The smallest detail in a photograph can sometimes be the key to unlocking its story. Take a look at this stereograph of a classroom full of students in 1908. When I found it in our collections, my curiosity was piqued by the students using handheld stereoscopes to view stereographs. (The girl at center in white has a viewer held to her eyes, for example.) Was this activity part of a class exercise? I pulled out a magnifying glass to study the details of this photograph as well as the others cataloged with it in LOT 8588, described as “Children in classrooms, 1908.”
In my search for clues about the story of this and the related photographs, I spotted a textbook on a girl’s desk in the lower left corner. A very close look at the high resolution digital file revealed its title: Geography through the Stereoscope, visible in the detail at right. A geography lesson built around stereographs, one of my favorite photographic formats? I definitely needed to learn more!
A search for the original book in the Library of Congress General Collections led me to digitized copies of Geography through the Stereoscope in two versions: the Teacher’s Manual and the Student’s Stereoscopic Field Guide. The Student’s Stereoscopic Field Guide asked questions, elicited observations and gave written assignments to the students, all in response to specific stereographic photographs. In order to study a photograph, the student placed it into a stereoscope and brought the viewer up to her eyes. (A similar stereoscope is depicted at right.) The two nearly identical photographs mounted side-by-side produce the illusion of a single three-dimensional picture for the viewer.
There are over 50,000 stereographs in the collections of the Prints and Photographs Division, so I browsed the collection for stereographs with captions matching those in the field guide. Since the books were published by Underwood & Underwood, a stereograph producer and distributor, I used that information to further focus the search. The first chapter of the guide focused on New York City, and I was able to locate several of the exact stereos mentioned. I was suddenly transported to a classroom one hundred years ago, studying the same photographs and trying to answer the questions posed.
The stereograph below was my first foray into understanding geography through the stereoscope, 1908 style. The textbook guided students in their exploration, including such advice as: “Notice all the little details, or rather, notice as many as you can each time; you will be surprised to find, the next time you look at the same place, how many things you failed to notice at first.” (Emerson, Philip, and William Charles Moore. 1907. Geography through the Stereoscope. Student’s Stereoscopic Field Guide. New York: Underwood & Underwood, p. xxii). This kind of advice is very similar to what we as librarians give today when encouraging researchers to look closely at photographs.
Take a moment to study this stereograph before reading a sample of the questions asked about it. Select the image to view it larger.
Questions asked of students about this stereograph of Broad Street in New York City from page 5 of Geography through the Stereoscope:
- In what part of the city are we? Is it a business or residential district?
- Name some of the most striking things in the scene before us. That low building in the distance with the stone pillars is the United States Sub-Treasury: for what is it used?
- Tell about the people we see on Broad Street. Why are they not on the sidewalk?
- Describe the buildings: how high are they?
- What impression do we get from these tall buildings in regard to the condition of this part of the city?
When browsing the other stereographs I located and their associated questions, I was intrigued by how much students were expected to know and learn about the images they were viewing, both from their studies and from close observation. In the course of digging up the story of a photograph, I found other people also seeking the stories of photographs. Our searches were separated by over one hundred years, so the desire to dig deeper into photographs certainly stands the test of time!
- View two other stereographs of New York City which were part of the Geography through the Stereoscope lesson plans: Palatial homes and hotels of upper Fifth Ave., – from Fifth Ave. Presby. Church, N., to Central Park, New York, and From St. Paul Building (308 ft. high) (N.) over General Post Office and City Hall Park, up Broadway, New York, U.S.A.
- Read digitized versions of the Geography through the Stereoscope Student’s Stereoscopic Field Guide and the Teacher’s Manual, available through the Internet Archive. (Questions about the above mentioned New York stereographs as well as others are found on pages 1 through 7 in the Student’s Field Guide.)
- View other digitized photographs in LOT 8588, a small group depicting children in classrooms from 1908.
- Explore the rest of our stereograph collection in the Prints and Photograph Online Catalog and read more about the format.
- Learn about how to explore images, and their history, content and meaning through resources in the Prints and Photographs Division’s Researcher’s Toolbox.