Stereographs – Nineteenth Century 3D Images

Stereographs – Nineteenth Century 3D Images

Over a century before 3D computer-generated movies and virtual reality simulations, 19th Century viewers could look at photographs through a device known as a stereoscope and watch flat, two-dimensional images magically become three-dimensional.

Stereoscopes merged two slightly different prints of the same image positioned side by side – one for the left eye and one for the right – to give the illusion of a three-dimensional picture.

holmes style stereoscope

Early Stereographs

Early photographers produced stereo pairs by taking one shot and then moving the camera several inches to the right or left to photograph the second image of the same scene. By 1862, Dallmeyer produced a sliding box stereoscopic camera. The single lens was mounted on a sliding panel that could be positioned to take two exposures to produce stereo pairs. The camera lens was typically positioned about two and half inches apart – the distance between human eyes.


In 1850 Sir William Brewster invented the lenticular stereoscope, an enclosed box with two lens mounted on the top. The viewer looked through the lens and saw a 3D image on the floor of the box interior.

American writer and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. invented a hand-held viewer in 1861 that helped popularize stereographs. Stereo images were so fashionable in the United States that promoters claimed there was a stereoscope in every parlor. The dual image cards were sold door-to-door, through mail-order catalogs and in local drug stores.

Holmes described the experience: “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 Heyday of the Stereoscope

Stereographs appealed to the middle class as a form of entertainment and self-improvement. Families could peruse stereo cards of famous sights from the Grand Tour as an affordable substitute to actual travel. Stereographs were also widely used in public schools to teach geography and natural history.

The popularity of stereographs peaked from the 1880 to the 1910; millions of stereo cards were produced during the heyday of the medium. Series of images showcased a variety of subjects: scenic views of the world, portraits of celebrities, wars and disasters.

A Resurgence of Stereo Images

Stereographs were eclipsed by moving pictures in the 1920s. However, 3D imagery saw a resurgence beginning in the 1940s. In 1939, William Gruber and Harold Graves invented the View-Master, a viewer for stereo color film images. The early 1950s has been called the golden era of classic 3D movies. LIFE magazine ran an iconic image of a theatre full of moviegoers wearing 3D glasses in its December 15, 1952 issue.

Three-dimensional imagery continues to be popular in mass entertainment and is useful in scientific applications as well. In the 1980s, huge IMAX theatres took the 3D film experience to a new level. James Cameron’s 3D animated feature film Avatar was nominated for the 2010 Academy Award for Best Picture. NASA uses special camera systems in its Mars rovers to produce 3D images, allowing scientists to more easily interpret distances on the surface of our neighboring planet.