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Can You See it? The Magic of the Stereoscope Viewer

Many of our readers will remember enjoying a toy from our childhoods—the View-Master! Circular wheels with tiny photos were inserted into the View-Master and advanced with a lever on the side. You peered through the two eyepieces like a pair of binoculars and saw the magic happen—a 3-dimensional image. You may be surprised to learn that the View-Master was introduced at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, though the peak of popularity as a children’s toy occurred in the 1960s. 

But long before the “modern” version, there was the stereoscope. The basic premise is based on a human’s binocular vision.  Each of our eyes sees an object from a slightly different angle. A person with normal binocular depth perception will see the two images fuse into one, 3-dimensional image.  The stereoscope works by presenting two photographic images, one to each eye, thus recreating the way our human vision works.  The photograph appears to have depth!

Sir Charles Wheatstone is credited with the invention of an early model in 1832. He used reflecting mirrors and prisms.  The Brewster Model, which David Brewster credited to a Mr. Elliot, was made in 1839 as a simple box device without prisms or mirrors.  The obvious advantage of the Brewster model was that it could be made smaller thus making it hand-held.  The example in the Storrs House Museum collection is marked “N. Y. STEREOSCOPIC Co. D. APPLETON & Co.” This company was founded in 1858 and was located at 348 Broadway.  The Library of Congress has an image of the interior of the store.

The model that most of us are familiar with was actually invented by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1861. It contains two prismatic lenses and a stand to hold the photographic card.  He purposely did not patent his design, and it is still being made today.

Several companies produced thousands of images for the viewing public: The London Stereoscopic Co. offered a choice of 10,000 views in its 1856 catalog, including famous ancient temples, castles, natural landmarks, and even family portraits.  Within six years they had over a million views to choose from! The Keystone View Co. was the world’s largest stereoscopic company, and Underwood & Underwood was publishing 25,000 stereographs a day by 1901!

The Longmeadow Historical Society has several versions of the stereoscope, as well as some of the typical rectangular images.  We also have several iterations of the View-Master and dozens of circular images.

-Contributed by Betsy McKee, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member 

Sources: Longmeadow Historical Society Archives, Library of Congress, Smithsonian Magazine, October 2017 article by Clive Thompson, Museum of Teaching and Learning.

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