Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Like many children of the 1980s, I had a bright red, plastic View-Master among my toy arsenal. For those who don't remember, the View-Master was a popular children's toy that allowed three-dimensional color images to be viewed by inserting paper disks embedded with color film.

Mine had a dozen or so discs, each containing seven 3D images. I don't really remember many of the scenes, but I suspect some were either heirlooms from my parents or picked up at yard sales during my childhood. I definitely remember a Sesame Street series of my era and I dimly remember the older ones having puppet vignettes and tourist attractions from out West.

I've had reason to think back on my old View-Master lately because of a quest I've been undertaking at work involving an earlier form of three-dimensional imagery. View-Masters had a much older predecessor called a stereoscope. Rather than using discs with transparent color film, stereoscopes used bulky paper cards that contained a single three-dimensional image. The cards show two nearly identical photographs, each taken at the same time from a different angle, matching how your eyes assemble a 3D image from two planes of vision. The stereoscope works by using two lenses that juxtapose the two images on top of each other. Here is a stereoscope:

Long before I began working for the museum or the library, a friend who understood how much I like quirky old stuff gave me a stereoscope and a few cards as a birthday present. Just as my 19th century forebearers had done, I have enjoyed passing it around to guests who ask about it. There's something magical about it. Not only are you looking at a 3D image, you're looking at a 3D image from over 100 years ago. My favorite is probably a night-time view from a roller coaster at Coney Island. There are thousands of antiquated light bulbs illuminating hundreds of smiling visitors, suspended in time in a place that is long gone.

Recently, though, my stereoscope has gained renewed relevance. A month or two ago, a library patron brought in a collection of stereoscopic cards he had collected that included several scenes made in Spartanburg. Since historic Spartanburg photography is my thing, I set about looking into just how many Spartanburg stereoscopic cards were made.

It turns out that there were lots of people making them. It wasn't something that anyone with a camera could do, but it seems that several local photographers dabbled it in. What's even more exciting is that one series (labelled "Southern Scenery: Spartanburg, S. C. and Vicinity") by Asheville photographer W. T. Robertson includes some of the oldest outdoor photographs made in Spartanburg. My professional Holy Grail is to uncover a photograph of Morgan Square that predates the iconic 1884 photograph of "Sales Day" (that isn't really sales day). That photograph was made by S. C. Mouzon, who had been working in Spartanburg as a portrait photographer since the Civil War.

Although I haven't found a Morgan Square image among Robertson's photos, several other views around town are shown, and they all date from around 1872. So far, I've found First Baptist Church, Church of the Advent, First Presbyterian, Wofford College's "Old Main," Wofford College faculty members, and the short-lived Carolina Orphan Home, which was on the former campus of the Spartanburg Female College. Conveniently for me, these images are each marked with a number from Robertson's Southern Scenery series. The numerical gaps tell me that there are at least two other Spartanburg images from the series I haven't yet found. I suspect they would include the only other church in town at the time, Central Methodist, and possibly the other college, St. John's College. Whether there are more, I can't say, but I'm looking very hard! Let me know if you come across any, even the ones I've listed!

Robertson's series may have been the oldest, but it was far from the only one. Someone was able to snap an 1876 image of the First Presbyterian parsonage and Gaffney's June Carr took a few photos nearby in the 1910s. The largest (and most professionally produced) series seems to have been made by Thomas R. Shuford of Gastonia, NC. He came into Spartanburg County in the days following the devastating Pacolet River flood of 1903 and took some 50 photographs of the wreckage and clean-up effort. The record they provide is quite remarkable.

The final series I've seen was made by an unknown photographer in the summer of 1910 during the South Carolina Confederate Reunion, which was held in Spartanburg. That event included the dedication of the Confederate monument then on South Church Street, but now in Duncan Park. I've only seen a handful of these stereoviews, and unfortunately none were labeled, so figuring out whether an isolated image goes with this series would take some research finesse.

I hope to have some of these images publicly available soon at the library. If you're interested in seeing them, come by and have a look! Here's one from the 1910 Confederate reunion, during a parade through Morgan Square:

1 comment:

Celia Cooksey said...

So neat ~ have you seen this book by Brian May (yes, of QUEEN fame)?