Over the years we have found thousands of wonderful stereoviews, providing early clear, close images of lighthouses and life-saving crews across the country. Collecting these views can be quite satisfying, as well as economical as views are still commonly found and many can be had for only a few dollars. If we look at the history of this form of photography, we can discover a number of methods that we can use to date particular views.
As early as the 1850s stereoviews bore imprints both on the front and on the obverse. By 1900 this was general practice, indicating the photographer and his studio, as well as many times a complete listing of views available in the series. Photographers might produce from a few dozen views to many thousands of different views over their careers. Darrah, in his book The World of Stereographs. (Gettysburg, PA 1977), indicated that probably five million views were produced in the United States alone. While many publishers remained in business for twenty years, others produced views for only a short time. As the techniques were improved, individuals made their own views as well.
Researchers in the subject such as Mr. Darrah have, over the years, compiled listings of over 6000 American and Canadian stereographers who operated between 1850 and about 1900 and have noted their primary years of production. Using this data many times an idea of the decade may be determined when a particular photographer produced views. This method may give us a guess as to the approximate date or decade of the view. Combined with clues based on other characteristics many times we can narrow in the date or at least confirm our assumption.
Numerous other characteristics of the photo and mount such as color, flat or warped (curved), pasted labels and thickness can offer these additional clues that we need. Since such views were produced continuously from the 1850s to the 1940s, there was a gradual change in process and style which can offer us clues. Improved manufacturing processes evolved over the years and dates can be assigned to many methods.
Flat mounts were generally used from 1852-1890, while curved mounts came into use in 1879 and lasted into the 1940s. The earliest American views measures about 3 1/3” x 7” and were mounted on a rather thin card stock. In 1873 larger card sizes were introduced. Cards from 4”x7” up to 5” x 7” “imperial” size began to be used but these larger sizes lasted only a decade or so.
Darrah notes that the earliest paper stereographs were mounted on white cards but these were quickly followed by blue or green hues, and then lavender or gray. The blue and green mounts were most common from 1855 until 1857. On page 10 of Darrah, William C., The World of Stereographs, the Mr Darrah puts this information together in a key to American card (paper) stereographs:
I. Mounted Photographic Images
1. On thin card, various colors 1851-1858
A. Surface of print not lustrous, salt print,
B. Surface lustrous, albumen print 1852-1858
2. On thick card, various colors
A. card mount flat 1857-1890
1. corners cut square 1857-1870
a. card white, gray or crème 1857-1863
b. card yellow, many shades progressively
c. card red, lavender,
green or blue 1866-1870
2. corners cut rounded, cards of many
a. standard sizes 1868-1890
b. larger sizes 1873-1890
B. card mount enclosing a thin tissue
C. card mount not flat [“warped”] 1879-1940
1. buff mount 1879-1910
2. gray mount 1902-1910
(example Keystone views)
3. black mount 1902-1935
These dates must be used with caution as there was considerable overlap, but as you examine your views and as your information builds, you may begin to see your collection fall into date or period categories. Historical records of photographers, card type and color, size, photo type, imprinting, and more can offer clues that when put together may lead you to the answer. As you continue your exploring and collecting, you will find that your views can present quite a challenge to identify and date. But this challenge can lead you to a wonderful collecting adventure for many years to come.
For a more detailed explanation you will want to find a copy of Darrah, William C., The World of Stereographs. Gettysburg, Pa. 1977.
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Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at: www.LighthouseAntiques.net
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2017 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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