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Collection of Historic Photographs at the Farm House Museum

Posted on May 11, 2020 at 5:30 PM by Allison Sheridan

Did you ever look through a classic red plastic ViewMaster growing up cycling the white disk to see 3D images? Wonder where that technology of 3D viewing originated from? Read on to learn about the fascinating history of photography, especially 3D imagery. 

Photography today takes place digitally, but before the invention of these digital devices all photographs were physical objects. During the 20th century, most photographs were captured on light sensitive film and printed on paper in a darkroom using silver salts to chemically reproduce the image. Before the technology of film, photographers would haul around plates of metal and glass that they treated with light-sensitive chemicals to capture images. This technology required massive box cameras to hold the plates – exposure times were often long and editing was out of the question. Early photographic processes such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes, fell out of favor when more convenient technologies took their place. The Farm House Museum collection of historic photographs contains examples of all of these types of early photographs as well as over 40 Stereograph cards, like the one pictured.

Stereography was a popular form of imagery throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. Specialty cameras were made to take two images at once from eye’s length apart. One example in the collection is proof that the medium was used as an early form of photojournalism, documenting and publishing the ruins after a tornado hit a town in Illinois. Another usage of stereography was for educational purposes.  One card in the collection depicts Angus beef cattle and on the backside is printed a description and background on the cow breed. Keystone View Company published many stereographs and slides for use in the classroom and other educational settings. Stereographs were also used as a form of tourism. Publishers would release a set that captured the sites of distant lands so audiences at home could see the wonders of the world without having to travel. 

The image above is a stereograph card in the permanent collection and is an 1870photograph of the Faculty of Iowa State College (now University). The faculty are sitting on the steps of the Main Campus Building, which no longer exists but was on the site where Beardshear Hall is today. The prominent Iowa and Midwestern photographer, James E. Everett, had a studio in Indianola, Iowa and another in Des Moines in the late 1800s. He operated under the name Everett & Co. and solely made stereographs. He published popular card series on a Grinnell Tornado, the Chicago Fire, Council Bluffs Views, and Des Moines & Environs. 

These cards remain collectable and just as entertaining as the day they were created. Tours of the Farm House Museum often enjoy looking through the stereoscope and seeing history come alive in 3D. 

IMAGE: Stereograph card, Part of "Iowa Views" series: "Faculty of Ag College in 1870". Gift of Mary Ellen Lynch Brown. In the Farm House Museum Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 80.7.2j 

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