“A new optical instrument, called the Stereoscope, is attracting much attention,” wrote the Baltimore Sun in 1852. The apparatus worked with special images, called stereoviews. Seen through the stereoscope, these prints appeared shockingly three-dimensional. No need for 19th century technology. Now you can put on your 3-D glasses to explore the history of this format and take a new look at House Collection stereoviews.
By 1850, photographic processes combined with theories of binocular vision to create stereoviews. Stereoviews were designed to be seen through a special viewer with two lenses—the “stereoscope” vaunted by the Baltimore Sun—which gave the image a three-dimensional quality. When they were first made, stereoscopic images had to be photographed using a special camera to mimic the depth perception of the human eyes. The camera had two lenses set apart exactly two-and-a-half inches, the typical distance between a person’s eyes. Taking two exposures simultaneously, the camera ensured precisely spaced printed images that matched the three-dimensionality of eyesight.
To manufacture stereoviews for public consumption, two slightly different images were mounted to a flat or slightly curved card. Seen through a stereoscope, these two prints appeared as a single image with remarkable depth and three-dimensionality. The stereoscope consisted of a viewfinder with separate lenses for each eye, affixed to a small rack that held the card. The New-York Tribune explained in 1852 that the two images “become entirely blended together, and produce this optical illusion, that instead of a flat picture, you see solid objects, and faces with the appearance of life, in which motion alone is wanting.”
Popularity of the format skyrocketed through the Victorian period, and stereoscopic viewers became nearly as common in homes as televisions are today. In Washington, D.C., tourists flocked to the Capitol and took home stereoviews as visual keepsakes of majestic exteriors and interior scenes of the Speaker’s Rooms. Images of important events and places like the Capitol were quickly snapped by stereoscopic photographers. Charles F. Thomas, the engineer who installed the Statue of Freedom on the Capitol dome in 1863, explained that as soon as he situated the sculpture and removed the scaffolding, a photographer captured his image. “In the stereoscopic view which Mr. Thomas has,” the Washington Post noted, “his form looks like that of a blackbird newly lighted on Liberty’s head,” with one foot on the crowning feathers.
To experience the images as stereoview publishers intended, the House Collection stereoviews in this blog have been reconfigured as anaglyphs, and can be viewed with red-blue 3-D glasses. The original left image is now rendered in red, the right image is translated into cyan, then both are combined to produce an anaglyph. One example shows the center aisle of the empty House Chamber, lined with rows of Klipper desks. Unlike images taken from the galleries above, this shows the perspective of a Member entering the Chamber. Another House Collection stereoview depicts the Speaker’s Lobby and Members’ Retiring Room shortly after the space was reconfigured in 1879. The line of furniture down the center creates a strong three-dimensional effect, as the front chair seems to pop off the card. In addition to these three-dimensional examples, the House Collection contains more than 150 stereoviews, many of which can be browsed in their original format in Collections Search.
Over the next few weeks, follow us on Twitter as we show other House Collection stereoviews in 3-D.
Sources: John Waldsmith, Stereo Views: An Illustrated History and Price Guide (Krause Publications, 2002); Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler and Diane Vogt-O’Connor, Photographs: Archival Care and Management (Society of American Archivists, 2006); Baltimore Sun, July 14, 1852; Washington Post, October 21, 1883.Follow @USHouseHistory