Monday, December 10, 2012

Object of the Day: An Underwood and Underwood Stereoscope, 1891

As regular readers know, I’ve been collecting stereographs (the long photographic cards employed with stereoscopes to produce three dimensional images) for several months now. I’ve enjoyed the look of these stereo cards themselves. Their double images, often set in arched compositions, are neat glimpses into Victorian life. Seemingly identical, one image is actually slightly off-set so that, when observed through a viewer, the scene becomes three-dimensional.

Since I’ve a good many stereographs, I’ve been looking for a stereo viewer, or stereoscope, so that I could view the cards as they were meant to be seen. I’ve known what’s supposed to happen when you view the cards, but I’d not actually seen it in action. I’ve been looking and looking for one…and…

Image my surprise when I received a package from Ithaca, New York, specifically from the Downtown Ithaca Alliance as a gift of hospitality. As many of you know, several months ago, I was named “Fan of the Week” of the fourth hour of NBC’s TODAY. My gift from Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb—a trip to Ithaca. Tomorrow, I’ll be telling you all of the wonderful things I’ve learned about Ithaca, its residents and culture. But, for now, let’s stick with our stereoscope.

Amongst the goodies in the package from Ithaca was the stereoscope that I very much wanted. This one, made by Underwood and Underwood about 1891 gave me my first look into the 3-D novelties of the late Nineteenth Century. I love it! I spent an hour just gazing at cards and marveling at the detail which sprang to life. The viewer itself is actually a work of art, too. With its handsome profile and elegant curves, it’s a great representation of the work of its famous makers. 

Underwood & Underwood was founded in Ottawa, Kansas in the early 1880s. The company produced stereoscopes and stereoscopic images, and, later, were considered one of the earliest pioneers of American news photography.

Elmer (1859-1947) and Bert (1862-1943) Underwood started their stereo concern by selling their stereoscopes in Kansas, door-to-door. The novelty became so popular that by 1891, the brothers moved their headquarters to New York and soon they had established branches in Baltimore, London and Canada. By 1901, Underwood and Underwood was selling over 300,000 stereoscopes a year and manufacturing more than 25,000 cards a day. In 1920, the majority of the brothers’ catalog was sold to the Keystone View Company.

A similar stereoscope is located in the V&A. The model in the V&A, also by Underwood and Underwood, dates to about 1901 and features a stamped tin screen with a padded velvet rim to protect the face.

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