Who Were They?

Lost and forgotten photos from the past

Well, here we are again with Sepia Saturday and the prompt has quite a lot of latitude. Since our sponsor Alan will be on holiday in Spain this weekend, I chose this photo since I will also be on holiday…in Pittsburgh. Not quite as glamorous as Spain, but I’ll be meeting with friends and that’s what is important. This is a stereopticon card showing the Court House, Bridge of Sighs and Jail in Pittsburgh, PA. The stereopticon was an early 3D photography technique that required a special viewer like this one.

The two images are taken from slightly different angles and the convergence of the two images in the line of sight tricks the human brain into thinking it is seeing one image with depth. The modern day Viewmaster was a refinement of the technology, using smaller slides and putting them into a circular sleeve that would advance with each click of the lever.

The stereopticon was invented in the 1830s and became popular both at home and in arcades as entertainment and education. Queen Victoria helped popularize the device in the 1850s, and in the US in the 1860s the Holmes stereopticon was invented and became the gold standard of 3D viewing. They are still produced apparently, in limited numbers.

Stereopticon images allowed the viewer to “see the world” while sitting in their living room. The most popular slides were travel and geography slides, showing the viewer all the sights – such as above. A trip to your local antique shop will probably bring you in contact with an enormous box full of old stereopticon slides of images all ’round the world.

The Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail were joined by the Bridge of Sighs, which is an homage to the original in Venice, Italy. The architect was Henry Hobson Richardson and it was constructed in 1884. I’ve read that Richardson felt this was his greatest work and he even tried to anticipate progress through the years by building in extra stone blocks a full floor below the 1880s street level. Unfortunately when the street was lowered, the entrance was a full floor above the new street level and the grand entrance he designed for the courthouse was closed up with tunnel-like entrance halls. The bridge was originally used to transport prisoners from the courthouse to the jail and vice versa. Today it is still used for this purpose but inmates are bussed from the main jail which is a few blocks away.

Please click through to Sepia Saturday and experience travel and more from around the world!

UPDATE: per your request, follow this link to see modern photos of this lovely old building and also learn a little bit about the architect Henry Hobson Richardson.

14 thoughts on “Fabulous Pittsburgh!

  1. Liz Stratton says:

    Interesting post about stereo cards. I have some unusual stereo cards that are actually pictures of family and houses – the type we would snap with cell phones today. I’ve yet to find the family photographer but it is clear that photography has long been a passion!

    Enjoy your trip to Pittsburgh. Its a great city even if the Steelers do play there. ;)


  2. Bob Scotney says:

    It would be interesting to get your hands on a stereopticon today. Of course you would need a set of cards, but I wonder if it would work with two photos you took yourself. I have vague memories of my one and only business trip to Pittsburgh back in the 1970s.


  3. This post certainly brings back memories of the stereopticon I saw back in the ’60’s. I thought it rather neat. It is fun to see how things have evolved from their origins. Sometimes I think I would rather prefer the originals…….


  4. IntenseGuy says:

    Enjoy your vacation in Pittsburgh! (And don’t forget the battle of the trailing “h” in Pittsburgh!)

    Hope you aren’t walking across that bridge (I’ll come bail you out, okay?)


  5. Little Nell says:

    I remember my older brother having a Viewmaster sent from an aunt in the States, with lots of reels. It employed that same trick of the brain but was as fascinating to us as the stereopticon was to previous generations.


  6. Christine says:

    Have a great time in Pittsburgh. I love these old stereo views. This is a particularly nice one with the horses and that wonderful bridge of sighs.


  7. An interesting choice. Could you add a followup with a photo of what it looks like today?


  8. gluepot says:

    Thanks for sharing the late 19th Century stereoview of Pittsburgh, a city to which several collateral branches of my family emigrated at around that time, so it has particular relevance. Enjoy Pittsburgh. I hope to visit myself some day.

    I have several stereo cards, but no old-time viewer with which to see them. However, if you can train your eyes with a bit of practice, you can see them in 3D without a viewer. I have used stereopairs of aerial photography for years in my profession, so it’s a little easier for me.

    Bob, you can certainly make a stereopair yourself very easily with a digital camera. You take the first shot while leaning on your left foot, then carefully shift over to leaning on your right foot, making sure that you keep the same view in the viewfinder, and take the second shot.

    The trick is then in finding some way of viewing it. There is an alternative, however – making an animated GIF of the two images. Alternating rapidly back and forth between the two shots then tricks the brain in pretty much the same way as the stereoviewer/Viewmaster does, and you get the impression of three dimensions. A little tricky, but if you match the views well, it can work spectacularly!


  9. postcardy says:

    I think the Bridge of Sighs looks like an early skyway.


  10. Pat says:

    We just returned from the Pgh area. I don’t think I ever knew this about that Bridge of Sighs; very interesting to me being from the area.


  11. It looks very like the Rialto Bridge too. Odd to see it without a canal, but it’s beautiful wherever it is.


  12. Martin Lower says:

    What an interesting post. I’d never heard of stereopticon until now. Wouldn’t they have hurt your eyes?


  13. I often see these sort of images at antique stores, but never browse them afraid I’ll become enamored of those too thus adding something else to collect. I wonder if there could be a way to tear apart an old Viewmaster to create a viewer?


  14. We have three of two styles of Stereopticans in the museum. Up north we call them Stereoviewers and we have oodles of cards to view.
    We have two exactly like your photo..one in a case that no one can touch and another that I have out on the counter for kids (and adults) to try. The other one has no card holder and is silver..versus the warm golden tones of the other one.
    Kids find it amusing that kids in “the olden” days were amused by the simple cards.
    I try not to look at all the different cards..like tattered and lost says “I don’t need another collection to become enamored with!”
    Enjoy your vacation in Pennsylvania..I have never been there..but I am sure I would love all the history on the east coast but probably not all the people or traffic:)


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