11 November 2020

Perfecscope by Underwood & Underwood

A Holmes-Bates type stereoscope

Perfecscope by Underwood & Underwood - Black & White Photography and Stereoscopy Blog

This Perfecscope is manufactured by Underwood & Underwood from New York and is a Holmes-Bates stereoscope, which is the best known and most sold stereoscope-type in history.

The Perfecscope doesn't really fit in my collection as I only collect French and German devices. Still, I wanted one because I have memories of this viewer from my childhood. Friends of my parents had a Holmes-Bates type stereoscope and I remember looking through the lenses of it as a child. I can't remember if I actually observed the stereo effect, but it was my first encounter with stereoscopy, without being aware of it as a child.

Holmes-Bates Stereoscope

This stereoscope-type was invented in 1860 by the American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. He did not patent his invention and everyone was free to develop stereoscopes based on the design. The design was further improved by Joseph L. Bates and became known as the Holmes-Bates stereoscope or American stereoscope.

The Holmes-Bates stereoscope is a simple and inexpensive stereo viewer for paper stereocards. It made stereoscopy accessible to many Americans and contributed to the hype of stereocards in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the United States. The later stereocards were slightly curved. This reduced reflections and blur caused by spherical aberrations while viewing stereocards with a Holmes-Bates stereoscope.

Boy with Holmes-Bates stereoscope by Norman Rockwell
Boy with Holmes-Bates stereoscope by Norman Rockwell
Cover of The Saturday Evening Post of January 14, 1922

Underwood & Underwood

Underwood & Underwood was founded in 1881 in Ottawa by the brothers Elmer and Bert Elias Underwood. The company moved to New York in 1891. They became the largest publisher of stereoviews in the world, producing 10 million views a year. The brothers developed a selling system by using college students als salesmen. The company had a number of freelance photographers and they published 25,000 stereocards a day by 1901. They introduced boxed sets with specific themes such as education and travel.

Underwood & Underwood entered the field of news photography in 1910. Due to this expansion, stereocard production was reduced. In 1920 stereocard production was discontinued and the company sold its negatives to the Keystone View Company. Underwood & Underwood ceased business in the 1940s. They had produced between 30,000 and 40,000 stereoview titles.

Perfecscope Underwood & Underwood
Perfecscope with a 9 x 18cm stereocard from the Keystone View Company

Producing and selling stereocards was core business, but the company also produced stereoscopes. This Perfecscope is made of wood. At the bottom of the frame is The Perfecscope and Underwood & Underwood New York U.S.A. engraved. The metal of the grip contains the date July 24 1883, which refers to its patent.

References:

  • Stereoscopes: the first one hundred years, Paul Wing, 1996
  • The World of Stereographs, William C. Darrah, 1977
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. on Wikipedia