Reminiscing in the Parlor : Leisurely Viewing Stereographs

Stereographs consist of two nearly identical images placed side-by-side and mounted on pasteboard backing. When the images are viewed through a device called a stereoscope, the human eyes, using binocular vision, produce the illusion of a single, three-dimensional image. Stereographs have historically been made with daguerreotypes, glass plate negatives, and other processes. Some are found to have hand painted details added in post-production, while others are left as the straightforward photograph. Stereographs have been a form of entertainment since in 1850s when they debuted at the London International Exhibition.

However, it was in 1838 when a scientist by the name of Charles Wheatstone popularized the notion of binocular vision, the scientific theory in which stereographs were created from. Wheatstone became fascinated by the nature of human vision and the discrepancy between each eye's angles of view. When two eyes work together, the brain is able to comprehend the individual viewpoints to recognize a single three-dimensional object. By the 1850s, Sir David Brewster added to the idea and created the stereoscope, a device that lent itself as a convenient handheld viewing device. The simple mechanics of the stereoscope made it an easy-to-use device to view the stereographs as a leisure time activity. Moreover, Oliver Wendell Holmes refined the device even further in the late 1850s, creating the most simple and inexpensive version to date. Holmes created the most recognizable form of stereoscope, which included either a handle or stand to hold the stereoscope level. The stereograph card could then be placed in a holding bracket in the front of the device, and a sliding track used to adjust the distance between the viewing mask and the card.

Many of the stereographs in the collection showcase regional images throughout Western New York State and the Genesee Valley area. In some cases, the stereographs in GCV&M's collection are thought to come from a "Grand Tour." These tours were considered an educational rite of passage for English and Northern European elites in the 17th and 18th centuries. Typically, young men would venture on an extensive trip throughout Europe, visiting cultural hubs that featured artistic achievements of classical antiquity and the Renaissance era. The Grand Tour was popular with European elites up until the 19th century when the trend faded away. However, due to improved transportation and growing economic power in America, Grand Tours spiked in popularity. Young American elite flocked to places like Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, and more. Along the way, stereographs could be collected as cherished relics to take home. Since photography was not a portable luxury on rapidly moving vacations, stereographs provided keepsakes to take home and show off to friends and family.

We welcome you to explore the collection and see the variety of images from local to international destinations.

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Reminiscing in the Parlor