1800s Stereographs Reveal Early U.S. Christian Life in 3-D

19th Century stereo photographers documented Christian living and worship in a youthful United States of America and beyond.

A New Dimension in Christian History...

* Photographic memories being restored to 3D-HD digital
* 3-D was the new frontier of recently invented photography
* Stereo photographers captured all aspects of Christian life
* Many stereo photos remain unidentified
* Many churches now empty or no longer standing

PUBLISHED: June 1, 2019 | UPDATED: June 1, 2019

PODCAST: 1800s Stereographs Reveal Early U.S. Christian Life in 3-D

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ARTICLE: 1800s Stereographs Reveal Early American Christian Life in 3-D.

Christian Camp Meeting.
(above photo): There are many traditional photographs documenting our Christian heritage, but one must view a stereograph in a proper stereoscope to appreciate the added dimensional fidelity. Here we have the left eye view of a stereo view card showing members of the Alton Bay camp meeting in New Hampshire, USA. Year and photographer currently unknown.

Over a century ago, 3D photographs, known as stereographs, were as popular as the internet and smart phones of today.

Hello … my name is Frank DeFreitas … and I would like to welcome you to Wonders of the Bible.

Invented in the 1850's, reached the height of their popularity between 1870 and 1920. Early American and European stereo view cards focused on various popular topics -- such as travel to exotic, far off lands and historical events. With this month's presentation, I would like to cover a very specific area of interest -- and, in fact, an interest not too often heard of: the 3-dimensional stereo photographic documentation of our Christian heritage.

First, for my listeners who many not be aware, stereo view cards contained two photographs, side-by-side. One photo for the left eye, and one photo for the right eye. Naturally, most of the photos were taken with cameras that had not one, but *two* lenses. These lenses were separated approximately equal to the distance between our eyes.

When these cards were placed into a stereo viewer, also known as a stereoscope the scenes would be shown as 3-dimensional to the viewer. In effect, the right eye would see the right photo, taken from the right eye perspective, and the left eye would see the left photo, taken from the left eye perspective. Our brains would do the rest, merging the two images into a fully-dimensional scene.

stereoview church exteriors in philadelphia and bethlehem pennsylvania.
(above photo): Two left-eye views of church interiors and exteriors: (left) interior of Christ Church, Philadelphia, PA; and (right) exterior of Moravian Church, Bethlehem, PA.

One would feel immersed into the 3-dimensional space of these cards … much like the way that a virtual reality headset would immerse someone today. Although one could not look around, in many cases, the albumen and silver halide emulsions of the stereo view cards were equal to the resolving power of today's monitors -- especially those prints made in the 20th century.

Like all activities -- and laser holography comes to mind here -- each new advancement in science and technology always has a number of people that decide to take it up on their own. Photography was certainly no exception. Right after the invention of photography, it wasn't long before stereo photography (and stereo photographERS) followed.

Photography in the 1800's was an expensive venture. I would imagine that stereo photography would have added addition costs -- due to stereo cameras having two optical systems instead of one, and the size of the film required for dual exposures … many times onto expensive glass plates. Stereo photography was imaging science and technology at its highest form. This was the new frontier.

French tissue hold-to-light stereograph of Notre Dame taken in Paris, France in 1865.
(above photo): As promised in the podcast, here is the French tissue hold-to-light stereograph of Notre Dame, taken in Paris, France, in 1865. Not many of these fragile pieces made it into the 21st century.

The most sought after (and valued) are those stereo view cards in which the imagery was captured by independent stereo photographers. These would usually be duplicated in very small numbers, and in some instances, one of a kind. One of a kind stereographs are highly sought after, since, naturally, if you happen to own one, you are the only person in the world that has one.

In addition to the standard view cards, there are also gelatin silver glass plates, and hand-colored French tissue. Not many of these fragile stereo views have made it to the 21st century.

The United States Library of Congress describes Stereographs in the following way … and I would like to share it with you now:

Stereographs consist of two nearly identical photographs or photomechanical prints, paired to produce the illusion of a single three-dimensional image, usually when viewed through a stereoscope. Typically, the images are on card mounts, but they can also take the form of daguerreotypes, glass negatives, or other photographic processes. Stereographs were first made in the 1850s, and are still being made today.

In 1851, stereo daguerreotypes were exhibited for the first time to the general public at the London International Exhibition, held at the Crystal Palace. By 1860, both amateur photographers and publishing firms were making stereographs. The major stereo publishers sold their views by mail order, door-to-door salesmen, and in stores. Stereographs were sold individually, and in boxed sets.

God bless Father, God bless Mother, God bless Santa Claus
(above photo): Detail of common stereograph showing five children saying their Christmas Eve bedtime prayers. It is captioned "God Bless Father, God Bless Mother, God Bless Santa Claus". Photographed and published by B. W. Kilburn, with a copyright date of 1897.

Stereographs are usually mounted onto a hard board material. They were typically published with caption information printed under the image, or on the back of the mount. The mount also provided information about the publisher and the photographer.

For those listeners who would like to further their interest, you will find a wealth of informative web sites online that give detailed history and technical information.

For the Wonders of the Bible collection, I break Christian-based stereo view cards into three categories: Category one is: Biblical. These views depict the many events told in the Christian Holy Bible. They would usually be either staged with real actors, or through the construction of dioramas. Travel views of the Holy Land would fall under the Biblical category as well. Category two is: Churches and cathedrals. There are many stereo views of church and cathedral exteriors throughout the entire Christian world. These continue to increase in importance, because many of the churches captured in the 1800's no longer exist, or, they are serving their communities in an alternative capacity, or they are just sitting empty and are no longer active. On the web page associated with this lecture, I have included one of the earliest french tissue stereographs of Notre Dame, taken in Paris, in 1865. Category three is: Everyday Christian living. These stereo views show people going about everyday Christian activities, such as weddings, baptisms, congregational shots, camp meeting groups, traveling tent revivals, etc.

As you can see, there is no shortage of subject matter!

The main focus of the Wonders of the Bible stereo view collection are cards recording the history of Christianity since the invention of stereo photography. Unlike the limitations of traditional photography -- of which there are great Christian collections, both private and public -- stereo photography permitted these events to be documented in their full 3D splendor.

The Wonders of the Bible collection also consists of various antique stereoscopes, with manufacturing dates ranging from the 1860s, through the latter half of the 20th century. They run from beautiful wooden stereoscopes, imported in to the USA from France, to the various View Master models and similar viewers.

Stereograph of Tabernacle of Billy Sunday in Johnstown, PA, November 1913.
(above photo): Possibly very rare (if not one-of-a-kind) 3-D stereograph showing revival tabernacle of evangelist Billy Sunday in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, November 1913. I believe I may have several interior shots of Sunday's various tabernacles across the U.S. ... but they have not yet been verified. I am hoping to add an actual shot of Sunday himself one day -- although I have never heard of any existing.

Working with a Fuji Real 3D V3 digital viewing screen, my latest project is scanning, hand-restoring and converting the stereograph collection into digital 3D-High Definition files for large-screen 3D-HD televisions ... where the people and places of American Christianity's heritage really comes to life for the viewer.

This viewing screen is auto stereoscopic, which means that viewers no longer need to wear 3D glasses. All you need to do is look at the screen, and you see the full 3D effect.

It is very exciting to be a part of moving these early 3-dimensional images into the 21st century … and beyond. It is the goal of the Wonders of the Bible collection to continue to work with and advance the digital imaging, storage, and display of these pieces of Christian history. Throughout these presentations, we'll take a look at individual early stereo photographers, and their historic cards.

In the meantime, stay tuned, and don't forget to come back each month for new topics and presentations here at wondersofthebible.org

Once again, my name is Frank DeFreitas, and may God Bless You Today and Every Day … AND … remember to always love others, just as Jesus Christ loves you.

"Science is the study of the physical manifestations of God in action."
-- Frank DeFreitas (Click Here for BIO)

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