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Stereograph of Niagara Falls

Victorian 3D: virtual adventures in the stereoscope

Armchair travel is more popular than ever today, making this an excellent time to explore a key moment in the history of home-bound travel. In the Victorian era, people used a stereoscope to launch themselves on virtual journeys to far-off lands from their own parlors. Users inserted a stereograph, twinned photos of a slightly discrepant image, into the device and then peeped into the eyepiece, where the image leaped into startling three dimensionality. The stereoscope created an immersive you-are-there illusion, a feeling that was pleasurable and even dizzying.

The stereoscope was actually invented as a scientific experiment. In 1832, Charles Wheatstone wanted to prove that human depth perception was a result of the distance between our two eyes. If this were the case, he hypothesized, then the eyes could be tricked into perceiving depth by each being presented with a slightly different two-dimensional image. The first stereoscope used two drawings, but scientists quickly realized that photographs—invented in 1839—could create an extraordinary illusionary effect within the stereoscope.

The lenticular stereoscope debuted at the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition, where it was seen and admired by Queen Victoria. When she received a gift model, the ensuing craze provoked the sale of 250,000 viewers in three months. During the era of the “parlor stereoscope,” the device became a familiar fixture in Victorian homes, and stereographic photographs eventually numbered in the millions. (This massive output explains why you can still find stereographs at flea markets today, usually selling for a few dollars or pounds apiece). The stereoscope was called a “philosophical toy,” along with devices like the kaleidoscope and zoetrope: these were all entertaining, family-friendly commodities that were invented to demonstrate scientific principles of optics.

The Brewster Stereoscope, 1870. (Via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Stereographs depicted all genres of photography, from still-lifes to pornography. But the majority of stereographs depicted places, especially places where British people desired to travel. During the first wave of the stereoscope’s popularity, in the 1850s and 1860s, stereographs captured the romantic and picturesque destinations on Britain’s tourist track. These locations had actually been chosen well before the invention of photography. In the late eighteenth century, when the Napoleonic Wars closed off the Continent to British travelers, tourists went in search of “the picturesque” in the ruined abbeys and cathedrals across the UK and Ireland. The same spots that artists had previously canonized in picturesque paintings now became mass-produced views in the stereoscope.

One of the most popular British stereoscopic destinations was Tintern Abbey, the ruined stony arches of rural Wales. William Wordsworth’s poem about the area had made the abbey into the foremost destination for adventurous travelers with Romantic sensibilities. Now stereoscope owners could use the device to travel virtually to the Gothic abbey, letting their eyes wander along ruined walls traced with ivy, or looking up at massive arches open to the sky. Although the stereoscope epitomized modern technology, with its lenses, optics, and photographic cards, the kinds of images that viewers consumed inside the stereoscope tended to look back into a romanticized history. (The images gave no indication, meanwhile, of the roaring iron factory near Tintern Abbey that disturbed visiting tourists). These details remind us that technology itself is not inherently oriented toward the future; in fact, new media often intermingle with old media, as new technologies enable nostalgic, fantastical journeys into the past.

Tintern Abbey. Stereographic photograph, c. 1850s. (Collection of the author.)

It was rare for stereographs to portray factories, crowded cities, or other mundane aspects of everyday nineteenth-century life. Instead, photographers captured scenes of picturesque beauty, old towns, peasants in “authentic” costume, churches, ruined castles, scenic landscapes. One popular set of images from beyond Britain was titled “America in the Stereoscope” (1857-59). While some of the scenes captured American cities like Boston and Washington, DC, most of the stereographs portrayed scenes of natural beauty—echoing the stereotypical British assumption that the former colonies were less cultured and more “primitive” than the UK. In fact, most of the American stereoscopic images portrayed waterfalls, from both the US and Canada, uniting both under the rubric of a nature-themed “New World.” Waterfalls were especially popular stereoscopic subjects because of their astonishing depth effects, as their rushing, blurred waters leaped out at the viewer. “America in the Stereoscope” featured at least ten different views of Niagara Falls and its environs. An 1861 London reviewer of the series wrote ecstatically: “The Horseshoe Fall [of Niagara] affords a good idea of the awful power of the mass of descending water; we can almost hear the deafening roar. The effect of viewing this little photograph in the stereoscope is to make one giddy.”

Stereograph of Niagara Falls. “American Fall, Niagara—Winter Scene.” 1859. (Via The New York Public Library, public domain)

Another extremely popular mid-century destination in the stereoscope was Egypt. Travel to Egypt was tremendously expensive, arduous, and beyond the reach of most nineteenth-century people. Hence Francis Frith’s 1857-59 series of views from Egypt met with resounding interest and acclaim, accompanying other forms of British “Egyptomania.” Frith’s images today seem starkly beautiful, with the Sphinx, pyramids, and ancient temples rendered in austere desert landscapes. Yet the realism of Frith’s photographic medium shouldn’t obscure some of the fantasies generated by the images, as they carefully omitted any signs of Egyptian modernity. In fact, Egypt was the site of numerous nineteenth-century imperial intrigues, and host to mingled cultures under European colonial influence. The stereoscope instead created an illusory Egypt, implicitly defining British modernity against the backdrop of an Egypt that seemed buried in the past.

Francis Frith, “Carved columns with archway, Egypt.” Stereographic photograph, 1856-7. J. (Via The J. Paul Getty Museum, CC BY 4.0)

Many of the pleasures proffered by the Victorian stereoscope will seem familiar today. A popular twentieth-century inheritor of the stereoscope was the red plastic “Viewmaster,” whose cards animated 3D scenes of fairy tales or exotic destinations—a toy still being made, even though it’s been updated by virtual reality goggles. On YouTube, travel videos today boast of high-definition 4K streams, even while they avoid grimy, modern urban realities in favor of picturesque landscapes and ancient ruins. Cutting-edge technology continues to enable ever-more illusionistic spectacles of the past. The technology itself might have changed, but the fantasies that the technology helps to enable seem very long-lived, as we escape from our mundane, home-bound lives to stunning, faraway lands.

Featured image: Stereograph of Niagara Falls. “American Fall, Niagara—Winter Scene.” America in the Stereoscope Series, London Stereoscopic Company, 1859. (Via The New York Public Library, public domain)

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