Stereoscope Viewing


As the evenings get cooler, sunsets are earlier and many of us turn our attention to spending time with photographs. These may be on fb or instagram, but in the latter half of the 19th century folks enjoyed looking at photographs using a stereoscope. This stereoscope was donated to WHS&M in 1963 by Colonel Herman Alvin Drehle. 

A stereoscope is an optical device used to view photographs taken by a special twin lens camera that took pictures of the same scene from a slightly different angle. Much like our human pair of eyes, each eye sees a slightly different viewpoint and when combined in our brain we perceive a single, three-dimensional image. It is this combination that creates depth perception.

Therefore the “thrill” of viewing through a stereoscope is that the flat photographs appear to be awesomely three dimensional. One holds the stereoscope in one hand and the space between the lens and the photographs can be adjusted until it  “shouts” three dimensionality to that particular viewer.


The picture of the boys with the USLSS (United States Life Saving Surfboat) places the boys in the foreground, the boat on wheels in the mid ground and the ocean in the background. The sense of deep space one gets from viewing through the stereoscope is exciting, you feel as if you are there. (not terribly different from 3D glasses at the movies).

We see what appears to be one of those young boys being sent through the air in the next photo of the breeches buoy. He appears to be hanging in mid air through the stereoscope. The clarity of the image tells us this is a photo of Cahoon Hollow Life Saving Station breeches buoy drill. These photos were donated in 1984 by Mr. Christopher Winsor.  

This 1881 photo from the Wellfleet elementary school is less dramatic but it still gives us the intensity of the sunlight contrasted with the doorway and the hats hanging on the inner wall. The patterns in the clothing and fidgetiness of the students holding still for the photo take us there. The girl with the x is Ella Hawes Kennedy who married Winslow Austin Paine and was donated by their grandson, Richard C. Wilson in 1993.


The last image is by GH Nickerson of a sunfish in Provincetown Harbor, he had a photo studio in Provincetown until 1890 (1835-1890). He is well known for sets of stereoscopic images of Cape Cod, view this link to see one that is surely from Wellfleet circa 1875.

Visit the museum and ask to see the stereoscope and images. Have fun imagining being in your parlor sometime in the late 1890’s and take time to catch the “magic” of the three dimensionality. Isn’t it funny how we still love looking at pictures, whether they are in a stereoscope, facebook, instagram or whatever will be next?

Everything in our museum was given to us, and for that we are grateful, if any of the donors or those pictured are relatives of yours or you can tell us something more about them or the objects, WE ARE INTERESTED! Email me at sheryl@wellfleethistorical