A stereograph of the Maine Central Railroad Station in Lewiston about 1875. New York Public Library’s Robert N. Dennis Collection

LEWISTON — Back when photography remained a newfangled wonder — Oliver Wendell Holmes marveled that it amounted to “a mirror with a memory” — somebody realized that by putting nearly identical images of the same thing side by side, it would be possible to create a 3-D effect for a viewer using the right equipment.

It was an illusion so cool that stereograph cards became a rage that lasted from the Civil War into the 1920s.

Families often collected hundreds or even thousands of cardboard stereograph images and would take turns exploring the world by peering at them with odd contraptions on their heads or staring into boxes through a viewfinder of sorts.

In our media-saturated era, it’s a little hard to grasp how popular they once were.

A woman depicted using a handheld stereograph viewer in a 1907 newspaper advertisement. The National Tribune, Washington, DC

On the last day of 1873, for instance, employees of the Lewiston Evening Journal’s print shop searched around for a gift to honor their foreman, J.T. Hale, and found what they must have thought was perfect: a stereoscope, images and a carved rack to hold it all. The paper said it was “a very pleasant and deserved testimonial.”

What Hales would have seen pales in comparison to today’s virtual reality headsets or even those plastic View-Master toys that older readers will likely recall with their round cardboard reels containing 14 tiny images of all sorts of wonders.


The stereograph images of the 19th century were almost entirely in black and white. The images they captured were sometimes less than stellar and the printing was, at times, terrible.

Even so, the pictures and the devices used to view them opened a door to the world that everyone has since poured through.

The Androscoggin County Building and Jail in Auburn photographed in the 1860s. Private collection

Writing in The Atlantic in 1859, Holmes was clearly blown away by the new technology, which not only often gave viewers glimpses of far-away places, but rendered them in striking three dimensions.

“Form is henceforth divorced from matter,” he wrote. “In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mold on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it.”

That may sound pompous, but he was dumbing it down. His piece started, after all, with a reference to Democratius of Abdera, the laughing philosopher that Holmes assumed his readers were familiar with, like Taylor Swift today.

Holmes said the stereograph’s enhanced pictures are “the card of introduction to make all mankind acquaintances,” with an effect “such as no painting ever produced. The mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture.”


Follow this link to the U.S. Geological Survey’s page about stereograms that includes animations that show how images take on a 3-D effect.

Given how it caught on, Holmes proved more seer than salesman.

Holmes said the stereoscope “cheats the senses with its seeming truth,” which is a pithy way to describe nearly every entertainment advance in the years since.

A stereogram featuring Haymarket Square in about 1875 in Lewiston, which is the area at the intersection of Lisbon and Main streets. Private collection

The Library of Congress has more than 52,000 stereograph cards in its collection. But there are tens of thousands of others that have slipped through its grasp, including many from Lewiston and Maine generally.

The concept for the stereograph came in the wake of an 1838 paper by Charles Wheatstone, a British scientist who realized that we see in three dimensions because each of our eyes views the world slightly differently. We look at the same thing with each eye, but the right and left eye each put the image together from its own perspective. Melding the two provides the illusion of depth.

For photography, that idea spurred the invention of 3-D imaging.


This stereograph from about 1870 shows the old DeWitt Hotel that once stood on the corner of Pine and Park streets, kitty-cornered from the current Lewiston City Hall building. Private collection

The first stereo daguerreotypes — essentially photographs printed on glass — were shown in 1851 at the Crystal Palace that held the London International Exhibition, what is now considered the first world’s fair.

It didn’t take long for American photographers to jump on the bandwagon, with images quickly appearing of American cities and attractions, often sold in sets to early adapters eager to see the sights they’d only read about or eyed in the drawings of new pictorial magazines.

A 19th century stereograph showing the Androscoggin River falls in Rumford. Private collection

Most of them used cameras that mounted two lenses side by side, 2.5 inches apart, so that when the photographers snapped a picture, they made two nearly identical images at the same time.

Holmes himself contributed to the spread of stereographs not just by writing about them but also by inventing a cheap, handheld viewer that nearly everyone could afford. He didn’t bother to patent it.

An Auburn merchant sold ‘stereoscopes and stereoscopic views’ in its Court Street shop in 1861. Lewiston Falls Journal

By the Civil War in the early 1860s, sets of stereograph pictures were sold through the mail, by door-to-door peddlers and in stores across the land, sometimes with printing that advertised the merchant. They could also be purchased like postcards.

In 1866, the Lewiston Evening Journal noted that a Bangor photographer named S.W. Sawyer “has taken a number of stereoscopic views of the Falls at this place, which make some of the finest pictures we have seen for many a day.”


“The views are taken from various points,” it said, including one from Boxer’s Island above the falls.

“Persons who have stereoscopes will find that these views are equal to any of the distant waterfalls and have the additional merit of giving an accurate picture of our own scenery,” the Journal said. It added that for $3 a dozen, the stereographs could be purchased from T.M. Varney, bookseller on Lisbon Street.

Many, but not all, of the stereographs included information about the photographer and the image they depicted, sometimes listing the entire series on the back of the cardboard that held the thin paper images.

Looking at them today, it’s a little hard to comprehend how awe-inspiring they were to generations long gone.

Depicted in this stereograph is a view of Court Street in Auburn taken at the Elm House Hotel. Private collection

The American Antiquarian Society said the cards “were in such demand that many believed libraries devoted exclusively to stereographic images would have to be constructed.”

Many libraries did, in fact, loan out stereograph images.


The one in Houlton, Maine, in 1914 had nearly 2,000 images in a collection it loaned out, according to a Lewiston Journal Magazine from that year.

The Antiquarian Society pointed out that the stereographs were “a democratic invention because the photographs reached across class lines and were affordable even to the poor and lower middle class.”

A Holmes-type stereoscope viewer from about 1905. Science Museum Group

They made it possible for ordinary people to see far-away lands, discover the beauty of their own country and even follow the news. There are, for example, hundreds of different images available that depict the sinking of the Maine in 1898 in Cuba, a precipitating factor in the Spanish-American War.

Lois Weber recalled in a 1921 piece in an Atlanta newspaper that when she was a girl, “every parlor table had its stereoscopic viewer” and a stack of images to see.

Viewers could buy or borrow boxes that made possible a virtual tour of the Holy Land or India or the Great Plains or the capitals of Europe or almost anything, almost anywhere.

The Keystone View Co. bragged in 1892 that it alone offered 2 million images and churned out “a trainload” of stereographs every single day.


By the beginning of the 20th century, many news stories in the Lewiston newspapers mentioned teachers and schools showing stereograph images to students. They often paid for the equipment by raising money through public lectures that charged a small fee and consisted largely of showing stereographs while somebody talked about whatever they showed.

But as quickly as stereographs rose, they faded away.

The Wichita Eagle wrote a long story in 1927 that noted in its first sentence that “to all appearances, the old-time stereoscope is gone.”

“Once, and not very many years ago, in truth no home was complete without one,” it said. “It is a mystery what became of these simple instruments in so short a time.”

The village of Livermore Falls shown in a stereograph from about 1870. Private collection

With the perspective of time, though, it’s clear enough what happened.

Movies could show so much more that they easily captured a mass audience, and photography itself became ubiquitous, with cameras and film rapidly becoming household necessities.


The era of stereoscopes ended because they no longer served a need.

But, as with so many things from the past, they deserve to be remembered and even experienced because they played a crucial role in exposing people to one another, to broadening horizons and opening minds to new and greater possibilities.

Stereograph images online

American Antiquarian Society, focused on Civil War pictures

New York Public Library’s Digital Collection

The Library Company of Philadelphia, focused on Philadelphia images

Looking down the canal from Chestnut Street in Lewiston about 1870. Private collection

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