When Queen Victoria toured London’s Great Exhibition in 1851 and pronounced her fascination with stereoscopic photographs, she began a fad that would sweep England and France and eventually cross the Atlantic to the United States. Stereoscopes combine two images taken from slightly different perspectives, mimicking the average distance between human eyes. By presenting these similar pictures separately to each eye, with the help of lenses or prisms and mirrors, the stereoscope tricks the viewer’s brain into creating a single three-dimensional space from the pair of two-dimensional images. Critics of the time praised the great “roundness” and “solidity” of the pictures, effects that were sought after but difficult to achieve in ordinary photography.

The first stereoscopic viewer, invented in 1838 by Sir Charles Wheatstone, actually predates the public announcement of photography by a year. Though designed principally to investigate binocular vision, the stereoscope was sold as a form of drawing-room entertainment. Early purchasers would have had to create their own images to use with the instrument; Wheatstone provided simple line drawings as an example, but explained that it would also work with more complex, artistic renderings:

‘Careful attention would enable an artist to draw and paint the two component pictures, so as to present to the mind of the observer, in the resultant perception, perfect identity with the object represented. Flowers, crystals, busts, vases, instruments of various kinds, might thus be represented so as not to be distinguished by sight from the real objects themselves.’

Soon after, stereoscopes made from paired daguerreotypes were available in France and the United States, although their reflective surfaces made viewing difficult. The noted American daguerreotypists Frederick and William Langenheim were early producers of stereoscopic imagery, as were the Langenheims’s neighbours in Boston, the photographic duo of Southworth & Hawes. The Southworth & Hawes studio even housed a cabinet-sized stereo viewer, which allowed visitors to cycle through a series of whole-plate views.

The stereograph viewing experience was much simplified by the invention of the albumen print process in 1850. The ability to print multiples enabled the proliferation of stereoscopic cards, a pair of roughly 3” square prints mounted side-by-side on a 3.5" by 7" piece of cardboard, which left room at the edges for handling and space to print the manufacturer’s name and a descriptive caption. More than a quarter million stereoscopes were purchased in Paris and London in 1851 alone, and that number quadrupled by the mid-1850s, though in the United States, the taste for stereo images was still emerging. As Charles Seely, editor of the American Journal of Photography, noted in 1858, “Stereoscopes are at last coming into vogue with us, we are actually getting up a taste for them.” The New York-based distributors E. & H. T. Anthony & Company initially photographed and published their own views, offering 175 different images for sale in 1859. One popular magazine described the firm’s efforts: “An indefatigable array of artists are searching out all the wonderful places of Egypt, Greece, and Italy. No ruin is neglected, no grand scenery passed by, no palace hall overlooked, no work of art neglected; and the stereoscopic tourist, relieved of all expense and the wear and tear of travel, can take advantage of the labour of others and enjoy it amid the sweet associations of the home circle.” Anthony eventually contracted with other photographers, including Mathew Brady, to publish views from the Civil War and scenes of the Western landscape, making more than eleven thousand stereoscopic pictures available by the early 1870s.

Writers described the experience of viewing these highly detailed, immersive images as akin to travel, recounting the story of looking at pictures as if they traversed the landscapes themselves. The New York Observer maintained, “We cannot perceive wherein it is better to see the ruins of an Egyptian temple on the ground than here in Anthony’s Stereoscopes…You may sit for hours, if you will, and study every form and feature of this wondrous work, and the longer and more minutely it is examined, the more perfect even imperfection comes out of the representation of the original.”

The stereoscope found passionate support from physician Oliver Wendell Holmes. “The mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture,” he wrote in an essay for the Atlantic Monthly. The description is notable for the sense of progression it implies and the strange sense of mental physicality. Stereographs, the portmanteau term Holmes coined to describe stereoscopic pictures, display a pronounced layering and, as some critics lamented, their strongest effects appear in the foreground and midground. Instructional writers recommended that photographers exploit this limitation and always include foreground elements to provoke the illusion of depth. As one amateur handbook explained, “Some discernment is needed in selecting the subject for a stereoscopic view. If the camera points to a distant hillside, and there is no near object included in the range, the view will appear flat when seen through the stereoscope… Some shrubbery, the stump of a tree, or any distant and still object will answer.”

Holmes offered a piece of advice to would-be makers of stereographs. He griped that stereographic pairs taken separately often revealed changes in position due to the time lag between exposures. People disappeared from view in one picture to the next, or their movement appeared as a ghostly blur across the plate in one eye, but not the other. Although a dedicated stereoscopic camera with binocular lenses was patented in England in 1856, many pictures were made by simply changing the angle of a single camera, often by sliding it along a level rail attached to a tripod.

Holmes also invented but chose not to patent, an improved handheld stereoscopic viewer that was distributed widely in the United States and transformed the occasional interest into a national obsession in the early 1860s. Although the format passed in and out of favour, competing with other photo fads of the nineteenth century, the famous German photographer Hermann Vogel asserted that by 1883, “there is no parlour in America where there is not a stereoscope.” Well into the early decades of the twentieth century, amateur guidebooks included chapters on stereography, marking it as an important photographic exploit.

Stereoscopic viewers continue to attract fans of novelty technologies. Although they never became a truly dominant form of photography, stereoscopic images, and the unique aesthetic effects that they reward, have enjoyed a persistent presence within popular image consumption since their royal endorsement in 1851.