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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The 3-D World of Old

In the craze of 3-D that seems to be capturing the world at the moment, I think that we are a bit prone to forget that this phenomenon is not one that we, the technology-leaping generation of the future, created.  Not by far.  My apologies to Pixar and James Cameron’s Avatar, but I feel that credit should be given when credit is due--and credit is definitely due to the innovators of centuries past.

With the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century came the advent of the stereoscope.  With this gadget, similar to a pair of eyeglasses, a viewer could see two identical images printed on a card combine into one 3-D scene.  Magic!

Actually, it was less magic than a feat that could be accomplished if one simply crossed one’s eyes, but for those of us in the world who seem to be physically unable to cross our eyes, the aid of devices such as these is invaluable.  Well, invaluable if we want to see 3-D images, that is. . .

From a pair of glasses that essentially forces viewers’ eyes to cross, even I will admit that the innovators of today have brought the industry quite far.  But as one in love with history, I remain in awe of the innovations of our predecessors.

In the Anacostia Community Museum there resides an example of this particular novelty--a stereograph, one of the cards printed to be viewed with early 3-D glasses--in the Booker T. Washington Sound Recording, Correspondence, and Other Material Collection.  In this image, pictured above, Washington hosts Alabama Governor Joseph Johnston and United States President William McKinley at Tuskegee University, formerly the Tuskegee Institute.

As I perused this collection, I wondered in passing about the images that have been deemed “3-D worthy” in the past.  Who decided which pictures would be offered to the public in this new and unique form?  What is important enough?  What is interesting enough?  What is unique enough?

I never really came up with an answer to my queries.  However, as I read through a speech by Washington commemorating the 90th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth that is included in the Booker T. Washington Collection, I got a taste of the powerful personality that prompted this man into history as well as the world of 3-D images. 

Jill Berrett, Intern
Anacostia Community Museum


  1. The 3-D image craze ran far and wide in the late 19th century, and certainly was not limited to the depiction of important people, places or events. I've seen a collection that illustrates the story of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, complete with a fully trimmed tree that leaps out at the viewer. Stereo viewers were also the "Discovery Channel" of their day, with sets available depicting the wonders of Egypt, China and India, with full captions on the reverse of the images.

  2. Lovers of stereoscopic photos and anyone interested in nineteenth century English social history should view the book "A Village Lost and Found" by Brian May and Elena Vidal. Truly magical images.