Through the Past, Doubly
By Dwip September 21, 2013, 4:52 pm Comments (0) RSS Feed for this post

So, during the Great Parental Move of 2013, we held a garage sale. At the beginning of this, when I walked up to my parents, I noticed this really old wooden box and a crazy looking green thing under Dad’s chair, and being the curious sort that I am, asked what the devil this strange contraption was. The answer was that it was a set of stereoscope images and a viewer that had belonged to…well, Dad wasn’t sure entirely, but some female relative on his side of the family, he was pretty certain. And, since I was the one in the family interested in all of this random old crap sitting around, would I like it.

Yes, yes I would.

Sorting through the box, it turned out I had 57 image cards with copyright dates from the 1880s to 1909, with the bulk being from 1905. There are pieces from 7 different companies represented, and most of them are parts of larger sets, suggesting that there might have been even more that got lost in the intervening century. A whole lot of the cards are marked, as you can see, with an ad for an Estelline, SD general store.

Now, as it turns out, Estelline ain’t exactly Manhattan, Dad’s family pretty much comes from the ass end of Wisconson, and Mom’s family all comes from North Dakota, so what precisely we’re doing with a bunch of stereoscopes from a small town store in South Dakota I cannot even begin to guess.

The next big question is what these things actually were. Well, most of us, or at least me, tend to think of 3D images as being something that were a big craze in the 50s and sort of puttered on in the form of children’s toys. As it turns out, though, Stereoscopes like I have have been kicking around since the mid-19th century, and no less a person than Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (father of the even more famous Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.) invented the type of viewer I got with the collection. By the time my cards were produced, stereoscopes were big business, with ads like this advertising all sorts of miraculous uses in school and home.

Companies like Underwood & Underwood and the Keystone View Company are completely unknown now, but were once some of the biggest photography companies of the day, and if stores in small town South Dakota are selling the things, stereoscopes must have been practically ubiquitous, and for good reason – in a time when you can’t really just jump on a plane and go somewhere or look it up on the internet, they offer a fun and oddly lifelike view into places you’ll probably never see in person, or on the shocking events of the day.

For instance, this one is a bunch of guys amidst the ruins left by the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake that leveled 80% of the city. B. W. Kilburn did a bunch of different things, but the only two cards I have from them are earthquakes – this one, and the 1908 Messina Earthquake.

While we’re here, a note on the cards themselves: they’re all of roughly standard format, 3.5″ by 7″ or so, of heavy cardboard with the pictures pasted on. Surprisingly they’ve lasted quite well for being over a century old – there’s some discoloration of the cards, and one of them is held together with cellophane Christmas tape that’s got to be 50 years old or more, but for the most part you can pretty much pop them in and go, though the smell from century-old cardboard is righteous.

I have the remains of two viewers, one of which is mostly complete if you add the card holder from the other one, which is now just a plate with some lenses. Who the maker is, I have absolutely no idea, though smart money is on it being a Keystone or Underwood & Underwood model with the demolished other one being a Little Chronicle job. Just don’t know.

Speaking of Little Chronicle, about which I can find almost nothing despite it being relatively ubiquitous, this is a typical card of some Irish peasants in Ireland.

A lot of the cards tend more towards the exotic, such as this Indians and Cavalry card. In 1910 this sort of thing would have been recent history – Wounded Knee was only 20 years back.

Asian scenes are a pretty popular topic, such as this one from Tokyo in 1903 (note the Tokio spelling). I also have a couple from the Phillipines (then an American possession) and Java.

If it wasn’t already clear, these things are definitely By the White Man, For the White Man. Sometimes they walk on one side of the “See how the funny natives live” line, and sometimes they just leap on out into being kinda racist. If you can’t read the caption, it’s “Who said Watermillion?” I also have a couple of “native bucks in the fields” shots in the Underwood & Underwood set. Interestingly, though, a lot of them also have captions on the back in 6 languages including English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, and a Scandanavian language I can’t place.

There are also a whole bunch of random pictures of things in Europe, including places I have been, which is slightly disconcerting when you realize you’ve been on the other side of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice a century after the fact.

You can see that in my shot, I’m standing inside the Bridge of Sighs, looking at that other bridge at the far end over the canal. The stone on that one building looks to have about the same amount of grime as it always did, though somebody cleaned up the brick one at some point.

I can tell you basically nothing about these World Series cards, as the internet tells me nothing, but the fun thing about them is that they’re all in color. Or, rather, they appear to have been colorized, which most aren’t.

All in all, a very interesting trip through the past, and it’s nice to have some of the family antiques.

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