Monday, December 24, 2012

Minnie's Christmas Gift 1897

In the family archives there is a grainy photo of Grandma Minnie as a young girl seated in front of her Christmas tree in December 1897. Christmas Eve was also Minnie's birthday, and that year she turned seven years old. Minnie is surrounded by books  -- our family tradition of giving books as birthday and Christmas gifts is apparently over one hundred years old! There is also a doll or two hanging on the tree, and if you look closely you might be able to make out an object known as a stereoscope and a rattan rack for holding the stereoscopic photos.

Three names are associated with the invention of this device, which is used for viewing pictures, giving an illusion of three-dimensions or depth:

- Sir Charles Wheatstone, an English inventor and scientist who first described the principle of stereopsis, or binocular vision, in 1838: His stereoscope, a rather cumbersome contraption by later standards, used mirrors to enable the eyes to combine two images of the same object, giving the impression of three-dimensionality. As photography had not yet been invented, Wheatstone's device displayed sketches rather than photos.

- David Brewster's device (1849) used lenses rather than mirrors to combine the images, thus allowing for a less cumbersome hand-held version. By this time, photographs could be used, which gave more reality to the pastime of viewing 3-D pictures.

- In 1861, Oliver Wendell Holmes (yes, the "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table"!) created a lighter and cheaper version of the stereoscope, consisting of two prismatic lenses and a wooden or metal stand to hold the cardboard picture cards. Holmes generously did not patent this device, which allowed it to be mass-produced by other entrepreneurs.

It was this version of the stereoscope that Minnie received as a birthday and Christmas gift in 1897. 

By that time, photographers had traveled all over the world to photograph scenes of famous people and faraway places. Minnie's stereocard collection eventually included scenes of the Holy Land, as well as photographs of contemporary politicians and Presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

As a child, I remember being fascinated by the diminutive world viewed through Minnie's antique stereoscope. I would close my eyes as I fitted each cardboard stereocard into the metal stand, and then open my eyes to the surprise of peering at an image of a long-dead President giving his inaugural address, or of a line of camels in the Middle Eastern desert.

Six decades after Minnie received her stereoscopic viewer, I also received as a birthday or Christmas gift a 1950s version of this device  --  the Model E ViewMaster. As I child, I passed many a happy hour peering at 3-D fairy tales and faraway places. Three-dimensional films also had a heyday shortly afterward, and with new digital technology, more recent films such as Avatar (2009) and Life of Pi (2012) have revived the fascination with 3-D movies.

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Read more about Minnie's early childhood at her father's grocery and supply store along the Erie Canal at: The Lock Grocery in Fort Plain.

Learn more about Oliver Wendell Holmes's role in the development of the stereoscope at:

View samples of early stereoscopic pictures in the University of Washington's digital collections at:

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