In the late 1850s, the Massachusetts writer Oliver Wendell Holmes invented the hand-held stereoscope, a contraption that allowed two slightly different images to be viewed together three-dimensionally. The device revolutionized the world of photography, as any middle-class family could purchase one for about $10 in today’s money. Photographers soon began trekking out to exotic locales like Niagara Falls to shoot stereoscopic images, which were printed on cards and sold commercially in shops by the hundreds. And predictably, Americans went crazy over them.
“This is a world lit by fire. There was no electricity, and everybody rode by horseback, but you could take pictures,” Bob Zeller, president of the Center for Civil War Photography, said recently in conversation with Hyperallergic about the Library of Congress’s acquisition of stereoscopic images of the war. In the early 1860s, demand for battlefield scenes exploded, and big-name photographers like Alexander Gardner — a protégé of Matthew Brady — made a lot of money supplying it. “There were even stereoscope stores on Broadway,” Zeller said. “I call them the Blockbuster videos of Civil War America.”
The majority of the negatives produced by large stereo print companies still exist in impressively good condition, and they’ve long been held by the library and the National Archives. But there’s a less common breed of stereoscopic images that enthusiasts tend to drool over: the ones made by small town producers, for which very few prints were made, and for which the negatives no longer exist.
Remarkably enough, the Library of Congress has acquired 540 of them. They were purchased from Robin G. Stanford, an 87-year-old grandmother from Houston, Texas, who’s spent the past four decades doggedly collecting them. Stanford told The Washington Post her hobby began in the 1970s, when she was looking for unique ways to decorate her farmhouse. “And you know how it is with collecting,” she said. “You put your toe in the water, and next thing you know, you’re paddling like crazy.” She hadn’t planned to sell the images, but her son died unexpectedly and she needed money to help out her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. “I would not have sold any of it if it hadn’t been for that,” she explained.
Among the collection’s many gems, Stanford managed to compile more than 50 images taken by an obscure photographic duo named Osborn & Durbec. They opened a small shop in Charleston, South Carolina in 1859, and for the next three years photographed everything from slaves working on sprawling plantations to the bombardment of Fort Sumter before the war permanently interrupted their operation. Zeller said that in his three decades of studying civil war photography, he’s only come across a handful of them for sale.
“[The collection] is just the legacy of a lifetime of very active, aggressive collecting and what that can yield,” he said. Now, the library has made the fruit of Stanford’s labor available online for anyone to peruse and enjoy, and Zeller has undoubtedly spent hours doing so. “There are two photographs that I think are probably the first photographs of black church in America,” he mused. “There’s a photograph of the outside of the church, and then [the photographers] took their cameras — this is 1860 — inside the church and photographed the service, so you see the slaves worshipping in this little chapel. It’s just stunning.”