Doug: I received this as a gift from an employee back in the 1980s. I also have about 110 of the picture cards to go with it. Can you tell me what they are all worth?
Dear Henri: What you have been gifted is called a stereoscope. It is used for viewing stereoscopic cards, also known as stereoviews or stereographs, which were made about 100 to 150 years ago.
These picture cards consist of two slightly offset photographs of the same scene. The special camera used to take the photos had two lenses set approximately the same distance apart as our own eyes.
When these two unique images are glued onto a mount and focused through the prismatic lenses of a stereoscope, one is seen by the left eye and one by the right. Our brain perceives or recognizes the two as perfectly normal and typical visual information and combines them to produce a three-dimensional picture in our mind. This created illusion of depth is called stereoscopy, stereoscopics or stereopsis for binocular vision.
The discovery of the phenomena actually predates photography. The first stereoscopic cards, in 1833, consisted of crude hand drawings.
Up through the early 20th century, stereoscopes provided the entire family with hours of desultory educational entertainment. Individual stereoview cards could be purchased of scenes from throughout the world as well as staged comical or religious tableaus. Themed boxed sets were available, too, including series of the Grand Canyon, Jerusalem, the Chicago World’s Fair and World War I. A 50-card set of the great Sears, Roebuck & Co. plant was available in a leatherette case through their catalog for only 35 cents.
In the days of the horse and buggy, the stereoscope opened up the corners of the world to almost every home in western civilization. However, by the 1920s, motion pictures, radio and other forms of entertainment had made it a relic of the past destined for the attic.
These viewers are not rare and are relatively inexpensive. A model like yours is worth $100, but they can often be purchased at half that price. Yours is a deluxe aluminum hood model made by companies such as Underwood & Underwood, circa 1905-1910, and available at that time for 49 cents. Standard models were priced at 28 cents!
The cards typically sold for a nickel or so, and today they can be worth anywhere from 50 cents to thousands of dollars each! Sets usually run about $1 to $5 per card, depending predominantly on the subject matter.
Perhaps the most prolific stereoview-producing firm was the Keystone View Co. It closed in the ’30s, holding more than 350,000 negatives. Stored in concrete vaults for decades, the collection lay forgotten until it was purchased in 1963 by an inventive genius named Gifford Mast, a 1931 Davenport High School graduate. Later, he would donate it to the University of California (Riverside) Museum of Photography. Many of these images are priceless, and the collection is probably the greatest single source of photographic American history ever made, covering the period from the Civil War through World War I.