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  • Notes From The Frontier

Naughty Fun in the 1800s — Bawdy Boudoir Stereoscopes

Curiosity is fundamental to the human condition. And voyeurism goes with it. In the 1800s, technology brought Victorians voyeurism to high (or perhaps low) art!

Beginning around 1838, a new form of entertainment was invented that began to spread voraciously across Europe and America. A stereoscope was a simple wooden viewing apparatus held up to the eyes that displayed the same two photographic images. When viewed through the stereoscope, they created an illusion of three-dimensional depth and a you-are-in-the scene realism. The photographs often had captions that told a story.

One genre that was particularly popular were boudoir settings and women dressing or shown in provocative poses. The men in the scenes were often of a licentious nature, which created drama for the viewer. No doubt both sexes viewed these images, but perhaps for different reasons. Certainly, they told cautionary tales for young women.

In 1861, the famous scholar, physician and poet, Oliver Wendell Holmes, developed a compact version of the stereoscope that was easy for viewing and the industry of stereoscopes and their photographic cards boomed. One of the most popular entertainments of the day was viewing stereoscopes in the parlor.

Baby-boomers may remember a 20th-century version of the stereoscope in the popular View-Masters manufactured as toys and for “virtual tourism” in the mid-1900s. They were often red plastic with rotating cardboard disks encasing pairs of photographs. In 2010, the toy manufacturer Hasbro brought back the concept of the stereoscope but used with new technology: the smart phone. And in 2014, Google released a papercraft stereoscope called Google Cardboard, to be used with a stereoscope app on an iPhone.

Today, antique stereoscopes and photographs are a thriving collectible industry and can be found on eBay and other online venues.

We can imagine that the stereoscopic images featured here were viewed in men’s smoking or billiard parlors over brandy and cigars, as they guffawed in prurient delight at such titillating scenes, albeit tame by today’s standards....


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