Oak Park and River Forest in 3-D

One hundred years ago, the stereoscope brought entertainment home

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Today many of us are justly proud of our entertainment systems, our huge plasma screen TVs and our vast collections of DVDs. This, of course, is not a new tradition. Showing off one's own home media actually goes back over a hundred years.

At the turn of the last century, nearly every Oak Park and River Forest parlor contained a viewer, called a stereoscope, and a basket of stereographs or stereo views. These were oblong cards with two almost identical photos glued on a 3-by-6 inch cardboard mounting. Usually a caption identified the image, and in some cases a text on the backside of the card further explained the scene.

Each of the two photos is taken from a slightly different viewpoint that corresponds closely to the spacing of the eyes. Each of our eyes sees the world just a slight bit differently. And when the pair of two-dimensional flat photos is viewed through the stereoscope, the two pictures merge, creating an amazing, seemingly magical illusion of a three-dimensional image. The ancient Greek mathematician Euclid is said to have discovered this "principle of binocular vision."

All one did was place a stereo card of, say, a gondola in Venice between the wire slots of the handheld viewer and look through the eyeholes to behold a three-dimensional renderingâ€"a kind of Victorian virtual reality!

The business of entertainment

Stereoscopes had already been around a long time by the turn of the 20th century. At the time of the Crystal Palace Exposition of 1851, Queen Victoria was particularly impressed by stereoscopic images. But although stereo viewing soon became all the rage in Britain, the phenomenon took a while to catch on in the States. The viewers were initially cumbersome and costly.

A decade later, however, a more streamlined, economical, handheld stereoscope viewer was actually invented by American statesman Oliver Wendell Holmes (and not patented). Overnight a popular home entertainment industry was born.

Stereoscope view cards were produced by the millions a century ago. The Underwood & Underwood Company of New York produced 25,000 stereo views per day and sold over 300,000 stereoscopes in 1901 alone. The cards cost 3 cents a piece or about 85 cents per 100. They were found in drugstores, distributed through mail-order catalogs, given away as premiums by cereal and tea companies, and sold door-to-door by college students (including the young Carl Sandburg).

Sears, Roebuck & Co. used its catalog network to offer the lowest prices possible, selling a stereoscope for as little as 28 cents with 100 view cards for 20 cents in 1908.

Like television today, stereoscope views accommodated tastes ranging from vulgar to refined, from simple to scientific. People wanted to see everything. So photographers were sent out to photograph the world in 3-D.

Stereographs depicted every possible subject, from scenic views of Niagara Falls to episodes from Bible stories. Exotic peoples were especially fascinating, so many series featured Native Americans, natives of the Pacific islands, and people of the "Far East." The medium of stereography allowed everyday people to participate vicariously as travelers in the world at large. Schools used stereoscope viewers as visual aids to teach geography, natural science or art appreciation.

The stereoscope allowed people to tour the world while sitting in their home parlors. They were able to witness the great events of the day, from the building of the Panama Canal to the destruction caused by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The St. Louis World's Fair of 1904 could be enjoyed by those who couldn't be there.

"Conduct Stereos" dramatized how to behave by depicting comic bumpkins and immigrants who didn't know how to mind their manners. There were also several series of temperance-oriented views that showed the "squalor of the drunkard" and the disgrace that accompanied such a lifestyle.

The Scoville Institute, which is what the Oak Park Library was called, allowed patrons to check out assortments of stereoscope images as they did books. Boxed sets, which were made to look like books that could be displayed on a shelf, depicted a specific tourist theme, such as "Traveling in the Holy Land."

Collecting stereo cards became a popular hobby. Families loved to show off their newest images to entertain company. Viewing stereo cards, virtually a national pastime, was an especially good icebreaker. "Every picture is worth a thousand words," folks pointed out. Such a get-together was seen as an occasion of refinement, "uplift," and culture as well as providing fun, thrills and escapism. The activity was the same as people today watching a DVD together, except that passing around a stereoscope viewer in the 1900s encouraged interaction and discussion.

A stereoscope was an especially key prop used by courting couples left alone together in the parlor. An assortment of new stereo views was considered a very proper gift from a gentleman caller.

Hometown views

Soon ordinary folks began creating their own stereoscopic views with specially designed cameras. Commercial stereo photographers also sprang up around the country. For a fee, they would produce stereoscopic images of one's shop, home or family. Prosperous homeowners often had views taken of their new digs.

Each year the Oak Park Horse Show, the social peak of the season, was documented with scores of stereo views. For two days each September, these horse shows featured parades, fireworks and a variety of judged events.

Held in Cummings Park at Lake Street and Harlem Avenue, this fundraiser for the Hephzibah Children's Home attracted hundreds of participants and huge audiences. "Top society," the finest and most prosperous people in the community, sat in 58 decorated boxes that were auctioned off for $50 each. Everyone else sat in covered bleachers that stood where the Forest Preserve offices are now located.

There were stereoscope views which showed all the races and judged events in which business horses, saddle horses, harness horses, ponies, "roadsters" and "runabouts" competed for engraved silver cups.

The local press described the annual horse show in great detail, while stereoscope view cards subsequently illustrated everything from the decorated surreys to the Oak Park and River Forest elite ladies' fashionable "high collars, willow plumed hats and gorgeous buttons on sheath dresses." Each year a new series of souvenir views documented everything from the box lunches that were sold (frankfurters and Coca-Cola) to the judges presenting ribbons and trophies.

The one reminder we still have of these horse shows is the Frank Lloyd Wright-Richard Bock Horse Show Fountain, replicated and moved 100 feet to the entrance of Scoville Park in 1969. An actual drinking fountain, it was erected at the curb at Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue in 1909 "for the benefit of animals on their way to the show grounds."

Stereoscope production declined in the 1920s, due to the rise of movie newsreels and popular illustrated magazines.

A descendant of the stereoscope, the Viewmaster, with its views mounted on a small circular reel, became a popular children's toy in the 1950s. Even 3-D movies enjoyed popularity for a while, using special cardboard 3-D glasses to create the three-dimensional effect. House of Wax played at the Lake Theatre in 1953. But the fad didn't last.

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