Stereocards in the Osborne Library

 

A stereocard is “a double photograph (or printed image) that is paired in such a manner that, when viewed with a stereoscope, it appears as a three-dimensional or solid image. It was conceived in the infant years of photography and perfected between 1850 and 1854.” * Stereocards are sometimes called stereographs, stereoviews, stereoscoptic views, or less commonly, stereograms. They are viewed through a stereoscope or stereopticon. The Osborne Library likes to call them stereocards or stereographs and we look at them through a stereopticon.

If you remember from a distant childhood a toy called a “View-Master,” you know what I am talking about. The concept was the same. The illusion of depth was created by presenting two images, one to the left eye and one to the right eye. These two images were then combined in the brain to give a three-dimensional view of a scene, a building or a person. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the doctor, poet, essayist and Harvard professor, was said to have invented the stereoscope or stereopticon. According to Darrah, he published two essays in the Atlantic Monthly in 1859 and 1861 encouraging their use and extolling their “educational possibilities.”

 

Stereocards were a source of popular home entertainment and were also used for educational purposes. Cards were often sold as sets and subjects ranged from fires and disasters, erotica, advertising, humor, national parks, wars of all kinds, forms of transportation, industries and individual companies, sports, natural wonders, volcanoes, Indians, foreign countries (famous sites and culture), international and national expositions, and so on. It was endless. Their popularity lasted well into the 1930s when they were replaced by other sources of entertainment. Americans, in particular, were enthusiastic collectors of stereocards and professional photographers were not above participating in the creation of this humble form of entertainment. Darrah estimates that about six million views were published, which accounts for the number of stereocards still being sold at photo and ephemera shows.

 

The Museum library collects stereocards because they captured images of textile mills, textile processes and workers, and views of textile towns. The Osborne Library has about 1,500 stereographs that are often reproduced in books and exhibits. Stereocards of the various steps in the production of cotton and worsted goods were commissioned by the Pacific Mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, for use in schools. A well-known series, A Visit to White Oak Cotton Mills, Greensboro, N.C.: The Largest Denim Mill in the World, was sold as a set. The mill was anxious to advertise the social welfare services it sponsored: the school, kindergarten, cooking and sewing classes, the boys’ welfare club, the brass band and the baseball team.

 

Stereocards come in a variety of types and formats and are fun to collect. Pick a theme or topic and haunt the shows or eBay auctions. If you find a textile mill, call us. We may not own it and we just may buy it from you.

Clare Sheridan

Librarian

*William C. Darrah, The World of Stereographs (Nashville, Tenn.: Land Yacht Press, c1997, 1977).

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