The Antiquarian Society houses one of the country's largest collections of early American stereographs. Stereographs, an early form of three-dimensional photograph, were a major vehicle for popular education and entertainment in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Many nineteenth-century photographers now regarded as fine artists produced significant bodies of work in stereograph form; among these were Timothy O'Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, and Eadweard Muybridge. Stereographs were also used for journalistic reporting on many of the current events of the period: parades, disasters, and political events. The Civil War and the Spanish-American War are also documented on stereocards with textual commentary.
The stereograph, otherwise known as the stereogram, stereoptican, or stereo view, was the nineteenth-century predecessor of the Polaroid, with an imaginative flair. Placed on cardboard were two almost identical photographs, side by side, to be viewed with a stereoscope. When viewed through a stereoscope, the photograph appeared three-dimensional, an awe-inspiring illusion for anyone during that time. The author Oliver Wendell Holmes, who invented an affordable stereo viewer for the American market, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly of June 1859 that "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 at us as if they would scratch our eyes out. The elbow of a figure stands forth as to make us almost uncomfortable."
Stereography, from the outset, was a commercial success. Entrepreneurs often re-used images without giving proper credit to the photographer. The cards were in such demand that many believed libraries devoted exclusively to stereographic images would have to be constructed. It was a democratic invention because the photographs reached across class lines, and were affordable even to the poor and lower middle class. Many displayed views of far-away lands, making the travel experience, through photography, available to the general population. Its affordability and availability made stereography a widespread phenomenon spanning over sixty years.
The images in this collection date from the mid-1850s to after the First World War. Most were made in the 1870s and 1880s. The collection includes examples of several photographic technologies, including some rare glass slides of Niagara Falls produced in the 1850s by the Langenheim Brothers. Color and monochrome photolithographs are also found here, although the overwhelming majority of the prints, of course, are albumen.
The collection contains fifty to sixty thousand stereograph cards. Most, forty or fifty thousand, are views of American landscapes and city scenes. The views are arranged by state and by place or city within a state. All regions of the continental United States and Canada are well represented, and Central and South America are represented in smaller numbers.
The remaining ten thousand cards represent a variety of genres. The remainder of the collection is organized by topic. A list of these topics is available. Some depict important historical events such as the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. Others represent types of subject--sports and games, American Indians, parades and celebrations, and paintings and statuary. Still other cards loosely categorized as "Modes and manners," "Childlife," and "Courtship and marriage," are comic or sentimental genre scenes or narrative sequences. These are a rich source for studies of popular iconography and social attitudes toward blacks, women, the Irish, drunkenness, and other subjects. A complete list of subject categories is available. For a useful survey of the history of stereographs, including assistance in the dating of stereographic cards, the reader may wish to consult William Culp Darrah's The World of Stereographs (Gettysburg, Pa., ca. 1977), available at the Society. Another recent publication is Points of View, edited by Edward Earle (Rochester, N.Y., 1979).
The stereograph today serves as a primary source for the study of nineteenth-century social history, reflecting social conventions and cultural values. Additionally, the various changes in card design reflect improved manufacturing methods and new trends within the decades that stereography was a phenomenon. The durability of the cards has enabled the American Antiquarian Society to collect and preserve thousands of stereographs. The majority of the collection consists of over 300 boxes of views organized by state, followed by city.
Over 800 stereographs with Civil War content have been digitized and are also available through the Society's digital image archive.