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The stereoscopic images in our archives were collected by Father Patrick Murphy

Father Murphy, about 1880 – in his parlour

by Neil Sayer, Archdiocesan Archivist


It really isn’t far from a Victorian parlour to a Virtual Reality headset. Three-dimensional images have been around for a long time, and some are represented in the collections of the Archdiocesan Archives.


Photography was still in its infancy when devices were invented for taking and viewing images that reproduced a 3D effect. Using a specially mounted camera, two images were recorded of the same view, from slightly different angles.


This was intended to mimic the way our left and right eyes see the world slightly differently. In place of the brain processing what we see to render depth and clarity, a stereoscopic viewer was used to look at the twin images. The lenses in this handheld viewer were arranged to combine the two separate images into one that appeared three-dimensional.


As a novel form of entertainment, this led to a craze at least in well-off Victorian households. The popularity of the stereoscope is recorded in paintings and essays from the time. The stereoscopic images in our archives were collected by Father Patrick Murphy when he was Rector of St Anthony’s on Scotland Road, Liverpool.


He visited North America on two occasions, in 1879 and 1883, and it must have been on one of those visits that he bought some views of tourist sites in Philadelphia and Washington DC. Such images are very much representative of the stereoscopic cards then available. Improvements in the techniques for developing photographs on paper meant that it was easy and cheap to make albumen prints for general sale.


The stereographs, as can be seen here, were mounted next to each other on a piece of stiff card of a standard size to fit into a viewer. Subjects included portraits of public figures and what we might now see as photojournalism, of natural disasters and scenes of battle. However, the slow shutter speeds of most cameras still meant that it was easier to capture images of non-moving targets like buildings and scenic landscapes. The expense of the equipment meant that amateurs were largely excluded from the activity, and professional photographers were sent out by the companies that specialised in the business.


Like Father Murphy, many people wanted pictures of far-flung parts of the world, either as a memento or an aspiration. Millions of images were produced and sold. The craze for stereographs lasted for about 30 years from 1850. In its early days, it was said to have been given a boost by the royal presence at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. Prince Albert had devised the exhibition at Crystal Palace as a showcase for technological and engineering progress in Britain, and he and Queen Victoria showed great interest in a demonstration of the entertainment offered by a stereoscopic viewer. A decade later, almost every respectable household had its own viewer and a collection of images.


Sharing them with friends and family for education and entertainment was a familiar social activity in the Victorian parlour. Sadly, there isn’t a stereoscope in the Archives that will allow us to view the images as they were intended. Stereoscopic photographs were produced well into the twentieth century, though the fad was on the wane before then. Their popularity was challenged by other photographic formats such as cabinet portraits and postcards, both even more collectable than the stereographs. With the advent of moving pictures and radio, parlour entertainments like the stereoscopic viewer were pushed to the back of the cupboard.


The concept, of course, survived: as television began to take over our viewing habits in the 1950s, 3D movies were promoted to offer something the new medium couldn’t, and still on occasion we will be encouraged to wear silly glasses at the local picture-house for the latest gimmicky blockbuster; and the Viewmaster children’s toy has been available as a plastic reincarnation of the viewer since the 1960s.


The real successor as a solitary and social activity is the VR headset: how long will that last?


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