In the past I’ve written some about antique photography. The subject of this article is the “Stereo-view.”
A “stereo,” as we call them in the trade, is two identical photos side by side and mounted on a stiff cardboard mount. They are albumen photos, later dry plate, and later still, printed images.
There was a handheld viewer with two magnifying lenses side by side. These lenses were slightly angled inward. As you look through the viewer, you slide the stereo back and forth to focus. Once focused, both images combine as one creating a stereo effect.
The photo with this article is a stereo that dates to the 1870s or early 1880s. It was taken in a mining camp in Colorado. Study the log hut the old lady lives in. Her elbow rests on a primitive chair. Her hired man has a pick over his shoulder. He is African American.
One lone, spindly, evergreen can be seen behind the hut. Otherwise, the landscape is barren. The elevation was nearly 14,000 feet. This was her lot in life. Imagine her being surrounded with miners, day and night. She must have seen and heard many unspeakable things. There’s a printed label on the reverse that explains this stereo.
“Rocky Mountain Stereoscopic views
“The Rochester Graduate
“This is the humble mud and log abode of Hannah Driffill, a graduate of Rochester University and the Medical department of the Michigan University. Behold her as she stands by the open door there, gray with the frost of seventy winters, her hair now as white as snow. She too has her ups and downs of life, for her father was wealthy and a man of education, affording his children every advantage for culture. In other years her husband, to whom she bore five children, now all sunk in the darkness forevermore, leaving her nothing but the poor inheritance of poverty and widowhood, was also at one time in good financial circumstances. Left alone and very poor she was forced to struggle for life, Medicine, Teaching, Journalism and Literary work all engaged her attention. She wrestled with fate, she became desperate, death to her was preferable to poverty. Ambitious to regain a competence, she left Kansas February last en-route for Leadville, which place she reached on the 14th with just one dollar in her pocket, being moreover nearly frozen to death by the coach breaking down on the top of Mosquito Range, but in accordance with the lines of a settled purpose formed beforehand, she started out to look for silver, to find it or die in the attempt. So has she since toiled and prospected, tramping all over the mountains shovel and pick in hand, staking off her own claims and hiring men by the earnings in the wash tub to turn her windlasses and sink her shafts. She is now the happy owner of a number of paying mines in both the Mosquito and Sawatch range of mountains, satisfied that as affairs now stand, she will be able to go back to what she calls civilization, by the 1st of November with a hundred thousand dollars.
“Published by Alex. Martin, Portrait and Landscape Photographer Denver, Colorado”
When I hold this stereo, I am holding something from 140 years ago. The photographer would have presented Hannah with a stereo. As I hold this stereo, I feel that connection. This is why I collect.
You can collect these stereos in a wide range of categories: street scenes, Niagara, cities, occupational, foreign scenes, Venice or Paris, Western, railroad, and hundreds of other subjects. Stereos recorded our history as it happened.
There are a couple ways to date these stereos. The first stereos in the early 1860s were flat and had square corners. Square corners made sliding the stereo into the wire slots that held it in place difficult.
Soon, manufacturers rounded the corners making them easier to use. Next came curved stereos. Curved stereos arrived on the scene in the late 1870s to early ’80s. These are more common. Colors for cardboard mounts would be cream, orange, green, or yellow.
While this isn’t local history, I wrote it for two reasons. A few readers will have an old shoebox full of stereos. They will find this article helpful.
Secondly, at this time we find ourselves living in a dangerous world. Hannah survived her trials. Use common sense and don’t panic. This too will pass.
This week’s old saying was said when you were sick of listening to someone. “Why don’t you go lay down in the road and count mufflers?”