Victorian View-Master

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"The world through the lens of a Victorian camera and Stereographs."

The baby boom generation can easily identify with the 3-D View-Master that provided every kid (including myself) with hours of entertainment during the 1950s and 1960s by looking at Disneyland characters and National Park scenery. However, when this apparatus was first introduced, it was marketed towards adults in the 1860s. The modern day View-Master took the place of the Victorian era stereoscope or stereoscopic.

By 1895, the hay day of the viewer, stereoscope prices were listed in Montgomery Ward & Company’s catalogue ranging from 25¢ - $8.25. This was the time when your dad may have worked for the railroad and made $3.50 a day to support a family of 6-10.  Like TVs are in every home today, stereoscopes were in practically every Victorian middle and upper class home in America and Europe. By viewing the specially made cards, families learned how people lived, dressed and played in other countries world-wide.



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When buying view cards look for the flattest cardboard; Photographs, instead of printed pictures, have the most depth. [Image: Courtesy of Amanda Lewis]


In Sears Roebuck’s 1908 catalogue, stereoscopes and stereoscopic views were advertised over six pages. Sears made the claim… “Seen for the first time, the effect is almost startling, and if you have never looked through the scope at one of these wonderful pictures you have still before you one of the real pleasures of life.”



The wooden bar holding the card can be moved closer to the eye piece for focus. [Image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division]


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Images of the San Francisco earthquake formed a popular series of stereo views. [Image:   Courtesy of Amanda Lewis]


Some of the most popular sets of view cards in 1908 were the San Francisco earthquake -- 60 colored views for 75¢; 100 children’s story views with the printed story on the back for 98¢; Holy Land views -- 100 for 85¢. Believe it or not, I have seen views cards of Spokane scenery, such as the great falls and Spokane River in several Spokane antique stores and on Ebay.


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[Image:   Courtesy of Amanda Lewis]



Most view cards were sold in sets; like the pages in a novel, the cards were numbered in the order of which to view them.  Some view-stories could number up to 800.  View cards were heavy cardboard 7” x 3½” with two photographs or printed pictures pasted on them that looked like duplicates. They could be in color or black and white. However, the pictures were not absolutely identical. They were taken with a special camera that took the pair of images from slightly separate views simultaneously.  If you were wealthy and looking for a progressive hobby, you could even purchase the camera from the Sears 1908 catalogue for only a mere $14.95 (which was also the price of a wood stove).

An early advertisement for stereographs from 1866. [Image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division]


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[Image: Courtesy of Amanda Lewis]


By the 1930s, the stereoscope was replaced by radio and moving pictures;  by the 1950s, it was replaced by View-Master and television. Nevertheless, the stereoscope had a life of its own and was still used as regular entertainment in some towns in the West. Through the mid-1960s, the Carnegie Library in Kalispell, Montana, still had hundreds of cards you could view.


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The establishment of Yellowstone as the first National Park was helped by a series of stereo views of the area that were sold to the public and distributed to members of Congress in 1871. [Image: Courtesy of Amanda Lewis]


Today vintage stereoscopes run from $50-$150; reproductions run around $100. View cards are normally priced from $2 to $35 depending on the subject matter and condition.  Complete sets are rare and you will be lucky to find ten intact cards from a large set. Buying a stereoscope and collecting view cards would be a fun hobby for kids and families that spend time together in the evening, similar to how people in Victorian times gathered in the parlor.

About the Author: Mistress Lou Carver is a Spokane living history presenter.