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Step 1 — Artifact analysis

stereoptican

    1. Give a physical description of the object itself.
      • What is its size?
      • What does it appear to be made of?
      • What is on its surface?
      • What is written on it and printed on the reverse side?
      • What color are the images?
    2. Describe what is pictured in the image.
      • How many people are there?
      • Give an estimate of their ages
      • What are they doing?
      • What activities are they engaged in?
      • Where are they looking?
      • What assumption might you make about their relationship to each other?
      • How are these people dressed?
      • What do you notice about their clothing?
    3. Describe the room and its furnishings.
      • What items do you see in the background center and on the right?
      • What is on the floor?
      • What furniture and other items do you notice?
      • What is the condition of the furniture and other items in the room?
    4. Use of the artifact:
      • What do you think people would have done with this artifact?
      • Where might it have been used?
      • Who might use it?
    5. How is technology different today? What would replace this artifact in our society now?
    6. If a “family portrait" was being made of your family, where would it be taken (in your house; outside; in a favorite family place)? Who would be in the portrait? What would we see in the background and foreground? How would your family dress? Would anyone be holding an object or item? If so, what would it be? Where would you be looking? What “message’ would your family portrait give to those viewing it?
    7. Sketch a “vision”of your family portrait.

Step 2 — Read the description of the artifact itself and the context given in the images of the photograph.

Stereographic images (artifact S – SO)
Dating 1860s – 1880s

This item is called a stereograph, otherwise known as a stereogram, stereoptican, or stereo view. It is two images side by side in a black and white photograph on a piece of cardboard approximately 6 and ¾ inches long and 3 and ½ inches wide. It is labeled “Montpelier or Waterbury” on the top, and the reverse side in printing states that it was photographed and published by L. O. Churchill or Montpelier and Waterbury, Vermont.

Stereographs were major vehicles for popular education and entertainment in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Stereo cameras used a single glass plate negative to capture two images. Placed on cardboard side by side, two almost identical photographs were viewed through a device called a stereoscope. There were many different models and styles of stereoscopes. The stereoscope created a three-dimensional effect as it blended the two photos into one. Stereographs were used for journalistic reporting of many of the current events of the period: parades, disasters, and political events. The recent Civil War and the Spanish-American War are also documented in detail on stereographs.

This stereograph shows seven people; we could assume that they are a family. They are sitting in a “parlor” which was usually a sitting room used mainly when guests visited. It would be considered possibly the “best” and “formal” room of the house. All the individuals are smartly dressed. Two women sit in the foreground, almost opposite each other. Behind the woman on the left are two boys; an older teen is on the left and the other is a younger boy. They sit opposite each other engaged in a game of checkers. Behind them is a table with a case or wooden box on it. A middle-aged man with white hair sits behind that table. In the right corner of the room two men sit on a couch. Both have dark hair and appear to be in their 30s or 40s. The man on the left has a short beard and the man on the right holds a walking cane. No one appears to be looking directly at each other or the camera. The two women’s eyes are downcast. The men and boy are dressed in suits that are neatly buttoned. It is not possible to tell if they are wearing ties. The young boy and the man with the cane are wearing leather shoes or dress boots. The three males on the left are wearing white shirts.

Both women appear to be middle aged and are similarly dressed. The woman on the left has her arms folded; the one on the right has her hands clasped in her lap. The women wear heavy silk or wool gowns with long sleeves. Both dresses are simply designed with buttons on the central part of the bodices; the collars of both dresses are white. The woman on the left appears to have a ribbon design near the collar; the skirt on her dress has a designed woven pattern at the hemline. The dress of the woman on the right has a pleated design on the bottom. Both women have their hair parted in the middle and drawn back to some sort of coiffure at the back of their heads.

The visible furniture, a couch, stool, and table, is sturdy and solid. The stool has studded designs on the side, ornately curved legs, and a padded seat. The couch might be padded and has a backboard. There is a carpet on the floor; it appears to be a solid color with round patterns on it with floral designs in them. The two windows in the center back of the room have shades drawn half way down with tassel drawstrings. They are shuttered on the bottom. In the center of the wall between the two windows is a sconce-shelf with a white object like a bottle on it. Behind the couch is a shelf with a large mirror on it. There is an urn on the shelf. To the left on another sconce is a glass-domed viewing “jar” popular in this era; I cannot observe what is contained in the glass dome. Hanging from the center part of the room is a light fixture with what appears to be three glass domes.

The countenances of the people are solemn. This appears to be a comfortably well off, middle class Vermont family dressed in their best and sitting in their parlor for a formal, family portrait.

Step 3 — Consider the artifact in its historical context: The stereograph in the context of the Gilded Age

The Gilded Age refers to a period in the United States that dates from approximately post Civil War (1865) to the very early 1900s. Society was changing from being mainly rural into an industrial and technological age.

Considering both the stereograph (the artifact), the images shown in the stereograph, and your knowledge of the time period, answer the following questions:

  1. What was the attitude toward technology at this time in the United States and Vermont? Do you think Americans and Vermonters embraced or resisted technological changes? Which changes do you think they might easily accept? Which changes do you think they might resist heartily?
  2. How would this particular artifact, the stereograph, affect Americans’ and Vermonters’ sense of identity as a nation and as a state?

Step 4 — Final narrative

The stereoscope is an instrument attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes circa 1859 or 1860. It was also attributed to Joseph L. Bates (1861) in Boston. The device was not patented. The instrument had an adjustable viewholder. The frame was three jointed sections which would be folded shut or inclined for comfortable viewing. The hoods were made of cardboard, veneer, rosewood, maghogany, or pine. In the late 1890s to 1901 lightweight models with aluminum hoods were produced. There were table models of many variations. They were especially in use between 1870 and 1890. They could hold between 50 to 100 views. They were affordable to the mass market, selling wholesale from 65 cents to $23 each. A home provided with one or more sterescopes and a collection of views would usually have racks, boxes, or cabinets to store the views.

This artifact is one of those images or views which is called a stereograph. Most were made in the 1870s and 1880s. Images are recorded until after the first World War. Many nineteenth century photographers are now regarded as fine artists and produced significant bodies of works in stereograph form; some of these men are Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, and Eadweard Muybridge. Journalists used this form extensively to report events of the day. Subjects were the Civil and the Spanish-American War, sports, games, American Indians, parades and celebrations, paintings, and statuary. Others show comic, sentimental, and somewhat raunchy narrative sequences. They are a source also for studies of social attitudes in the way women, families, blacks, and the Irish were posed and shown. Stereographs now serve as a primary source for the study of nineteenth-century social history: they record social conventions and cultural values. Since the cards are so durable, antiquarian and historical societies are able to collect and preserve thousands of them.

Stereography from the outset was a commercial success. The cards were in high demand. It was a “democratic” invention because the photographs reached across class lines. They were affordable to the poor and lower middle class. I conclude that the family who posed for this picture probably owned a stereoscope and bought many of the pictures primarily for their entertainment, but for education as well. It would be an entertainment for an evening or afternoon family gathering. It was a device around which family and guests could gather and visit.

Because many of the views showed far-away lands, stereographs educated and expanded the worlds of all Americans including Vermonters. By viewing, for instance, scenes of Niagra Falls, stereographs made traveling through photography available to rural, often isolated, people whose world until then may have been limited to their town village and a few miles of the surrounding area. By viewing the Civil War images, Vermonters and Americans may have gained more perspective on that national event, and come away more united in their feelings as a nation who had undergone a scathing test and emerged still whole. The Civil War photos possibly united Vermonters in finding a common identity since Vermont sent more men per capita to fight in that war than any other state in the nation. The stereograph/stereoscope was one of the technologies of the Gilded Age that Americans and Vermonters embraced: it was not “forced” on them or “dictated” to them. It entertained and educated. For the frugal, especially the “frugal Vermonter,” it was affordable.

Sources

American Antiquarian Society, http://www.americanantiquarian.org/stereographs.htmDarrah, William Culp, Stereo Views:· A History of Stereographs in America and their Collection, PA, William Culp Darrah, 1964.

Jenkins, Harold F., Two Points of View: History of the Parlour Stereoscope, E.G. Warman, Pub. Inc., PA, 1973.

Print&Photographs OnLine Catalog-Civil War Photographs, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pp/cwphtml/cspstereos.html

Searles, Paul, Two Vermonts:· Geography and Identity, 1965-1910, Durham, NH, University of New Hampshire Press, 2006.

Severa, Joan L., Dressed for the Photographer, Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. Kent State University Press, OH, 1995.

Lesson plan and commentary by

Janet T. Shadroui
Spaulding High School
Barre, Vermont
August, 2007