A Vanished America In Stereo


Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes walked down Broadway one day in 1860 on an unorthodox errand for that distinguished physician, poet, and essayist. The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table had a gadget to sell—a contrivance he had made himself—a stereoscope. Readers of the Atlantic Monthly were familiar with the fact that Dr. Holmes had become fascinated by the three-dimensional photography which had been introduced from England a few years before. He had published in June, 1859, an article explaining the theory of the stereoscope and describing his collection of pictures. “I pass, in a moment,” he wrote, “from the banks of the Charles to the ford of the Jordan and — in spirit I am looking down upon Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.”

But he was so dissatisfied with the efficiency of the viewing instruments he was then able to get that he designed and constructed for himself a simpler one—the stereoscope we remember from childhood.

Up to that time there were two viewers known in the United States : a neat wedge-shaped box, sometimes equipped with adjustable lenses, and a much larger box designed to stand on a table. This had lenses at one side and a knob for turning an inner mechanism so that a series of slides could be examined. The first type, developed by Sir David Brewster following earlier models of Sir Charles Wheatstone and James Eliot, was first publicly shown at the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. The revolving arrangement came from an American—Alex Beckers. Neither device admitted enough light to satisfy Yankee Dr. Holmes. He tinkered with them. He discarded the box cases and ended with a skeleton stereoscope consisting simply of the lenses shaded by a hood, adjustable holders for the twinpictured card, and a handle. He never applied for a patent and thus never profited from his invention ; he said later with a mixture of candor and professional restraint : “I believed that money could be made out of it. But, considering it as a quasi-scientific improvement, I wished no pecuniary profit—. All I asked was, to give it to somebody who would manufacture it for sale to the public.”

The idea had not been immediately appreciated. He offered his model first to the Washington Street dealers of Boston, and then to the Chestnut Street opticians of Philadelphia, but found that “they looked at the homely mechanism as a bachelor looks on the basket left at his door, with an unendorsed infant crying in it.” Now Holmes was in New York, hopeful that the great photographic supply house of Edward Anthony at 501l Broadway would appreciate the opportunity for both pecuniary and cultural gains. Alas, no. “Nothing could be more polite than the way in which they treated me,” he reported —and no wonder, for he was the foremost collector of stereoscopic pictures in the country, and the tireless publicist for Anthony’s productions; but they saw no merit in the new idea. Nor did another Broadway establishment which sold only instruments imported from London. “Of course I ought to have remembered,” fumed the Brahmin from the Hub of the Universe, “that in London they know all that we wretched provincials know, and ever so much more.” So Dr. Holmes, usually so cheerful, retired to Boston somewhat depressed.

But the story has a happy ending, for when he got home he found that one dealer, Mr. Joseph L. Bates, had been thinking over the matter pretty seriously—and had the sagacity to see that there was a future for the skeleton stereoscope.

When Dr. Holmes next wrote for the Atlantic about his stereoscope in July, 1861, he was in his customary buoyant mood: “It is no toy: it is a divine gift, placed in our hands by science.” Holmes foresaw great “stereographic libraries.” And, indeed, by 1869, skeleton stereoscopes were being used everywhere, and hundreds of American photographers were busily making money and spreading culture, as Dr. Holmes had hoped. To be sure, the “wretched provincials” preferred pictures of Niagara Falls or the Mount Washington Railway to the educational or foreign kind. But the Autocrat was rather proud of his contribution even so: “A slight claim on the gratitude of mankind is better than none, and I am content that mine should be classed somewhere in the same category as that of the young man who informed Mr. Dickens, with a flush of modest pride, that he was the son of the celebrated inventor of cold-drawn castor oil.”

In these days when brilliant color transparencies can be made by any amateur who possesses reasonable skill and one of the new stereoscopic cameras, the viewer has gone back in form to Sir David Brewster’s original model, perfected by the incorporation of an electric battery and light. People have lost sight of Dr. Holmes’s invention. Yet many of us owe him a debt for the hours of pleasure we had as children when we looked through his oldfashioned ’scope.

Until the 1890’s, when the halftone displaced the hand-etched wood or metal cut in newspaper and magazine illustrations, the stereoscope provided the only popular news photograph, and it had the added feature of the magic third dimension. The two-lensed camera went everywhere (albeit rarely on such odd perches as the bicycle handlebars shown here) and gave its customers a first, revealing glimpse of far places.