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Saturday-Night Regulars: A Bath And Stereoscope
Hal Schindler
Published: 12/26/1993 Category: Features Page: D1

The generation gap really hurts, and it isn't the least bit funny. It seems to be growing wider with little hope of slowing down. As a matter of fact, the chasm may be completely unbridgeable now; the erosion process has far too long been ignored. That was emphasized quite dramatically in a television newscast last week in Salt Lake City. A commentator was extolling the efficiency of Salt Lake City's police department in recovering loot stolen from the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum.

Historical relics purloined by drifting thieves were given up as untraceable; the museum administrators had reconciled themselves to having lost precious artifacts they never would see again. But wonder of wonders, the newscaster explained, items taken in "the heist" were found by "cops" who had doggedly and with infinite patience checked antique dealers and pawn shops, the commentator said.

TV news anchors enjoy using words like "heist" and "cops" because it gives them a streetwise flavor; never mind that police prefer to be called "officers," reserving to themselves the right to call each other "cops." It's a brotherhood thing. And a heist is an armed robbery, which the museum thefts were not. But that has little to do with the generation gap under complaint. That came when the news anchor crowed: "The cops even recovered these historic three-D picture glasses."

"Three-D picture glasses . . . !" He was holding a turn-of-the-century stereoscope! "Three-D picture glasses," indeed.

As the 20th century creaks inexorably toward its rendezvous with destiny, that point of no return seven years hence, it becomes depressingly more clear that a world of Americans born since 1950 have fallen out of touch with their country's history, culture and heritage. There is no compelling reason anyone over age 25 should be familiar with something as thoroughly Yankee as a stereoscope, but it is discouraging that so few truly are.

There was a time when stereoscopes were a Saturday-night mainstay in rural American homes. They were as much an entertainment feature in the late 1800s as the Atwater Kent radio became in the 1920s. A young America, hungry to learn, with a voracious appetite for knowledge and information, found magazines and gadgets to be delicious mysteries to be unraveled.

For those whose memories need a bit of prodding, a stereoscope was a handheld T-bar sliding cardholder fitted to an eyepiece containing two inexpensive lenses set 2 1/2 inches apart. The eyepiece was covered by a thin wooden hood to shield out the light. Really an elementary device, clever but effective. A stereograph scene was usually a stiff buff-colored card with a pronounced curvature that heightened the illusion of depth. Pasted on this card were two identical photographs, one taken from a viewpoint 2 1/2 inches to the left or right of the other. It was that deviation that permitted the "three-dimensional stereo" effect. More than a pair of photographs, the two were called a stereograph.

Invention of the stereoscope viewer in 1859 generally is credited to Oliver Wendell Holmes, the medical doctor, Harvard professor, essayist and poet, whose first-born son, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., was to become the famous U.S. Supreme Court justice. Holmes Sr., a man of great literary interests, did not bother to apply for a patent, and consequently his invention was copied far and wide.

Stereoscopes sold for $1 in the 1870s, and stereographs for 10 cents each. Not too many years ago, antique shops still would sell the stereograph view cards for a quarter. Then they were "discovered" as collectibles, and became scarce virtually overnight. Now stereoscopes are desirable antiques, and stereographs can fetch as much as four figures for some of the rarer views; then again, most still can be bought for as little as a dollar each.

Utah was fortunate in having a half-dozen or so excellent stereo photographers, namely C.R. Savage, C.W. Carter, George M. Ottinger and C.E. Johnson. They left a legacy of absolutely breathtaking scenes of Salt Lake City and Utah, the Salt Lake LDS Temple under construction, the ceremony joining the transcontinental railroad at Promontory, scenes of overland travel by stage and wagon in the territory's canyons, and a huge number of pictures of the 1906 earthquake that leveled San Francisco's skyline. Others made stereographs of the John Powell Colorado Expedition. There was no end to the subjects that found their way to stereographs.

There are views of Western ranchlife from Wyoming and Montana, with cowhands and Indians that would make a city slicker gasp today. The clarity of views made by Carter, Savage and Ottinger, and manufactured as stereographs by Underwood & Underwood with built-in curvature that made the third dimension of depth so startlingly real, still must be experienced to be believed.

The cameras used in making the photographic negatives were set for the 2 1/2-inch difference in point of view, and the companies used the negatives to turn out thousands of the familiar card scenes. To the families who owned a stereoscope and a few dozen of the stereographs, it wasn't necessary to know precisely how the magic was accomplished; it was enough to know that on a Saturday night, one could spend a quiet hour marveling at being right there with President McKinley when he opened the Pan American Exposition. And with just the insertion of a stereograph card in the T-bar, it was possible to climb along with Arabs the great pyramid of Cheops.

It was a time of great discovery and exciting adventure. Those wondrous coffee-color cards and their magic scenes fueled the imagination in those long-ago days. They were never boring--not ever. That's why the generation gap is so painful and takes the joy out of life.

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