Everything old is new again

vintage stereoscopes, notable inventions, groundbreaking tools, Philadelphia history, Free Library of Philadelphia While walking on the lovely Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, I was drawn into the majestic, central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, a stunning Beaux-Arts building that opened in 1927. (Note the word on the purple banner!)

I headed straight to the Picture Collection and found these goodies – antique stereoscopes – devices for viewing a stereoscopic card which contained two separate images on a single card. There’s a right and a left-eye view of the same scene, and the device allows them to be seen as a single three-dimensional image.

And to my surprise I could actually use (and shoot) them.

Stereoscopes = the iPhones of their time?

The earliest stereoscope was invented in 1938 by Sir Charles Wheatstone, and over the next 20 years, it was advanced and improved upon by others. Up until the 1920s, stereoscopes were important vehicles for home entertainment and education, eventually being replaced by film and later, television. Stereoscopy laid the groundwork for the stereo cameras, ViewMasters and the early red/blue 3D glasses of the mid 20th century.

vintage stereoscopes, entertainment, educational tools, notable inventions, groundbreaking tools, fun, stereoscopic cards

Yes, there’s an app for digital stereoscoping

In 2010, Hasbro began producing a stereoscope designed to hold an iPhone or iPod Touch, called My3D, where apps on a mobile phone fill-in for the stereo cards.


These beautifully-designed instruments served as entertainment and education from the late 18th century to the early 19th century. Now, they are collectors’ items.

  • Top: Façade of the Free Library of Philadelphia and historical plaque
  • Middle: Example of a stereoscope card (image in public domain)
  • Bottom (clockwise from right):

> ViewMaster sleeve and viewing disc;

> The NovelView Company began making filmstrips which were viewed with the NovelViewer in the 1930s. This rare brown viewer is made of bakelite and metal, top and side views;

> Cast Iron stereoscope circa 1850;

> In 1861 Oliver Wendell Holmes (yes that one) created a handheld, streamlined, more economical viewer than had been previously available, front and side views.

Who still has their original ViewMaster?

Photography and design: © 2013 Janet Giampietro, unless otherwise noted

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