About this Collection
Stereographs consist of two nearly identical photographs or photomechanical prints, paired to produce the illusion of a single three-dimensional image, usually when viewed through a stereoscope. The Prints & Photographs Division's holdings include images produced from the 1850s to the 1940s, with the bulk of the collection dating between 1870 and 1920. The online images feature cities and towns around the world, expeditions and expositions, industries, disasters, and portraits of Native Americans, presidents, and celebrities.
A growing proportion of the more than 52,000 stereograph cards in the Prints & Photographs Division's holdings have been digitized and described individually. (Records describing groups of stereographs from the organized collection can be searched in the Groups in High Demand category. Images made as stereo views are also found in some other online collections, including the Civil War Photographs, the Lawrence & Houseworth Collection, and the G. Eric and Edith Matson Collection.)
Background and Scope
The Stereograph Format
Stereographs consist of two nearly identical photographs or photomechanical prints, paired to produce the illusion of a single three-dimensional image, usually when viewed through a stereoscope. Typically, the images are on card mounts, but they may take the form of daguerreotypes, glass negatives, or other processes. Stereographs were first made in the 1850s and are still made today. They were most popular between 1870 and 1920.
In 1851 stereo daguerreotypes were exhibited for the first time to the general public at the London International Exhibition (Crystal Palace). Shortly thereafter, American photographers began making stereographs. One of the first American photographic firms to produce stereographs was the team of William and Frederick Langenheim. The Library owns a set of their early stereoviews of American cities on the East Coast.
By 1860 both amateur photographers and publishing firms were making stereographs. The major stereo publishers sold their views by mail order, door-to-door salesmen, and in stores. Stereographs were sold individually and in boxed sets.
Stereographs are usually mounted. They were typically published with caption information printed under the image or on the back of the mount. The mount also provided information about the publisher, photographer, and sometimes the series or a list of views available from the photographer or publisher.
Stereographs were collected by many middle-class families in the late 19th century. People acquired stereographs of tourist sites they had visited, as well as exotic locales that they would only experience through the wonder of the stereoscope. Viewing stereographs was a common activity, much like watching television or going to the movies today. Stereoviews were also used as an education tool in classrooms.
Stereographs were meant to be viewed in 3-D with a stereoscope. Looking at the image up close and in 3-D allowed the viewer to enter the scene and examine the details of the photograph.
In 1859 physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes designed a hand-held viewer for stereoscopes. He also wrote an article about stereographs for the Atlantic Monthly [available online at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1859/06/the-stereoscope-and-the-stereograph/303361/ External]. He vividly described viewing photographs in 3-D:
The first effect of looking at a good photograph through the stereoscope is a surprise such as no painting ever produced. The mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture. The scraggy branches of a tree in the foreground run out as if they would scratch our eyes out. The elbow of a figure stands forth so as to make us almost uncomfortable. Then there is such a frightful amount of detail, that we have the same sense of infinite complexity which Nature gives us. A painter shows us masses; the stereoscopic figure spares us nothing…
Approximately 52,000 stereographs are organized and available in the Stereograph Cards collection for researchers onsite at the Library; a growing proportion are also available online. The Library acquired many of the stereographs through copyright deposit, which accounts for the remarkable scope and breadth of the collection. Others were acquired as gifts, by purchase, exchange, or transfer from other government institutions. In adding to the stereo collection, the Library has particularly focused on acquiring views made before 1870 (the year that the Library became home to the Copyright Office). Many of these stereographs were unpublished or published in small editions by local photographers. These images provide valuable information about the growth of cities and towns in the United States.
The stereographs are arranged as follows:
- A portion of the organized stereos are filed in the Reading Room by subject, geographic location, or portrait sitter. (Sample call number: STEREO US GEOG FILE - Georgia--Atlanta)
- Another portion of the stereos stereos are organized into groups (LOTs) by subject, photographer, publisher, or donor. (Sample call number: LOT 4164)
The online images feature cities and towns around the world, expeditions and expositions, industries, disasters, and portraits of Native Americans, presidents, and celebrities. They include views from nearly all of the fifty states and the District of Columbia, as well as more than twenty foreign countries. Particularly well represented are:
- views of the American West [ examples][See also: Western Survey Photographs: Checklists of the Stereographs from the Clarence King and George M. Wheeler Explorations, 1867-1874]
- images relating to President McKinley [ examples]
- scenes in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake [ examples]
- views of Italy [ examples], Mexico [ examples], and Panama [ examples]
- humorous posed views [ examples]
Subjects included in the Stereograph Cards collection, as a whole, with some representation in the online portion, include:
- views of Niagara Falls [ examples]
- national parks: Yellowstone [ examples] and Yosemite [ examples]
- views related to warfare, including the Spanish-American War [ examples], Boer War [ examples], and World War I [examples]
- views of expositions, such as the Paris Exposition (1900) [ examples] and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (1904) [examples]
- the Alaskan Gold Rush [ examples].
The majority of the Library's stereograph collection are images published and copyrighted by American publishers. Stereoviews by foreign publishers and photographers are fairly limited. Major publishers held by the Library include:
- H.C. White Co. [ examples]
- Keystone View Company [ examples]
- Strohmeyer & Wyman [ examples]
- Underwood & Underwood [ examples]
See the Related Resources page for other Prints & Photographs Division collections that contain stereos.