More than 100 years ago, stereoscopes offered families an opportunity to visit faraway lands and witness world-changing events in a sensory-enveloping three dimensions. Middle class viewers could gawk at the pyramids of Egypt, browse a marketplace in India, attend a lavish royal funeral or even experience the aftermath of a World War I battlefield. It was the Victorian Age’s version of virtual reality.
Originally conceived by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1833, stereoscopy presents the viewer with two slightly different images that — when viewed correctly — mimic the depth of vision created by two eyes. The process was further refined by Scottish scientist Sir David Brewster and later by poet Oliver Wendell Holmes into compact, easy to use formats that were widely popularized by Queen Victoria in the 1850s, 60s and 70s. Over the second half of the 19th century, an estimated 250,000 different stereo (three-dimensional) views were created by companies around the globe.
While most of these views were of world wonders, scenic sites and historical events, there exists a bizarre subset of these stereo cards that feature the ghostly, bizarre and macabre. Sir David Brewster was, in fact, one of the first photography enthusiasts to suggest that the long exposure time needed for that era’s photographic process could be leveraged to create ghost-like images. A subject could hold one pose for several seconds, then quickly shift to a second pose for several seconds. The resulting image would incorporate both poses, seamlessly overlapped.
Based on the popularity of fantastic works by authors such as Charles Dickens — for example, his wildly popular A Christmas Carol — simulated spirit photography became a popular subject among stereocard viewers.
Many of these cards portrayed scenes from popular novels, such as Ebenezer Scrooge cringing under the gaze of his ghostly partner Jacob Marley. Others offered allegorical scenes of religious significance or comical views of simple characters being frightened by other worldly apparitions.
Many of these spirit photography cards can now be found in vintage, antique and thrift stores for less than $10 each. Also search online for high resolution views that can be experienced right from a computer screen.