News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 19, 2010

The Off Season: A look in 3-D at the past, one stereographic card at a time

By Mike Lunsford
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Joanie picked up an old songbook from a musty cardboard box of sheet music and hymnals last week at an auction and said, “I remember singing out of a book just like this at our church years and years ago.”

Holding the book up, she added, “I probably wouldn’t have ever remembered that had I not seen it here today.” She thumbed through the yellowed pages for a few more minutes before moving on to another table filled with coffee cups and flatware and cut glass, but I thought I could hear her humming a tune as she moved away from me.

That’s the way it is with my wife and me anymore; some of our best memories need a little shove back toward the front of our brainpans. That small blue and red, spiral songbook did it for her, but for me, it was a cobwebbed-covered stereoscope that might have well asked from its spot on a similar table a few months ago, “Remember me?”

My grandmother had a stereoscope — also called a stereograph or stereoview — and she kept it in a small bedroom closet in a shoebox, the top held in place by a thick rubber band. I thought the wood and scrolled metal thing was ancient even then — some 45 years ago — and it probably was. Stereoscopes were madly popular in this country from the 1840s through the second decade of the 20th Century, and I suspect that the one I played with appeared on the scene sometime in between those two eras. That shoebox also held a generous stack of wrinkled stereographic cards.

Stereoscopes came about in 1838 when a British inventor named Charles Wheatstone published a paper that established stereography as being possible. He explained that the human brain unifies two slightly different images as a single three-dimensional picture when they are displayed side by side at about the same distance, around 2.5 inches, as a pair of eyes. 

The first stereoscopic pictures of Wheatstone and his contemporary enthusiasts were hand-drawn, but after photography matured as a science, stereoscopic photos often were taken with a special camera that had two lenses. Most cards, however, held photos that were taken consecutively or after a slight change in the position of a single camera. Our brains do the rest when we look at the twin pictures through prismatic lenses, and we can do so without earning the headache we can develop from crossing our eyes over those 3-D images that were all the rage a decade or so ago.

Of course, I didn’t know or care about any of that scientific data, nor did my brother and sister or cousins. But we did know that if we were going to stay the night at our grandparents’ house — which one of us did just about every night — we were going to grab that shoebox out of the closet and sit on the couch after our baths were done to stare into that contraption, most often while my grandma darned socks and my grandpa snored in his chair or cheered on Matt Dillon as he dispatched yet another scruffy desperado on the streets of Dodge City, Kansas.

The stereograph that I bought lacks the long wooden handle that is used to hold the gizmo steady, but everything else is in tact — the wooden trombone-like slide that holds the bracketed cards in place, the lenses, and every single screw that fastens the faceplate together. That slide, by the way, allows the stereographist to focus the card’s image according to the quirks of his or her own vision.

A few weeks ago, I watched “Antiques Roadshow,” a guilty pleasure of mine since I don’t have much time to follow television these days. Like most viewers, I suppose, I secretly hope that I have some relic stashed away in the attic or barn loft that will provide me with the means for an early retirement. In that particular episode, the show’s host visited a museum that specialized in stereographs, particularly the cards. The museum’s curator said that some of the cards were worth considerable money if they are in pristine condition, something that the well-used photos of my grandparents’ set definitely were not.

Stereography was, indeed, the 19th Century’s version of 3-D technology, but the stereograph was perhaps one of the greatest teaching tools of that age, as well. Thousands of American schoolchildren got a glimpse of the world around them on stereographic cards, and they didn’t have to live on the frontier of the Old West, either.

For instance, the cards I own depict scenes from Sweden and Denmark, even China, and the ones I saw so many years ago were like a virtual tour of the National Geographic magazine. 

My stereograph takes me back in time, as sure as if it were a gadget out of an H.G. Wells’ novel. That’s why I bought it; that’s why I probably paid too much for it.

In a moment of sweet irony, I happened to catch an episode of “Gunsmoke” a few nights ago on my favorite Western channel. In it, a character named Print Quimby (played by Buddy Ebsen) sat at a kitchen table and peered through a stereoscope, the Wild West’s version of a wide screen television.

What goes around, comes around, I guess.



Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at hickory913@aol.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at http://tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com to learn more about his books.