Vintage Entertainment

Stereoscopes and Stereograph Cards

Stereoscope with stereograph card. The double image card depicts a soldier during World War I. A partially visible card lies under the stereoscope.
Taking a break from life with some well-loved stereograph cards. This one is from a series on WWI.

So what do you do when the weather is questionable, the day is quiet and lonely, or you have guests over with nothing planned? Simple! You bring out the stereoscope and your stereograph cards. Guaranteed to bring a smile, this is good entertainment alone or with a small group.

Sounds almost like an advertisement, doesn’t it? Stereoscopes were inexpensive enough that almost every family had one –– I’ve seen advertised prices for the viewers as low as 24 cents. At that price, a family could afford to splurge on a set or two of cards once in a while.

Closeup image of a stereoscope, looking through the eye pieces at a blurry card beyond.
A closeup look through the stereoscope.

Far away places right into your living room

The stereoscope brought far away places into your sitting room or parlor. You could see photos of India, Japan, or Ireland. You also could look at mountains, rivers, or famous architecture. In fact, regardless where you lived, the stereograph card could introduce you to new places and new technologies.

Downtown market day in St. Petersburg, Russia. Circa 1898-1910.
St. Petersburg, Russia.

Perhaps you didn’t attend the latest World’s Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri. Maybe you weren’t even born yet. (It did, after all, occur in 1904.) However, your parents or grandparents might have, and their stack of stereograph cards commemorating the occasion helps you feel like you were almost there yourself.

Stereoscope card image of four women in Japanese kimono standing next to beds filled with chrysanthemums. Probably dates 1904-1910.
Women at a chrysanthemum show in Japan.

In case you missed the experience, here are 161 cards from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 that you can view thanks to the Library of Congress. See Theodore Roosevelt’s log cabin. View the Manufacturers Building lit at night with electric lights. Gaze at a gaggle of gondolas as they paddle across the Grand Basin.

Stereoscope card image of a deer standing in the middle of tall grasses. A mountain towers in the background.
Animals figured prominently in the cards as well.

The most popular viewer

While many different versions of the stereoscope viewer exist, one stands out above the rest. You can see a version of it in the photos above. Several inventors tried their hands at the stereoscope viewer, but the one that endures was invented by Oliver Wendell Holmes. You may have heard of him. He was a physician, novelist, poet, essayist, and improver of the stereoscope viewer. He called his version the American Stereoscope, and refused to patent it so that it could be copied freely. And copied freely it was!

If your family attic fails to hold one of these visual wonders, they are plentiful in local antique stores and on eBay. A stereoscope and stereograph cards really are fun as you while away an hour or two looking at the past.

Operating it is simple. You drop the 2-image card into the wire card holder and then look through the viewer. If the image is fuzzy, move the bar towards or away from you a little at a time until it clears. Voilá! A mountainscape. Or a city street. Or maybe even two children feeding their horse.

Two children stand outside a barn and feed a horse through a window opening. A small boy holds a basket filled with hay up to the horse so he can eat. A larger girl stands next to a bale of hay and watches as she holds strands of dried grasses for the next course. Both children are dressed circa 1900.
Some cards were endearing, while others hoped to bring a smile.

Another option is to unearth your childhood possession of the updated stereoscope. They called it the Viewmaster, and you can read my article about it here.

But what about capturing today’s views in the same way? You can definitely make your own stereograph cards with modern photography. If you would like to try your hand at making your own stereoscope or stereograph photos, try this tutorial from Instructables.