3-D Pictures, 19th Century Style (Reprise)

Hello everyone, Winnie Griggs here. I’m afraid this month’s blog date sort of snuck up on me – a combination of dealing with my foot in a cast, a looming book deadline and planning an impromptu Disney vacation in a couple of weeks.  So I hope you will forgive me if I reprise an older post.  And to make it up to you, I’m offering 2 folks who leave a comment here their choice of any book in my backlist.

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 World’s 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 video 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, believe it or not,  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, did anything in today’s post surprise you? Do you have firsthand experience with a stereopticon? Did you play with a View-Master as a child? 

Leave a comment to be entered in a drawing for winner’s choice of one book from my backlist!

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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.

32 thoughts on “3-D Pictures, 19th Century Style (Reprise)”

  1. View-Master was one of my favorite toys when growing up. Later, a photo could be found in a single view piece. Now, 3-D TV is available. Loved the blog. I would be excited to get any ebook from you.

  2. WOW! That was very interesting because I didn’t know anything about how it all led up to view-masters. Queen Victoria was a surprise to me.
    I loved playing with a view-master as a child then my children got to play with theirs too.
    Wonder what the pictures will look like when I have grandchildren and they get one. They have changed so much through the years.

  3. What an interesting post. All my children played with the view-master. I’m pretty sure we have one in the attic.

  4. Good morning Winnie, I hope you recover soon and get back on both feet!
    I loved the view master, one of my favorite toys. I’m so thankful I was born and raised in the time when kids still played and had imaginations. I thought the view master was the coolest thing. I bet today’s kids don’t even understand the joy it brought us.
    Thanks for the great history lesson and a trip down memory lane.

    • Thanks Tonya. I’m headed back to the doctor today and fingers crossed that the cast comes off for good! And yes, I think kids relied on their imagination much more on the ‘old days’

  5. I didn’t have a view master as a child but did see them and thought they were very interesting. You always want what the other child have. They were fun to play with.

  6. Just as books entertain, so did my view master. It belonged to my grandparents believe it or not, I loved looking at all the pictures. They had bought several slides of where they had traveled. Really cool! Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I hope you recover well and enjoy your trip to Disney. Take care.

  7. Oh my I do hope your foot heals well and quickly. Hope you have a fabulous time at Disney. Wow this is all fairly new to me. I did play with a view master growing up and my kids had one. Thank you for sharing this wonderful information with us.

  8. Morning Winnie! yes me and my sister had a view master we had to share, lol I only remember we had to slides to ook at one was a charlie brown slide and the other was of the poseidon adventure, my children who are now 26 and 20 had one also, they didn’t get a cell phone till they were in HS. when they were little they could only use the computer for an hour a day, when they got older if they needed it for school work that was different my son whom is 20 doesn’t own a cell phone his theory is i don’t go out much so why have one , lol but i agree, great blog.

    • Hi Elaine. I remember myom used to get us new slides to look at whenever we’d drive up to see my dad’s folks. It was about an hour and a half ride and having the new slides to look at seemed to make the time pass quicker

  9. Winnie, as a kid I used to love those View-Masters. We loved getting the new discs for it on our birthday and Christmas. You felt like you were really right there. They were pretty inexpensive so would always be on my list. This is an interesting post. I also loved the long spy glass looking thing that you looked into and had the colored bits of glass that formed beautiful designs. As you turned it, it made different designs. I can’t think of the name of those.

  10. My mom found a stereoscope in our attic and let us use it. Mostly it sat on a display shelf with some other antiques. I got a View-Master for Christmas one year and had to share it with my siblings so they could look at the reels they received over the years. Our cousins had one that projected the pictures on the wall like a slide projector. My first memory of pictures of the Grand Canyon were from my first View-Master reel.

    When our kids were little we would buy View-Master reels on our travels as souvenirs. It was a great way for them to remember the places we had seen without having to set up the slide projector. I still have a shoe box with their View-Master and their many reels.

  11. I had a view master when I was a kid. I loved seeing all of the pictures. I spent many hours looking through it. Such wonderful memories with a cool toy.

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