St Nicholas' Church (Newcastle) -Victorian 3D Photograph Trend
PUBLISHED: 10:57 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:49 20 February 2013
In the days before photography became an affordable hobby, the professional postcard photographers quickly realised that there was good profit in including as many people as possible in their pictures by John Hannavy
In the 1860s and 1870s, just about every Victorian family had a stereoscope - a device for viewing 3-D photographs, which were then at the height of their popularity. Sets of stereocards were available on just about every subject under the sun and, in the days before television, the stereoscope was a great source of both entertainment and education in the Victorian drawing-room. Extensive series of cards told stories from the Bible, revealed the secrets of foreign lands, explored social issues, and told humorous stories. Among the most popular were humorous tableaux - often verging on the risqu - which told stories of clandestine 'goings on' between master and servant, the evils of drink, and everyday household mishaps and accidents. Local stereocards - like the view of the interior of St Nicholas' Church (now the cathedral) in Newcastle illustrated here - were popular both among those who knew the building, and as cards to swap and share with friends and collectors elsewhere. At the time this photograph was taken in the mid 1860s, St Nicholas' Church was still just the parish church, not becoming a cathedral until 1882. Even given the popularity of the stereoscope, it is still unusual and a little surprising that this format was used to record a picnic at Gilsland in the 1860s. But there must have been enough people at this event to make it worth the photographer's time, and presumably he sold copies to many of the 32 people in the picture. Seeing yourself and your friends in 3- D must have added a certain frisson to the picture. Perhaps some of the attendees bought several to give to their friends. And a photographic memento of a picnic which had probably been one of the highlights of the year's entertainment calendar for many of the participants thus became part of the family's history. Many of the subjects which had driven the stereo market in Victorian times were taken over by the picture postcard format in the Edwardian era. Edwardian photographers could buy packets of photographic paper in postcard size, already pre-printed with the traditional postcard divided back. Part of the fun of sending postcards extended to sending cards which featured pictures of yourself and your friends - so much more personal and engaging than the anodyne postcards we have today. So, for a large works outing in 1906, an anonymous photographer took a group portrait and sold postcard prints to the participants. The example we illustrate was posted from Hebburn to an address in Jarrow in October 1906, with the message 'Do you recognise anyone on this card?' For most people, however, the postcards they sent to their friends and family were commercially produced - the more interesting ones printed in a range of tints to give the effect of 'real colour'. Busy views were a godsend for postcard collectors. Exchanging cards was already a well-established practice among those whose hobby was collecting, and the cards which showed how a person lived and what was going on in their area added to the enjoyment of collecting. 'Thanks very much for sending the splendid view of Clifton. I appreciate the view very much,' wrote E Shields, who lived at 1 Cardwell Street in Sunderland, to Mrs Lucy in Bristol in 1905, using a card of a performance at the Bandstand in Roker Park. 'This is a new view in one of our parks,' he wrote. As I have said in earlier articles, the picture postcard was the most common method of communication in Edwardian times, so the range of subjects had to be sufficiently large to ensure that the recipient received a different card with each successive message. Consequently, sports and social events were subjects as common for the postcard publishers as street scenes and scenic views. Every town had a bowling green, so just about every town had at least one postcard of bowlers enjoying their sport. The same with golf clubs, but less common with tennis or football - perhaps it was the limited opportunity for well-composed static pictures which marked the difference. But the availability of that photographic paper already cut to the right size and with pre-printed backs, did give every local football team the opportunity to produce its own team photographs and use them as postcards. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of those early real photographic prints were never posted - they were simply collected by the players and their families and kept in the postcard album alongside more conventional (and posted) cards. Important sources of entertainment were the civic events staged in our towns and cities - and one of the highlights of the Edwardian era was the Royal visit of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra on July 11, 1906. The occasion was the opening of the King Edward VII Bridge over the Tyne - built by the Cleveland Bridge Company of Darlington - which provided a direct railway link between Newcastle and Gateshead. The city was festooned with decorations, and numerous photographers recorded the ceremonies and the parades - some producing lantern slides and others producing stereoscopic views or images which companies such as Valentines published as postcards within days of the event itself. Again, while a lot of these were posted, many more were simply bought and collected as visual mementoes of the occasion - newspapers of the time, of course, still rarely published photographs on their pages, opting instead for the cheaper but much less interesting and realistic wood-block engravings. Whereas most of today's cards are designed to be 'timeless' - so they have a long shelf life - Edwardian cards were often heavily populated. They depicted life rather than just views. 'Dear Sister, You also have this on a photo,' wrote Jack Friedrich on a postcard of the crowds at a musical performance on the Promenade in Hartlepool which he sent to Quincy, Illinois, in December 1904, adding: 'Last night there was a slide right down this bank just like there used to be when you were here.' The Kodak box camera had been an expensive item when first launched in 1888, but by the beginning of the 1900s, a much cheaper version had been marketed and photography as a hobby was already affordable for the middle classes. The growing popularity of amateur photography would be one of the several factors which reduced the popularity of the picture postcard - both in terms of the numbers sold and the range of subjects available, as more and more people took their own memories of how they enjoyed their leisure time and their holidays. Another would be the widespread introduction of photographs in the daily newspapers during the Great War. Throughout the war, cards which had been produced long before hostilities broke out continued to be sold, but when new postcards were produced after 1920, they tended towards the blander views we are more familiar with today.