As a child, I was supposedly introduced to the miracle of three-dimensional pictures via a gift from Santa Claus of a GAF Viewmaster, a plastic stereoscope-like device that wheeled around brand-name entertainments for youngsters. My sets of Viewmaster slide-card discs included the TV series Flipper, Batman and (curiously, given its essentially flat rendering) The Flintstones. However, our household still had black-and-white television: the miracle that captivated me was seeing popular characters in vivid colour. And in the thrall of colour, I defeated the 3-D illusion. I would squint shut my right eye to enjoy a more authentically TV-like monocular splendour.
I do not remember when I first encountered a nineteenth-century stereoscope, perhaps at age ten, eleven or twelve, when, many broken toys later, I was ready to trade the designed obsolescence of plastic for sturdier wood and bygone craftsmanship. Until The Wardens sent me back their pictures for this entry, I never noticed that the one I acquired twenty years ago has its own brand name: The “Perfecscope” (patented U.S.A. 1895). Aside from availability and price (still the determining factors when I purchased mine some one-hundred years later from an antiques pedlar) I have no idea what would have made it distinguished or preferable in its own time.
What I gravitate toward in the stereo cards that I have very occasionally collected over the years are its vistas into a lost way of looking at the world, indeed worlds now otherwise lost to human imagination. The cards depicted below are particularly special in that respect. I found them this past spring at the St. Lawrence Antiques Market in Toronto. They are American in origin (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York) and date from the 1870s, when there was a fashion for funerary photography, perhaps a combination of high mortality rates and the lingering pall of the U.S. Civil War. These floral crosses, wreathes and other heraldic totems to death and afterlife confront one by their very absence of colour. Quite possibly many of these cards were custom-made for bereaved clients. A hand-scripted clue can be found on the reverse of one wreath card: “John Massey, Died Aug. 8, 1878, Aged 8 mo. 9 days.”
However there is also a special format that was meant to be mass-produced and collectable, alternately termed Phantom Leaves or Skeleton Leaves. These cards portray a mournful genre of bouquet made from desiccated leaves in which only their foliate veins remain intact. Such arrangements would, of course, be entirely drained of colour and so appear especially spectral when viewed through the stereoscope, which also brings out their gauzy translucence and creates an effective sculptural illusion of vanishing life.