I use a Fuji W1. I love stereo in all its forms. The feeling of looking through a window into another time and/or place never gets old.
written for the stereosite by Pascal Martiné, Germany
When I started to take my first own stereo photos I soon realized that I can kind of adjust the amount of depth by shifting the camera more or less between the two shots. Like most of us it took me quite a while to develop the right feeling and reduce the amount of stereo pairs that were not really satisfying. But capturing landscapes was still a challenge when I first heard of so called hyper stereo photos. After my personal discovery of stereoscopy this opened a whole new world once more. During the summer of 2020 I had the long awaited opportunity to take stereo photos with a drone. But to tell you all about the magic of hyper stereos it’s best to start soon after the birth of stereoscopic photography.
While stereoscopic photography always had more technical requirements, including the camera as well as viewing devices, the viewing experience surpassed that of mono photography. This may not apply on portraits but does certainly on travel photography, where you could step right into the scene depicted in a stereo view.
But when it comes to wide and distant landscapes their flatness is an undeniable drawback for the stereoscopic effect when a stereo camera with lenses spaced at the same distance as human eyes is used. Watching the following slides through a Brewster stereoscope would offer a little more depth than free viewing them. Nevertheless, one can see that the lack of 3D is already quite boring compared to the two stereo slides shown above.
If you ever took your own stereo photos and referred to the distance of your eyes when shifting the camera between the two shots you may have encountered that all distant objects appear as one single flat background. The same effect explains why we cannot estimate the different distances of clouds when we look to the sky.
To understand why this is not possible we need to consult some theory. The ability of extracting depth information from our binocular vision is called Stereopsis. One of its conditions is related to the fact that our eyes have a certain distance to each other. Now, if we look at an object (F) both our eyes will immediately turn towards the object, leading to a vision of the object right in the center of both retinas, resulting in one single vision for both eyes (Fig. 1).
The vertical orange line represents the distance between us and the object. The horizontal orange line is called baseline in the context of stereoscopy, i.e. the distance between our eyes, or the distance between the two camera lenses.
One could assume that every object which is as far away from us as object F would cause such a single vision. But this is not true. If you would draw two rays from equal points on both retinas through the two lenses you would find out that their intersections rather create a circle. This circle is called Horopter (Fig. 2).
Note that this is only the theoretical horopter. There also exists an empirical horopter and a certain neuronal tolerance, summarized in the so called Panum’s fusional area. But we will now focus on stereopsis again.
If an object O (red) is closer than the horopter its vision will have different positions on each retina (Fig. 3). Those different positions on the retinas cause a double vision which enables our brain to sense the distances of objects. We also use additional techniques such as comparison of size, movement, etc. to enhance that sense, but we can ignore that for the discussion of stereopsis.
Let’s take a closer look at Fig. 3. For the right eye, the red object will hide point 3. This means that there will be no vision of point 3 on the retina of the right eye, i.e. it would not appear at all on the right image of a stereo photo. But this does not happen on the retina of the left eye. Moreover, it’s shifted even beyond the vision of point 4. If you would place an object behind the horopter you could easily find out that you would have the same result vice versa.
Unfortunately, the double vision method works only for close objects. Here’s why:
Fig. 4 shows what happens if you increase the distance between us or the camera and the object we are looking at (vertical orange line). The baseline and the distance between the horopter and the closer object are the same as in the previous figure. It’s just like you were stepping back to take a look from further away. As you can see, the left vision of the red object moves closer to the vision of point 3. Ultimately, this is what happens:
The former double vision of the red object transforms into a single vision. This means stereopsis is not possible anymore and we are thus not able to sense the different distances of the two objects — we are just too far away now.
This problem affects stereoscopic photography even more. If you want to take a photo of something that is just too large to fit entirely on your lens — like a building, a mountain, a landscape or a city panorama — the only way is to get farther away from the subject and loose the stereo effect. Furthermore, we sometimes wish to get closer to particular object but we can’t — like a ship on the sea, an animal or the clouds mentioned above.
Wait! Didn’t we conclude that it’s just impossible to sense depth in distant clouds? Yes, that’s true on one hand, but obviously clouds are also as three dimensional as a mountain. Luckily, we are not only able to bring back the depth, we are also able to make it visible in a way that we have never seen it before. That’s why the title of this article speaks of magic.
While magicians work with illusions or distractions we will actually not do anything more than revealing reality. That means making stereopsis possible for distant objects. In theory it’s quite simple to bring the double vision back. All you have to do is increase the baseline (Fig. 6).
If you want to examine the effects between distance and baseline on your own you can access this figure as an interactive GeoGebra file online here.
The effect might seem poor in the example above because the double vision on the last figure is far less than on the first. But as I said you will use that technique for large buildings rather than for a still life on a table. So, if you increase the distance to your subjects, their inner distances will grow likewise (while the distance between the red object and the horopter remained the same through all figures).
Historical hyper stereos
It’s time to leave theory behind to prove that the technique works. And how it works! When I looked through my collection of glass slides I can easily conclude that hyper stereoscopic photography is no new discovery, but was used for the same purpose as today as it was in the 19th century:
There are a few requirements to take satisfying hyper stereos such as an empty foreground, equal ground, and space to move sideways. This results in typical situations suitable to take hyper stereos:
Walk along the riverside
Walk over bridges
Look down from large buildings
Take photos while you’re in a moving vehicle, …
… a plane or watching a movie.
Don’t move at all, but let the scenery move.
In my experience, it does not matter if your baseline is a little too big — at least in most cases I don’t have time to calculate, or I just don’t know the distance between the camera and the subject. That’s why I always shoot a horizontal sequence of 4 to 7 photos, and choose the final stereo pair afterwards. If I take simultaneous stereo photos I leave one camera where it is and increase the distance to the other camera multiple times. That way I can choose the best pair afterwards as well. For more information about how to choose the baseline I recommend David Kuntz’s article Getting the Right Depth in 3D Photography.
Hyper stereos taken by a drone
A few years ago, a great possibility for stereoscopic pictures went rather unnoticed when drones became available for everyone at a moderate price level. Here are a few examples that I took together with Ihab Zaidan who flew the drone:
Castle Waldthausen, Mainz, Germany
Russian Orthodox Church, Wiesbaden, Germany
Flying high obviously enables you to have an empty foreground wherever you are, and lets you choose the perfect perspective. But one of the most important benefits is that the remote control allows you to move exactly sideways — no slope of a road, no accidental circular movement.
Of course, there are also drawbacks and limitations such as strong wind, flight restricted areas, and the battery of the drone. The conditions of sequential stereo photos also affect drone stereos – but since you are quite far away and can move rather quickly this is not a big problem. I would say it has never been easier to take satisfying hyper stereos than with a drone.
A series of more drone stereo photos can be found in the corresponding gallery Castles along the Rhine.