Reflection, Told by the Glass

Browse By

1. Research

Just before leaving town for the holidays I paid a visit to Ann Arbor’s subterranean Antelope antique shop and came upon several boxes of Stereoscopic gold, at a price even the most frugal of treasure-hoarders can celebrate. I stood beholden to the stacks of rectangular cardstock bearing double images–of a gloomy pair of circus lions, or of two doe-eyed Victorian housewives swooning upon identical hand-colored velvet chaises, or of a bank in San Francisco, the twin photographs taken sometime before the 1906 earthquake that broke Market Street in two. A Stereoscope, for the unknowing, is a trick of the mind. The double imaged cards were once created with the intention of being held by elegant machinery. Lenses would cover the eyes, crossing them, to reveal a single image in three stunning dimensions.

“Research,” my shopping companion and fellow fiction writer Rachel Farrell said, when I held up cards for her to examine.

Indeed. On the reverse side of the double-imaged fronts of certain Stereoscope cards occurs another sort of twinning. These luckiest cards are accompanied by bon mots, poems, even flash fictions written onto their backs. For writers these strange images and pithy tales might represent many possible fictions, not only of relics, but of our vast world. The words evoke yet another dimension as they describe a distortion, one that is both delightful and troubling, and nearly always dizzying.

A triptych of my plunderings:

I found a fin de siècle tween bedecked in Easter finery, stiff-fistedly courting a pair of swans with breadcrumbs. A sailor-suited youth squats, eyes downcast, beside the murky pond. I crossed my eyes and glimpsed worlds more.

On the back: No. 62. Feeding the Swan in the Park. 

“Freddy is thinking hard. He remembers a story he has heard old Mr. Smith tell the ladies. The story is about a country boy, twenty-two years old and very awkward in society. Once his parents insisted on his accompanying them to a wedding, and instructed him beforehand on what subjects he should converse with his partner, a beautiful, accomplished young lady. Among other things he was to talk about the opera “Lohengrin,” which his parents had taken him to Chicago to see. When the young fellow had screwed his courage up to the sticking point, he blurted out as follows: “Say, Miss, how would you like to be a swan, always in cold water with your belly?”


Copyrighted, 1898, by T.W. Ingersoll. 

On a heavier stock card, one convexed with age, I found a regal sheepdog flanked by austerely-bonneted farmwomen, two ladies who appear intent to get down to the nitty gritty business of a bountiful wheelbarrow. One woman gazes deferentially into the large, abysmal maw of a wooden barnhouse.  A pleasant bearded fellow looks on, takes the sun.

Flip it over and read:

Taking Hay Down from the Mountains–In the Heart of Norway.

“The sterile character of the Norwegian mountains is explained in legend as follows: When God had made the beautiful world the devil became envious and determined to destroy it. For this purpose he hurled a prodigious rock towards the earth to break it in pieces. But the Creator arrested the rock and fixed it firmly in the ocean at the north of Europe. Then, over its jagged surface He scattered a few handfuls of dirt He had left, which were not enough to cover it decently. Multitudes of Scandinavians have left their magnificent but sterile mountains for the rich plains of Minnesota and Dakota. 

The Venice of the North allures us and we hasten to the capital of Sweden.”


And upon an olive-colored card, I caught a glance from a dour child clutching a wilted bouquet of lilies, as reflected in a capacious mirror. Puffy sleeves and another absurd bonnet: my own wildest dreams, therein realized in rapid succession. Ah, and a sinister quality lurking behind those glassine eyes.

The tale behind the image:

No. 85. Reflection. Told by the Glass. 

“Everybody has three characters: There is your real one, the one you wish other people to think you possess, and the one these other people ascribe to you. If the two first named are nearly identical, the third will not vary much from them, but most people are more or less hypocrites. And a similar condition prevails as to many people’s looks. Mamie is innocent of any deception as yet, but in a few years she will begin to consult her looking glass as to the effect of glances and smiles and as to how wide she should open her lips to show her teeth to the best advantage.”


Neurotic, tooth-vain, deceitfully pose-fond. Guilty. Mamie and I both.

2. Seeing Firmly

The Mirror-Stereoscope machine was invented in 1832 by one Sir Charles Wheatstone, a gentleman remembered for his intelligent blue eyes and delicate stature. The machine permitted a special kind of seeing, of “seeing firmly,” according to Wheatstone. Firmly, because of the illusion of a three-dimensional image on the other side of the viewer’s lens, an illusion so wishfully convincing as to be perceived tactilely. Wheatstone’s device was a tableau of human vision: mirrors and lenses arrayed about two circles of viewing glass, just behind which a card bearing a double-image was propped. Wheatstone’s device permitted the right eye to view only the image placed on right side of the card, the left eye restricted to the left image. From the two distinct points of view of the eyes, set 2.5 inches apart, the images were observed as a single object. Wheatstone’s mirrors and the brain produced the illusion of touchability, three dimensions contained in one image. A similar effect could be achieved by crossing one’s eyes while looking at twinned pictures on the Stereoscope card, but Wheatstone’s contraption of mirrors, lenses, and mahogany permitted the viewer a more dignified bearing. The Stereoscope’s illusion of firmness wasn’t Sir Wheatstone’s only synesthetic invention.  During his lifetime Sir Wheatstone also held continuous exhibitions of invented and reformulated musical instruments. The Enchanted Lyre, for example, is his own, and the petite accordion-esque Concertina as well, as is the Kaleidophone instrument, constructed of a trembling silver bead that measures vibrations and reflects a spot of light at once, rendering bright spatial movements in the dark.

But of all Wheatstone’s inventions, the Stereoscope was the only one with lasting popular appeal. Another innovator, Sir David Brewster, created a more elegant viewing device in a handsome pair of binocular lens encased in a polished wood box containing a slot for inserting Stereoscope cards, a mirror, a small door to admit light, and a piece of frosted glass, for a surreal refracting effect. At the Great Exhibition of 1851, Queen Victoria encountered Brewster’s instrument, and, delighted by the hazy three dimensional images, commissioned her own Stereoscope viewer.  Spurred by the Queen’s fancy, the people of London and Paris demanded their own Stereoscope machines.

Photographers and daguerrotypists took notice and began creating affordable cardstock Stereoscope cards by the thousands. “No home without a Stereoscope” became the motto of the London Stereoscope Company. Duchamp made racy assemblages of the uncorseted fin de siècle female form through the peephole in a bucolic wood-cabin, and image-seekers traveled the world, climbing rugged peaks and peering into bedroom windows to capture the most impressive vistas, scenes that would later be twinned and rendered firm on cardstock. The enterprising Langenheim brothers projected magic lantern slides and borrowed European patents to bind silver salt emulsions to glass, dazzling American eyes and bringing the Stereoscope craze stateside. The Stereoscope was the Victorian Age’s most popular form of home entertainment. At the height of the Stereoscope’s mass-produced popularity representations of mundane behaviors, such as a portly American gentleman guzzling beer, became the most readily consumed images.  “Serious” photographers considered the stereoscopic mode of photography to be aesthetically trite, vulgar in its attempt to mirror three-dimensional reality.  But at the same time, the Stereoscope’s popularity aligned with the public’s embrace of empiricism, left over by the Age of Enlightenment. Here was an instrument of viewing photographic fact, an encyclopedia for the eye. How better to collect evidence of the largeness of the world–of its ancient ruins, of its Vanderbilt mansions, of its “Happy Homes of England”–than by seeing?

3. Posterity

Stereoscopic images tremble beneath the crossed lenses of our eyes. A third dimension appears; the breath catches and fogs the lens. Bending the light and tricking the mind, the images attain a puckish liveness in their fragile, distorted movement. Some early Stereoscope users reported physical unease, that the device’s winking images induced headaches and nausea. Poet Oliver Wendell Holmes suffered the queasy symptoms of Stereoscopic viewing, but he also delighted in the “sun sculptures,” as he called the almost-moving images, and so made an arguable improvement upon Brewster’s viewing device, by creating a Stereoscope that could be held in one hand.

As a kid in the early 1990s, I was most familiar with the boxy orange ViewMaster, a descendent of Brewer’s line of Stereoscope viewers,  constructed of plastic, Made in China. Upon inserting a wheel of cellophane images and handling a lever along the contraption’s side, I was transported into a slightly cross-eyed world: A giraffe, the Statue of Liberty. Or, in the slides my Aunt Frances brought back from a trip to Australia, The Great Barrier Reef.

On the vast viewmaster Google Images, I spied twinned sepia images of Teddy Roosevelt at a “Pot-luck with the boys,” plump and dapper in a shiny top-hat amidst a crowd of dusty revelers. The 26th president is stooped forward, as if about to pull himself up by his own bootstraps, but he’s actually frozen in the midst of ladling a hearty serving of grub from a cast iron pot onto his plate. Roosevelt’s face is obscured. Cowboys look on, squinting in the sun. A note beneath the images indicates the photo was taken in Hugo, Colorado. This photograph is, like many other stereoscope images–peculiar, idiosyncratic, even dissonant, and was taken perhaps seconds before or after a moment more recognizably photogenic to the contemporary eye. No one in the frame is prepared to be captured and transformed into a three dimensional image. Had the Rough Rider his own Facebook account, surely this image would not have been uploaded by his sausage fingers from an iPhone into an online album of posterity.

What sets Stereoscope artifacts apart from other antique objects is the probability that similarly offbeat photographs would, in our time, tend to be discarded, or more likely, digitally deleted. Teddy Roosevelt’s captured interstitial moment registers as deeply human, a trace of life.  In the unphotogenic likeness I am reminded also of the sour-faced children, the blinking eyes, the mysterious shadows and the squalid amateur smut that the cards have lately shown me.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *