Friday, September 6, 2013

A wee bit of entertainment - Stereoscopes

Entertainment in the old west took on many forms. I remember my grandmother telling stories of her entire family gathering to play musical instruments and sing. There were the occasional dances and perhaps some were able to take in a play now and then, but for the most part, their brief evening entertainment consisted of conversing. The men folk might enjoy a cigar or cigarette on the front porch while the women folk crocheted, knitted or embroidered. Needless to say, without the Internet, TV, and ipods, our forefathers had to be more creative with their use of any free time they might enjoy.
File:Charles Wheatstone-mirror stereoscope XIXc.jpg
Viewing images in 3D have been around since 1838 when Sir Charles Wheatstone invented the stereoscope. His utilized mirrors set at 45 degree angles and because photographs weren’t around yet, his also used drawings.

Various inventors made improvements along the way but at the 1851 Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park, London, a picture of Queen Victoria was displayed using a stereoscope and the item became an overnight success. I would imagine it was a fun form of entertainment and a lovely topic of conversation for families.

But in 1861, an American streamlined a more practical version. Oliver Wendell Holmes was best known for his writing and his work in the medical field. He advocated reform with regards infections being spread from patient to patient by doctors who did no clean their hands properly. His contribution to the design of the stereoscope became popular among fellow Americans and is often called the “Mexican Stereoscope”.  

My mother always called it a stereopticon, but this is considered a misnomer. Me? I call it ingenious. I used to love playing with the apparatus when I was younger. My mother's is vintage 1906 and of Oliver Holmes’ design.

Please enjoy a scene from Once Jilted:

Her eyebrows rose over wide eyes. “You want me to stay in your tent?”


"Will you be moving your things soon?" She stood, wiping her wet hands on her apron.

"Nay." He quirked a brow and lifted the corner of his mouth in a smirk. "Nay, I’ll just come get things as I need them. Otherwise, you’re to be making yourself at home."

"But where will you sleep?"

"Beneath the heavens." He smiled. "I’ve always enjoyed sleeping outside with nothing more than a blanket of stars."

"I think I’ll feel like an intruder."

"Well now, I’m noot givin’ you permission to snoop in me personal belongings, mind you."

A becoming blush stole over her features, and she quickly masked her pink features by stepping behind the drying clothes to hang more wet things on the line. Had the lass already done just that? Snooped through his things?

"Of course not, but there are some items that are in clear view."


She smiled. "I couldn’t help but admire the picture viewer."

"Ah. That’s a stereoscope, a present from me last employer." A fond memory entered his thoughts as he reminisced about the bridge they’d built in Missouri. "Joe took me under his wing and taught me a lot about the Burr-arch truss system. As for the man, he was quite the traveler. That particular stereoscope came from England."

"Are—are there more pictures for it?"

The eagerness on her face was so adorable, he laughed. "I’ll fish them out for you when I have a wee bit of time."

"Thank you."

"Well, I haven’t found them yet, lass." He stared at the puddles made by her wash water then at her soggy hem.

"No—thank you for letting me stay here, for giving me a job." She snapped another clothespin onto the corner of his long underwear, lifting off the ground just enough to show him a bit of shin.

His skin warmed. "No thanks be necessary."


  1. Ciara, stereoscopes have always fascinated me. Thanks for the information. I didn't realize they had been around so long. I had thought they were an 1890's and early 1900's invention.

  2. What were those toys called we had as kids that you looked through like binoculars and saw pictures in 3D. Land, I cannot think of the name. The pictures were on a circular disc. I loved mine and pretty much wore out the few discs I had.
    It's fascinating, isn't it, how early some things were invented. We can't imagine some in the 1820s knowing enough to created a magical item such as a stereoscope.
    I loved you excerpt--very good!

  3. I have one of these. It was my dad's. There's a whole box of the cards too but they're mostly WWI images. Gruesome.

  4. I was told that an image with an important figure like a president is worth a lot of money. I saw one in an antique store of Roosevelt that was priced at $900.00. FYI.

    Of course, I immediately went home to check on my images. I don't think I have any worth that kind of money. Did a search on them and the set I have is by a photographer that was top notch for the day but didn't produce all that many. Hmmm.

  5. Hi Ciara, great post. My hub's grandparents used to have a stereoscope displayed on a cool round table. We inherited the table, but have no idea where the scope ended up. Sob.

    When my kids were little, they had a red plastic gizmo (can't think of the name of it) that you stuck round circles of negatives in and clicked and you could see stuff in 3-D. We all had fun with it.

  6. The toy a lot of us had as kids is a Viewmaster. There's one for sale on Ebay right now. I bid on it, but someone automatically outbid me every time. I gave up. Darn! It would have been fun for my grandkids.

    Fun post, Ciara! I love learning the origins of devices like the stereoscope.

  7. We had quite a few of those viewmasters. Wonder if they're in the attic. Probably not. I remember tearing up on of the disks to use in printmaking but I think it was already semi ruined before I did this. Too fun.

  8. Oh, Lyn! A Viewmaster! Of course. I loved those so much, and our kids did, too.

  9. Very interesting, Ciara. I am with Celia and loved the Viewmaster growing up and my boys had newer versions. We have an old Stereoscope we found at a flea market years ago, but it is made of iron and heavy, not attractive either. But it came with a bunch of the antique photo cards. This one was probably made much later, I guess. It would have had to sit on a table, but I have seen movies where ladies hold a beautiful hand-held wooden one, and would love to see one of those in person. Great excerpt, too!


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West!