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Victorian virtual reality.

I love historical photographs. But the vast majority of them leave me feeling, well, flat. I look at the world around me, and the slightly different versions seen by my two eyes are merged by my brain into a three-dimensional image that permits me to gauge distance. Yet most photographs are taken with a single camera, akin to the view from one eye. No wonder they cannot show me anything approaching reality as most of us experience it.

English physicist Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) explained human binocular vision with a device--which he called a "stereoscope"--in 1832. With Wheatstone's insight, it was a logical next step to use two cameras, spaced at least as far apart as human eyes, taking photographs simultaneously, to produce something resembling human vision. The trick was to convince the brain to interpret two photographs as one. Wheatstone's stereoscope was cumbersome but Sir David Brewster (1781-1868) invented a better one, which he exhibited at the 1851 International Exhibition in London. Queen Victoria was among its admirers so Brewster presented her with a stereoscope. The general public followed the royal example and demand for stereoscopic images exploded. They became so popular that virtually every Victorian home--regardless of class--had one, along with a collection of images, known as stereoviews, stereograms, or simply stereos or views. Today's technology enables us to experience immersive, three dimensional worlds that exist only in the circuitry of a computer, blurring the line between reality and "virtual reality." Stereoviews were the corresponding "Victorian virtual reality."

Manitoba's first stereoviews were created by the Boundary Commission of 1872-74, during which the line separating prairie Canada from the USA was defined. A remarkable three-dimensional image shows two men, seated in front of their tent beside a Red River Cart, preparing chemicals and sheets of glass for use in the "wet plate" photographic process of the time. The earliest resident stereographer (a photographer who takes stereoviews) in Manitoba was probably Simon Duffin (1843-1900). Duffin sold his Ontario general store in 1872, bought a mobile photographic caravan, and headed west. Arriving in Winnipeg in 1873, he began offering a wide variety of "views of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the North-West," including residences and businesses as well as landscape photography. (1) Among Duffin's stereoviews were the passenger cabin of the steamer City of Winnipeg on the Red River, the St. John's College Ladies' School, and an early Main Street scene. Several more stereographers arrived in 1881, along with the Canadian Pacific Railway. They included Fred V. Bingham, F. Jay Haynes, and A. B. Thom. Haynes took 92 stereoviews during a single visit (2) while Bingham and Thorn took a wide range of views--alone or in a short-lived partnership with each other--over a period of two or three years. They took stereoviews in Winnipeg, Emerson, and probably other places. Bingham's views of street scenes and buildings are unique, and are frequently published as single photographs. Both men also followed the railway as it advanced across the prairies and into the mountains, taking outstanding three-dimensional panoramas along the way. Surprisingly, no other photographers seemed to have followed their lead, with the result that few stereoviews survive from the late 1880s and 1890s.

By the early twentieth century, stereoviews had become mass-produced commodities marketed by large companies such as the Keystone View Company, Underwood & Underwood, and the H. C. White Company. Winnipeg's Canadian Stereo-Photo Company tried to share in the business but was unable to match the overwhelming market supremacy of American competitors, and quickly closed its doors. Stereoviews were sold, individually and in collections, in photographic studios and bookstores. Eaton's department store in Winnipeg stocked stereoviews, including the steamer Winnitoba on the Red River, a bison paddock, skyline views around the city, buildings and the railway depot at Winnipeg Beach, and a pastoral view of an old country bridge at Starbuck.

Meanwhile, amateurs were getting into the act. The development of simple-to-use cameras led to a growing number of amateur stereographers. Lacking the compositional skill of professionals, their images were typically poor but there were occasional exceptions, such as those taken by Edgar J. Ransom (1874-1956). Ransom's profession as an artist, printer, and engraver probably helped in his creation of excellent stereoviews of day-to-day family life in the 1910s.

The stereography craze had largely petered out by the 1930s. The rise of radio and talking movies around the same time was not a coincidence; they provided an experience that was perhaps more realistic than static and silent stereoviews. But interest in stereoscopy did not die; indeed, the paper "View-Master" disks containing small stereoscopic images appeared in the 1940s, were very popular in the 1950s and '60, and are still sold today. A small number of dedicated stereographers still push the innovation envelope using color imagery, digital cameras, and computer software.

Stereoviews were the first visual "mass medium" and they exposed vast numbers of people to the world around them, from current events and celebrities, to the battlefield horrors of the American Civil War, to the natural wonders of land and water, to exotic and foreign cultures that few people could experience first-hand. Remarkably, the majority of Manitoba stereoviews come to us from the late 1870s and early 1880s; most later views were taken by non-resident photographers employed by publishing companies. Manitoba stereoviews are scarce as compared to those taken in Ontario, Quebec, and other places settled earlier, by more people. The Archives of Manitoba has a small collection, but some archives in the province have none. Perhaps the complex equipment (usually, two synchronized cameras) and ideal composition needed to achieve acceptable stereoscopic effect was too onerous or insufficiently remunerative for our few stereographers. Or perhaps there are few here in Manitoba because their primary role was not to edify the locals but to convince relatives and potential immigrants that Manitoba was a place worth visiting, worth living in. If so, the surviving Manitoba stereoviews may have been sent around the world as agents of propaganda. Only now that the Internet provides a global marketplace can we repatriate some of these incredible photographs. Enjoy the views.

"Esquimau dog train." This playful view of a dog team and carriole (sleigh) was taken in July 1881, probably at the Hudson's Bay Company post at Barren's River, by American photographer Frank Jay Haynes (1853-1921). Although based in Fargo, Dakota Territory, and better known for his grand photographs of Yellowstone National Park, Hayes visited Canada at the invitation of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Near Selkirk, he boarded the HBC vessel Colvile for its seven-day circuit of Lake Winnipeg. Haynes later travelled by rail to the end of tracks a few miles west of Portage la Prairie, then transferred to a horse-drawn wagon for the remainder of his trip to Fort Qu'Appelle, northeast of present-day Regina.

Steamer "Northwest" docked at Brandon. Haynes passed the tent town that would become the city of Brandon on his way to points west, and took this stereoview of the steamer that plied the treacherously shallow waters of the Assiniboine River. On board were owner Peter McArthur, pilot Jerry Webber (wearing a long black coat with his hand on the ship's bell), and politician Arthur Wellington Ross who set up law office and real estate offices at the site, leaving "Tom Daly" in charge. Thomas Mayne Daly would later serve as a federal MP and Manitoba's first juvenile court judge. In 1899, the Northwest was wrecked during a flood at Edmonton.

"The Half-Breeds' Ox and Cart Train." A Metis convoy wends its way across the prairie, probably near Fort Ellice, in this July 1881 view by F. J. Haynes. (The stereo effect is subtle.) The noisy two-wheeled carts were the primary method of land transportation in the days before railroads and highways. As one old-timer recalled: "You could hear them coming for miles before you could ever see them, their wheels a'squeaking and a'shrieking.'" Prairie dust kicked up by the wheels would make lubrication futile. Made entirely of wood, the carts were versatile and could be repaired with materials and tools readily at hand.

Olive Knox, "Red River Cart," Manitoba Pageant, April 1956.

Emerson in flood. Manitoba's "Gateway City" to the USA could just as readily be known as the "Flood City" for the frequency with which it has been inundated. City residents contemplate rising flood waters in this April 1882 view, possibly taken by American photographer Fred V. Bingham (c1855-1929). Other floods followed in 1893, 1897, 1916, 1948, and 1950, among others. The 1897 flood was so severe that the steamboat Assiniboine was dispatched from Winnipeg with supplies and firewood, travelling down Main Street to deliver them to weary flood victims.

Merchant's Bank in Emerson, June 1882. Someone has identified the five people in the photo as (left to right) Conn, King, Lanther, Snow, Germaine, and Evans. Security was obviously a concern, with the tellers surrounded by an ornate metal cage. Child labour laws were lax, as Lanther appears barely tall enough to peer over the desk. He might have been underwater during the flood earlier that year. The high water mark is clearly visible in another view of the bank, taken outside, above the head of a man standing beside it.

"Red Man's Home." The location of this undated stereoview, published by Underwood & Underwood, is confusingly given as "Manitoba, Canada, U.S.A." Views of aboriginal people and practices were popular; most prairie photographers offered photos like this one for sale--some flagrantly rephotographed from the work of other photographers--to fulfill the demand by new arrivals wanting to inform "folks back home" about their new home.

Volunteers monument on the square in front of the Winnipeg City Hall, circa 1900. The tall monument was unveiled on 28 September 1886, in commemoration of the men who served in the military during the 1885 North-West Rebellion. Among the Main Street businesses visible in this view are Ryan's Boot and Shoe House, owned by prominent Manitoban Thomas Ryan, and White & Manahan Clothiers. A smaller monument to the right, surrounded by a fountain and pool, commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria's reign in 1897. The Victoria monument was later moved to the English Garden at Assiniboine Park, rejoining the "little boy with the boot" that was beside it at this time.

Pedestrians on the west side of Main Street immediately north of Portage Avenue, circa 1906, stroll near the site of the Main Street photo on the cover of this issue. In the distance is the Union Bank Building, built in 1905 adjacent to City Hall, on the site formerly occupied by The Commonwealth dry goods store visible in the scene above.

"From Portage Avenue entrance." This unique view inside the 1904 (now-demolished) Eaton's department store in downtown Winnipeg, was part of a series of 50 cards. Produced more cheaply than photographs by printing the images on light-weight cardstock, these views probably helped give catalogue customers across the prairies an impression of the store's contents. Other cards showed the men's and women's clothing departments; workers in the clothing design and cutting room; the fur and harness factories; the grocery, furniture, hardware, jewelry, china, and mail order departments; lunch room, book bindery, laundry, and stables; as well as miscellaneous views around the city.

Women on snowshoes, circa 1910. Snow-shoeing was popular with both genders, and all ages. A capote, sash, and toque were apparently part of the required costume. It is unknown whether this was an informal event on one of Winnipeg's rivers or one sanctioned by the Holly Snow-Shoe Club which, in October 1905, received dispensation from a Montreal club of the same name to form around 11 inaugural members. By the 1940s, snowshoeing had lost much of its popularity, and the club turned to other pursuits, truncating its name to merely the Holly Club. Its records were deposited at the Archives of Manitoba in 1977.

Pipe-smoking tots at Victoria Beach, 1913. This beach enclave for the province's elite was--and is--known for its exclusion of the automobile. J. J. Conklin observed: "Nearly every cottage-owner back in the city possesses an auto, but they all recognize the value of keeping Victoria Beach ... free of the privately owned car, so that its roads, its trails and its tree-shaded avenues may be safe for the pedestrian, in particular, for the women and the children." So relieved of the prospect of imminent death, the children naturally turn to a good (ersatz?) smoke. But the little fellow at left seems to be giving his comrades a disapproving look.

* Victoria Beach Herald, 22 June 1931.

A winter outing in the park. Ruth Ransom pulls her father Edgar Ransom's camera equipment on her toboggan, probably in Kildonan Park, late 1910s. The elaborate natural wood scrollwork on the bridge in the background was common for the period.

A busy intersection. The Bank of Montreal's grand office building, built in 1909 in the style of a Greek temple, overlooks the junction of Main Street and Portage Avenue in this stereoview from the Keystone View Company. A 1923 statue commemorating Canadian war dead had not yet been mounted on the pedestal in front of the building. A traffic cop directs the flow of streetcars, automobiles, horse-drawn wagons, and the occasional pedestrian.

"Meat packing room." Winnipeg was the wholesale meat capital of the prairies, being home to such large firms as Swifts (shown here) and Gordon, Ironside & Fares. This undated stereoview by the Keystone View Company was intended for educational use, with text and questions on the back side to encourage viewers to ponder its subject matter: "Upstairs in this meat packing house the telephone has been ringing busily this morning. The butchers of Winnipeg, Canada, need many things for their meat markets today. The orders are written down and taken down to the shipping room. The order clerk hands the orders to the men and they hurry to fill them."

by Gordon Goldsborough

Winnipeg, Manitoba

Manitoba in 3D

To see anaglyphs of Manitoba historical photographs, and to learn know how to convert stereoviews into anaglyphs, see the feature "Manitoba in 3D" on the MHS web site at:

Publication of this article, and its corresponding web feature, was made possible by a grant from the Winnipeg Foundation.

The stereoviews in this article can be viewed without a stereoscope by training one's eyes to "free-view." Hold the paired images 30 to 40 cm from your eyes, looking above and beyond them, and keep focused there. Then raise the images into your line of sight and they will, at first, give three images which should eventually melt into a single image in the center--in 3D. Free-viewing takes practice. Despite what your Mom told you, crossing your eyes in this way will not make them stay that way.

There is a easier way to enjoy stereoviews without recourse to free-viewing or antique stereoscopes. The paired photographs were scanned as color images. Using Adobe Photoshop software, the red layer of the left image was overlaid on the green and blue layers of the right image. This combined image is called an anaglyph.

Use the viewer included with the issue to see the anaglyphs. Hold its tab in your right hand so the red lens covers your left eye and blue lens covers your right eye. The stereoscopic effect is more pronounced in some anaglyphs than others, and "ghosts" are common at the edges and background of most images.


(1.) Manitoba Free Press, 8 January 1875.

(2.)David Mattison, "A fair collection of views: F. J. Haynes in Canada, 1881." Photographic Canadiana, January/February 1998.

Gordon Goldsborough is the immediate Past President, webmaster, and Gazette editor of the MHS. In his professional life, Gordon is an Associate Professor of Aquatic Ecology at the University of Manitoba, Director of the University's Delta Marsh Field Station, and Chair of the Lake Manitoba Stewardship Board.
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Author:Goldsborough, Gordon
Publication:Manitoba History
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Feb 1, 2007
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