Digest>Archives> February 2002

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Dating Stereo Views

By Jim Claflin


Last month we discussed the art of stereography and a little bit about the variety and types of views that were available. This month lets take a look at some of the methods that we can use to date particular views.

As early as the 1850’s stereo views bore imprints both on the front and on the obverse. By 1900 this was general practice, indicating the photographer and his studio, as well as many times a complete listing of views available in the series. Photographers might produce from a few dozen views to many thousands of different views over their careers. Darrah, in his book The World of Stereographs. Gettysburg, Pa. 1977, indicated that probably five million views were produced in the United States alone. While many publishers remained in business for twenty years, others produced views for only a short time. Researchers in the subject such as Mr. Darrah have over the years compiled listings of over 6000 American and Canadian stereographers who operated between 1850 and about 1900 and have noted their primary years of production. Using this data many times an idea of the decade may be determined when a particular photographer produced views. This method may give us a guess as to the approximate date or decade of the view. Combined with clues based on other characteristics many times we can narrow in the date or at least confirm our assumption.

Numerous other characteristics of the photo and mount such as color, flat or warped [curved], pasted labels and thickness can offer these additional clues that we need. Since such views were produced continuously from the 1850’s to the 1940’s, there was a gradual change in process and style which can offer us clues. Improved manufacturing processes evolved over the years and dates can be assigned to many methods.

Flat mounts were generally used from 1852-1890, while curved mounts came into use in 1879 and lasted into the 1940’s. The earliest American views measures about 3 1/3” x 7” and were mounted on a rather thin card stock. In 1873 larger card sizes were introduced. Cards from 4”x7” up to 5” x 7” “imperial” size began to be used but these larger sizes lasted only a decade or so.

Darrah notes that the earliest paper stereographs were mounted on white cards but these were quickly followed by blue or green hues, and then lavender or gray. The blue and green mounts were most common from 1855 until 1857. On page 10 of Darrah, William C., The World of Stereographs, the Mr Darrah puts this information together in a key to American card [paper] stereographs:

I. Mounted Photographic Images

1. On thin card, various colors 1851-1858

A. Surface of print not lustrous, salt print, calotype 1851-1858

B. Surface lustrous, albumen print 1852-1858

2. On thick card, various colors

A. card mount flat 1857-1890

1. corners cut square 1857-1870

a. card white, gray or crème 1857-1863

b. card yellow, many shades progressively darker 1861-1870

c. card red, lavender, green or blue 1866-1870

2. corners cut rounded, cards of many colors 1868-1890

a. standard sizes 1868-1890

b. larger sizes 1873-1890

B. card mount enclosing a thin tissue transparency 1857-1880

C. card mount not flat (“warped”) 1879-1940

1. buff mount 1879-1910

2. gray mount 1902-1910 (example Keystone views)

3. black mount 1902-1935

These dates must be used with caution as there was considerable overlap, but as you examine your views and your information builds, you may begin to see your collection fall into date or period categories. As you continue your exploring and collecting, you will find that your views can present quite a challenge to identify and date. Using historical records of photographers, card type and color, size, photo type, imprinting, and more can all offer clues that when put together may lead you to the answer. For a more detailed explanation you will want to visit Darrah, William C., The World of Stereographs. Gettysburg, Pa. 1977. Next time we will take a look at one of the most important reports on United States lighthouses—the 1852 Report of the Light-House Board.

Please continue to send in your questions on the subject or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this specialty since the early 1990’s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 30 Hudson Street, Northborough, MA 01532, or by calling 508-393-9814. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the February 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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