Armchair Adventurers of the Past

by Bill Schuette

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Stereoscope, also known as a stereopticon or stereo viewer, was a popular way to travel beyond one’s home without leaving the comfort of the parlor.    A “traveler” would simply slip a stereo card into the viewer and the entire world would be at their beckoned call.

A young viewer take a vicarious journey using a vintage stereo viewer.

A young viewer take a vicarious journey using a vintage stereo viewer.

A stereoscope is a simple device with a handle, a card holder which can be slid forward and backward to focus the scene, and a housing containing two lenses that the viewer looks through. Each scene consists of two photographs, taken from slightly different angles, which corresponds to the spacing between the eyes. The photographer would set up a special stereo camera with two lenses and take a photograph. The two images would then be printed side by side, on a heavy card. When viewed together, the photos are merged in the brain, to form a realistic 3-D image.

The first stereoscope was patented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838, but it was a cumbersome contraption.  It wasn’t until photography came on the scene shortly thereafter that the two inventions combined to provide startlingly realistic images for the viewer. Oliver Wendell Holmes improved upon the viewer, and for Americans this form of entertainment remained popular from 1881 until the late 1930s, when its impact was supplanted by the movies.

The stereoscope was commonly found in middle and upper class parlors, and was a popular way to entertain friends on a Sunday afternoon.

Stereo slides were available depicting scenes from all corners of the earth. The pyramids of Egypt were popular, as were breathtaking scenes from Yellowstone Park. Viewers could travel to Chicago, New York, or San Francisco by simply slipping another card into the viewer. The Chicago World’s Fair in 1892 was a popular topic as was the St. Louis fair of 1904. Humorous slides were also staged depicting puns and mildly risqué scenes.

As the technique was improved, local small town photographers began producing slides for tourists of area attractions. Hundreds of images were captured of the famous Wisconsin Dells, and Devil’s Lake was also included in the collections. Stereo images were produced and distributed by railroad companies to induce vacationers to take a train to view the real thing. Families could also hire a photographer to make a stereo slide of their family, farm or home.

The stereoscope was a forerunner of the Viewmaster with its circular disks, which was popular during the 1950s and ‘60s.

The Sauk County Historical Society has a number of stereopticon viewers, along with several hundred slides, depicting many area attractions.