The Golden Age of Stereoviews

1860s and 70s

Most views were aimed at tourists and the curious, and at collectors, who were often both. Cards could be bought at the sites (Niagara Falls for an obvious example, but at a cave entrance, or a train stop with a view of a tree) or at emporiums, which were like book stores that carried stereographs (as they were called back then) gathered from all these different kinds of sites. Most of the views are from my own collection, past or present. See the main page: The Stereoview

The most famous and collectible of these then as well as today involved important themes: trains, Indians, the Civil War (which was 1861-1865, after all), and disasters (early photojournalism, in its own way, shot and distributed widely and fairly quickly). A few starting examples:

Gardner, Alexander, The Dead Where They Had Fallen, c.1863 (courtesy New York Public Library, Dennis Collection)

Muybridge, Eadweard, One-Eyed Dixie and other Modoc Squaws, 1872, (courtesy New York Public Library, Dennis Collection)

Many from the 60s and 70s have yellow or orange mounts, like these examples from one of the biggest (or the biggest) producer at the time, E. & H. T. Anthony. I’m showing the backs, as well. The bottom card is a later kind of issue, but from the same set of earlier negatives. Anthony views are usually numbered in the image or on the back label, and are well researched and catalogued.

E. & H.T. Anthony, Triphammer Falls, c. 1868

The 1860s and 70s were the glorious heyday of the stereoview, with thousands of photographers of all stripes producing between a dozen and several thousand different views, each. Many are extremely fine, well made, well preserved. Others have shown signs of improper washing or mounting and have faded. The cards by Bennett in Wisconsin are among the very best ever made, technically.

Bennett, H.H., Eaton Grotto, c. 1870.

One sign of success (and ambition) was the introduction of taller cards. They had the same width (so they would fit in the viewers), but were “cabinet” or “imperial” sized, such as this nice Charles Bierstadt card. Many images on the larger cards (which required a larger camera) were also released on standard mounts. Note the two (left and right) don’t match tonally, one of many common minor flaws.

Bierstadt, Charles, The Grisley Giant,1872

The West (as in the California view above) was a popular subject, especially along the railroad routes. Utah was just being developed.

Carter, C. W., American Fork Canyon, 1870s

Another (a little worn) from the same vicinity by a competing photographer showing a stereographer at work:

Russell, A. J., untitled, 1868

It is common to find anonymous, sometimes amateur views of good quality. Note the “news” aspect to this subject, and remember that people (and trains, horses, etc.) had to stop and pose for the pictures. Exposure times before 1880 were from 1/4 second to ten seconds in daylight. Interiors much longer, night not at all.

Most stereoviews are sharp as can be (the prints are contact prints, which is the best way to make a photographic print). When viewed in a viewer (which has magnifying lenses) or scanned and enlarged on a computer, they unveil a wealth of information.
anonymous, Wreck, probably 1875 or so

The backs are often illuminating, one (by S. R. Stoddard) with prices, a rare one. The other (an American Stereoscopic Co. issue) with a checklist, a common strategy to encourage finding (and buying) other views in that series.


And here’s a nice handcolored card (of an early oil drilling set-up in Pennsylvania). The photographer painted (with transluscent paints) right on the black and white albumen prints:

Union View Co, Wildcat Hollow, 1870s.

Here’s an interesting man, John Merrill, on his boat on the Pool. The drawing on the wall is his explanation that the earth had a civilization inside the sphere, as well as outside. His head is blurred (and so is the whirl of water) from the long exposure time.

Fifield, H.S., Arctic Philosopher in the Pool, 1870.

For a full page on this curious/amazing fellow, click here!


A very tall “imperial” mount view in the Ausable Chasm in the Adirondacks, showing the photographer and his equipment. Until 1880, all the negatives were wet plate process, which meant the photographer had to coat a plate of plain glass, put it in the camera, take the picture, and finish developing, fixing, and washing the plate before the coating dried, ten to twenty minutes at most. All in the dark. So the equipment and chemicals, as well as a dark tent, had to be carried everywhere the photographer went.

McIntosh, R. M., in Ausable Gorge, 1873

Finally, it has to be mentioned that even as most practitioners faded away in the 1880s, some photographers from the Golden Age of the 1860s and 70s did continue to produce cards all the way up to the turn of the century. By then the big commercial companies mentioned on my main stereoview page dominated, and the last of the little guys folded. But, yes, there were exceptions. The growing number of serious amateurs made possible by the ease of the dry plate (in the 1880s), and by the growing market for cameras and papers, led a few to experiment with what was now a fifty year old genre, the stereograph. Here’s just one example, by a guy who even had nice cards made with his “Ramblings” series title. Note that you can see the “handmade” quality of the prints cut and glued onto the cardboard (and some glue staining at the edges).

I’m guessing this to be about 1895, but it could be as late as 1920. The giveaway, beyond the playful personal style (which just didn’t exist in the wet plate era), is the platinum paper it’s printed on, a favorite by the turn of the century for its long grey scale, and almost infinite archival powers. J. A. Sherwood came out of Littleton, New Hampshire, and it’s no wonder he made stereoviews a photographic hobby. Littleton, way up near Canada in remote New Hampshire, was a hotbed of 19th Century stereoview production, notably the Kilburn Bros. (whose working house and studio are still there with an historic marker) and F. G. Weller.