- Historic Sites
A Vanished America In Stereo
Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes asserted “a slight claim on the gratitude of mankind” for inventing a cheap and handy device for viewing three-dimensional photographs. History is still in his debt for the craze he started and the pictures it has left behind
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
‘hen Dr. Holmes visited the Anthonys’ establishment they could have offered him a choice of 900 titles from their catalogue at $3 a dozen, or a dollar more if tinted by hand in natural colors. Though Anthonys’ was not the only publisher, a particular interest lies in the fact that they sold “instantaneous” pictures as well as conventional landscapes, even in the days of slow and cumbersome wet-plate photography.
They were the work of Henry T. Anthony, brother of Edward, the proprietor. His efforts had led to a secret developing process that became the envy of the whole profession, because he was able to make such short exposures that he could catch figures and vehicles in motion. Since Broadway was right outside his window, he took pictures of the traffic on Broadway—even on a rainy day. Thanks to Anthony we have a photographic record of such interesting news events in New York as the visits of the first diplomatic mission from Japan (bottom left), the young Prince of Wales and his suite, and the mammoth ship Great Eastern . And thanks to the stereo camera, which continued to record news and personalities for half a century, the record contains thousands of pictures like those shown here of famous men in action.
The Civil War offered a great opportunity to the new stereoscopic trade, but the man who rose to meet it was not a landscapist at all, only a fashionable portrait “artist” of New York, Mathew Brady. To photograph such a vast affair was a daring project for Brady and his talented staff, the first American combat photographers. When the Army failed to subsidize him, Brady found the Anthony firm willing to extend credit; thus, indirectly, it is to the Anthonys that we owe the very existence of Brady’s great realistic war pictures.
The homely side of the stereoscopic craze was the continuous production of sentimentals (like those on this page) and comics (overleaf). Sugary story-telling pictures made in Germany led the way for the best-sellers in this genre, the so-called “Stereoscopic Treasures” made by F. G. Weller of Littleton, New Hampshire, a town which had become the unchallenged stereo capital of the country in the 1870’s.
Weller issued some 350 “Treasures,” until his models were familiar in every American home. The dry plate had now supplanted the difficult wet one; many imitators flooded every crossroads with views. So great was the demand for the stereoscope itself that four factories in North Bennington, Vermont, alone were pouring out copies of the Dr. Holmes model.
With the exception of the slapstick 1902 scene above—is this Vassar? Smith? some less wholesome setting? will these girls meet any Ivy League parents after the Big Game?—the stereoscopic humor shown here comes from the same hand that produced “Reveries of a Bachelor,” F. G. Weller’s. If his sentiment was Germanic, his comedy was pure Yankee and poked fun at his small-town neighbors. Some ninety years later, his country choir, his village tooth-puller, his emancipated housewife and forlorn husband still strike a note of genuine folk humor.