“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 scraggy branches of a tree in the foreground run out at us as if they would scratch our eyes out…”

–Oliver Wendall Holmes, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” Atlantic Magazine (June 1859)

The stereograph stunned Americans in the late nineteenth century. Long before widespread knowledge of perception and the human brain, the realistic, three-dimensional images the stereograph produced seemed magical to most viewers. Imagine what seeing a 3-D image was like for a society that had produced the first permanent photograph just thirty years ago! The stereograph first gained popularity in 1851 at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in Hyde Park, London[1] but it quickly spread.  A new technology, the stereograph might have been a prominent form of entertainment at the Lee-Fendall House during the late Victorian period. The Museum’s own impressive collection of stereoviews reveals fascinating insights into the ideals and leisure of this era.

But, first, how does it work? A stereograph, pictured below, was used to gaze at stereoviews. Stereoviews were cards that displayed two similar images side by side placed about 2.5 inches apart—to imitate the distance between the eyes—so that, when viewed through the stereograph lens, a three-dimensional image appeared. This fascinating new form of entertainment created an insatiable demand in homes across the country. Luckily for suppliers, stereoviews were relatively cheap to mass produce so the nation was quickly inundated with these remarkable cards. One supplier, E. and HT. Anthony & Co. in New York, produced stereographs of 50,000 different subjects[2] and another, Underwood & Underwood, could sell as many as 25,000 cards a day door-to-door in 1901.[3]


Suddenly, all kinds of images and information were available in the average American’s parlor. In the new age of tourism, you could visit Rome, Italy or Nevada Falls in Yosemite from your own home and—to a Victorian—it felt like you were there!

The stereoview even entered the political arena and capitalized on the nationalism inspired by the Spanish-American War. Viewers could satisfy their patriotism with cards like “Columbia admiring her Navy” or even get a close look at President William McKinley and his wife.

Stereoviews could also be used to convey stories. Some of the most popular stereoviews turned Victorian conventions upside down to create comedic scenarios. The stereoview below demonstrates the appearance of the “New Woman” in nineteenth-century popular culture—a term used to describe women who “defied feminine convention.”[4] The woman in this stereoview, “Women’s Rights,” below, rebelliously has her husband doing the family’s washing.

The three sisters—Evelina Morgan, Myra G. Civalier, and Julia E. Lee—residing at the Lee-Fendall House during this era most likely had a stereograph sitting in their parlor. After her husband, a Civil War veteran, died, Myra Civalier and her two daughters joined Myra’s sisters at 614 Oronoco Street in the 1880s. One of Myra Civalier’s daughters, Myra Lee, may have entertained friends with the stereograph in between teaching dance and calisthenics classes at the house.  A talented actress described as having a “personality charming and magnetic,” Myra Lee might have enjoyed the theatricality and narratives portrayed by many stereoviews.

The spectacle, education and escape the stereograph allowed this technology to remain popular even into the 1920s. Today, at the Lee-Fendall House, we are proud to have the opportunity to learn from these fascinating objects!

–Christina Regelski, Graduate Collections Intern

[1] Melody Davis, “The New Woman in American Stereoviews.” In The New Woman International, edited by Elizabeth Otto and Vanessa Rocco (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), 22.

[2] Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History (Laurence King Publishing, 2006), 82.

[3] James Gilbert, Whose Fair?: Experience, Memory and the History of the Great St. Louis Exposition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 116.

[4] Davis, 24