Photos in the Archives: Stereoviews

Guest blogger: Megan

I have an abiding fondness for stereoviews.  Anyone of my generation who grew up with their eyes pressed to a View-Master camera knows the sheer magic of looking through the viewfinder into a tiny, three-dimensional scene, every leaf and blade of grass picked out in perfect, near-real detail.  Stereoviews, though, are the original 3D entertainment, the venerable ancestor to the View-Master and the analog complement to today’s 3D movies.

Stereoviews (also known as stereographs or stereoscopic photographs) were introduced in the United States in 1854 by Philadelphia photographers William and Frederick Langenheim.  Early stereoviews appear in daguerreotype or ambrotype form, but the form became most popular in the 1860s, when the advent of card photographs – thin albumen prints pasted on heavy cardstock – made photography relatively inexpensive to both produce and purchase.  Most nineteenth-century commercial stereo photographers used a special stereoscopic camera: it had two lenses mounted a few inches apart, simulating the average distance between human eyes, that could take two near-identical photographs on one glass-plate negative.  These paired images were then printed together on rectangular cardstock.  This card could then be inserted into a viewer called a stereoscope, which had a hooded pair of lenses attached to an adjustable holder.  Through the stereoscope, the left eye sees the left-hand photograph and the right eye the right-hand one, which the brain translates a strikingly realistic three-dimensional.

It’s difficult today to understand just how crazy Americans were for stereoviews during the mid- to late-nineteenth century.  They were a fixture in middle-class homes, published and bought by the millions, more popular than any other photo format at that time.  As I’ve written elsewhere , their popularity was driven in part by a growing emphasis on individual self-education.  Through stereoviews, which depicted scenes of life, culture, art, ethnology, and natural history from places all around the globe, viewers could visually learn about their world from the comfort of an armchair, experiencing momentous events and spectacular landscapes as if they themselves were standing in the scene.

Scenes of the American West were a particular favorite topic of stereoscopic photography.  However, because of the difficulty in traveling to Alaska before the 1890s, stereoviews came late to our territory.  Therefore, the bulk of the stereo images in Archives & Special Collections date from circa 1898-1905, and most depict one pivotal event in particular: the gold rush.  The stereos here show, from the top, a dog team bound for the Klondike in 1898; gold miners climbing to the summit of Chilkoot Pass, also in 1898; and a miner “rocking” gold on the beach at Cape Nome in 1903.

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