3-D Pictures, Nineteenth Century Style


(If you’re interested in receiving a copy of my upcoming release, read through to the end of this post)

Did you know that the scientific principles behind 3-D movies had their first practical application as early as 1838?  That’s when Charles Wheatstone patented his reflecting stereoscope.   I’m sure you’ve all seen stereoscopes before, in pictures if not in actuality.  But do you know how they work?

Actually, they work in much the same way human vision works.  Because our eyes are spaced about two inches apart we see everything from slightly different angles.  Our brains, wonderful creations that they are, then process these into a single image with both dimension and depth.  Charles Wheatstone applied this principle to his invention, using drawings that were pairs of reverse images and a series of mirrors to create the illusion of a single three dimensional image.

In 1850, glass images were developed.  Though an improvement on the earlier drawings, the quality was low and the price was relatively high.

Queen Victoria took a fancy to the device when she saw one demonstrated at the Crystal Palace Exposition in 1851, and suddenly they were all the rage in Europe.  It was somewhat later before the fascination took hold in America.

These early stereoscopes were large, bulky and table mounted, requiring a large commitment of space as well as money.  But all of that changed a few short years later.  With the advent of photographic improvements, tintypes, daguerreotypes and flat mount paper became available, greatly improving the quality of the images.  Early attempts had photographers taking one photograph then slightly shifting the camera and taking a second.  The next evolution had photographers utilizing a rig that had two cameras mounted on it to take the twin photos.  Eventually an enterprising inventor created a camera with two lenses

Then, in 1862 Oliver Wendell Holmes and Joseph Bates created a compact, handheld viewer named the Holmes stereopticon and the popularity of stereoscopes exploded.  In fact, by the end of the century, in spite of their expense, you could find one of these devices in many middle and upper class parlors of the time.  The most popular slides were the travelogue type that depicted exotic landmarks such as the pyramids of Egypt and the closer-to-home scenic beauty of Yellowstone.   The marvels of the Chicago Worlds Fair of 1892 and the St. Louis World Fair also made their way onto stereoscopic slides.  As Burke Long put it, “Mass-produced and relatively cheap, the integrated system of mechanical viewer and photographs became fashionable for classroom pedagogy, tourist mementos, and parlor travel to exotic places of the world.”  You could say that, as a form of entertainment, the stereopticon was the Victorian era’s equivalent of today’s DVD players.


By the 1920s movies and the enhanced availability of cameras to the ‘common man’ began to supplant the stereopticon’s hold on people’s  interest.  But the stereopticon survives to this day.    The child’s toy View-Master, named one of the top 50 toys of the twentieth century, is a direct ‘descendant’ of the stereopticon, utilizing the very same principles.

So, do any of you have any first hand experience with a stereopticon? 


08 THS Cover small

Oh, and about my June release – while THE HEART’S SONG is not a western, I hope it’s a book you will enjoy.  If you’re interested in winning a copy, just leave a comment related to the subject of this blog before 7:00 this evening, and you’ll be entered in the drawing!

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author or email her at winnie@winniegriggs.com.

38 thoughts on “3-D Pictures, Nineteenth Century Style”

  1. Great post Winnie! I didn’t realize that 3D was out that early in life! Did it really begain in 1838, this is amazing to me! I do remember the View Master toy for kids, I thought they were just great!

  2. My only exposure to stereopticon was also a Viewmaster. I had one growing up and so did my children.

    Loved the 3D show Honey, I shrunk the Kids at Disneyworld many,many years ago.

    I want to see the 3D version of Avatar too.

  3. Very interesting. I’d read about this once…long ago. I have a small Kodak handheld slide viewer that is somewhat similar. I still think it’s pretty cool and so do my kids.

    I’m not a huge 3D fan. Kinda gives me headaches. 3D has become hugely popular lately, but it costs a small fortune to see the movie that way. I always elect for the regular version.

  4. Gosh, do I EVER remember the View-Master! We used to have about a dozen of the “films” – mostly Disney — when I was growing up over 40 years ago. And yes, I had one here for my kids when they were growing up — almost 20 years ago now. All of us enjoyed clicking the pictures rapidly — until they got torn or bent (which could easily happen)! Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane!

    Speaking of which, you reminded me of another grand old “toy” from years gone by: The Slinky! I Googled for the song they used to advertise with it, just because…:

    What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs, and makes a slinkity sound?
    A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing! Everyone knows it’s Slinky.
    It’s Slinky, it’s Slinky. For fun it’s a wonderful toy.
    It’s Slinky, it’s Slinky. It’s fun for a girl or a boy.
    It’s fun for a a girl or boy!”

  5. Hi Winnie, my grandmother had a bunch of old stereoscope images squirrelled away in her sunporch. I remember being fascinated by them as a child. I also had a Viewmaster. Great memories!

  6. Neat info, Winnie. I have a couple of stereoscope viewers and a box of the images in my “parlor”. They are fascinating. I also adored my Viewmaster.

  7. As a child, I remember spending much time at my uncle’s sitting in their livingroom with their stereoscope. The set of pictures they had were of exotic places like the pyramids and the desert. I used to spend most of my time viewing them when we visited. I don’t know what ever happened to it. It was just left out for the kids to play with and not taken care of. We didn’t have a View-Master. They probably didn’t have them yet. I did get one for my children.
    I’d love to have a stereoscope, but they are just a bit too expensive at the antique shops. I’ve looked.
    Hope everyone has a wonderful day.

  8. We had a viewmaster when we were kids. And I remember when we cleaned out my grandma’s house when she went into the nursing home, we found an old … sort of … stereopticon.
    It was similar to the wooden one in your picture.

  9. I barely remember steropticons at my elderly great-aunt’s house. We didn’t visit often, which was a grace for my sister and me. The visits were so boooring; only the steopticon took us away to exotic places. Steropticon all the way to Avatar! How is the next century going to tickle our fancy?

  10. great posting…i always learn so much from all of you…thanks for the chance to read this fabulous book 🙂

  11. Winnie, very interesting. Wow! I didn’t know photography was so advanced back then. Like every kid in America I had a Viewmaster. They were really inexpensive and lots of fun. I loved looking at the slides through them. Sure made you feel as if you were right there. Very neat!

    Your new book looks wonderful. I can’t wait to read it. Wishing you lots of luck with it!

  12. What a great post. The stereopticon is interesting. I had one of the Viewmasters as a child too.

  13. QuiltLady – Yes, really, 1838. I find myself quite often amazed at how inventive our ancestors were

    LaurieG – oh my yes, you must see Avatar. I really enjoyed that movie!

    Liz – thanks for stopping by. That slide viewer does sound cool.

  14. Laney4 – LOL now I’ll have the ‘slinky’ song running through my mind all day!

    Jennie – I can see where the slides would be very fascinating for a child. Do you know what happened to them?

    Judy – Wow, what a neat treasure to have. I’ll have to come down and get a look at them some day.

  15. Patricia – what great memories to have!

    anon1001 – glad you enjoyed the post

    Mary – so did one of you keep the stereopticon, or did it get discarded?

  16. Hi Winnie, no, I don’t know what happened to the slides. Gram had so many things in her house – she had years and years worth of National Geographics, untold numbers of books and magazines – I’m afraid a lot of it simply got thrown away, though I have many of her books. My aunt may have the stereoscope slides.

  17. Great info. I’ve saved it to my research info. I gave my oldest child a View Finder but by the time the others came along they were passe – no sounds. Loved the cover and I know your foray into the contemporary will be a successful as your great history reads. Sue

  18. Ruthanne – I think that was the point of the stereopticon – ‘take you away’

    karenk – glad you enjoyed the post

    Linda – yes, I’m constantly amazed by what I turn up in research that shows how advanced our ancestors were in certain areas of technology

  19. CrystalGB & Joye – thanks for dropping by and glad you enjoyed the post!

    Jennie – so sorry the slides disappeared. So much of our history gets lost that way.

    K.Sue – glad you found the info helpful

  20. I don’t know what became of it. It was metal. To be held up, not sitting on a table.

    I suppose we tossed it and now it’s worth ten zillion dollars. Grrrrrr…….

    So goes my life.

  21. Amazing how people come up with these ideas for inventions… the closest I have come to stereoscopes is a View Master… loved all the images to be found on a disc! 😀

  22. Mary – Ah, that’s a shame, so much of our past has gotten away from us

    Colleen – weren’t ViewMasters fun! I remember me and my sister spending hours with that toy. And when the projector version came out we thought it was REALLY cool

  23. Hi Winnie, great post. Hubby’s grandparents had a stereoscope…wonder who ended up with it. Our kids definitely had Viewmasters. We’d get the slideshow of every place we vacationed as a souvenir. Hmmm. wonder where THAT is LOL.

  24. i did have a stereopticon though i had no idea that’s what it was called
    it was very cool
    today kids just have their own cameras….on their phones

    very educational post!

  25. Tanya – ViewMasters were originally developed by a postcard company as a supplement or replacement for postcards so your collecting slides of places you visited falls right in with that

    Tabitha – how cool that you actually own one!

  26. Hi, Winnie. It was fun to have a viewmaster when I was a kid. We even had a little projector that you slid strips of pictures through and they projected on the wall.

    I have seen and used an old stereopticon. My dad’s cousin Beverly had one and we found it when cleaning out her attic. It looked like a combination of a wooden viewmaster and picture #3 in your post. The postcard-type slides were of someone’s trip to New York City in the early 1900s. There were maybe 10 postcard prints or so.

    Isn’t amazing that today a person can take a picture with their phone?! Technology can be amazing.

  27. Winnie, now I know what those cards with double pictures on them are! I got a stack when my grandmother passed and didn’t know what they were. Now I have to find an old stereoscope to view them through.

  28. Deb – Hi! Oh yes – the ViewMaster projectors were lots of fun. And how wonderful that you actually got hold of a real stereopticon!

    Tracy – So cool that you have a stack of the original slides. Good luck with finding a stereopticon viewer

  29. Tracy, how about going to an estate auction? I’m not sure if my sister has one or if we sold it in the auction we had of Beverly’s many things. Best of luck.

  30. Loved my viewmaster as a kid but also was fortunate to have parents who took us to antique stores. Often we would find the cards but not the viewer from way back. But still interesting.

    No need to enter me. I bought your book already and can vouch to all who entered about it! The winner will be very happy.

  31. Winnie, what an interesting post. It’s amazing how so many things that we think of as being “modern” aren’t modern in the least. I had almost forgotten about the view master. Wow, such wonderful memories. Thanks for jogging my memory!

  32. Oh my! What memories…I had a Viewmaster and loved it growing up. Thank you for the history…it was quite interesting. I would love to win a copy of your book too!

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.


  33. Phyliss – you’re quite welcome – thanks for dropping in to leave a comment!

    Cindy – seems like a lot of us had ViewMasters. No wonder they were rated among the top 50 toys of the 20th century!

  34. I’m late to the party as I was away for the long weekend, but I had to post. I first saw one last summer at Uniacke House here in Nova Scotia. They are SO cool. The house is gorgeous and quite opulent for this area and we had a peek through to see the 3D pictures. It was in the same room where the ladies would retire after dinner – along with a pianoforte and some lovely stuffed chairs….

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