Let’s all spook ourselves silly Victorian-style, shall we?
You’re looking at an image produced sometime in the 1860s by the London Stereoscopic Company. There are scads of images from this particular firm deep in the Getty Images database, as well as scattered across other archives. Early photography was like so many developments in communications technology—it brought a flood of enthusiasts and entrepreneurs ready to capitalize on popular fascination. Like, for instance, with 3D stereoscopic cards. This post at the UK’s National Media Museum offers a little background on the form. You’d put the double card into a stereoscopic viewer and bam—a paper picture with the dimensionality of everyday life.
Stereoscopic cards only stayed on the cutting edge for so long. But the London Stereoscopic Company made all the hay it could in the boom times of the 1860s:
Adopting the advertising slogan ‘A Stereoscope in Every Home’, within two years the company had sold more than 500,000 stereoscopes and had 10,000 titles in its catalogue of stereo cards. By 1858 they claimed to have an incredible 100,000 views available.
The variety of subjects ranged from exotic views of faraway places to English views and buildings, humorous tableaus and scenes of everyday life. They commissioned photographers to travel all over the world, bringing back images. In 1862 alone the company sold one million stereoscopic views.
They did domestic scenes, they did public works in progress, they did impressive vistas. But stereoscopic cards were a little like the Vine of their day, in that they were also just a great space for random shit that preoccupied people. Like ghosts.
And by “ghosts,” I mean dudes wearing sheets and capes made to look spectral by very rudimentary special effects.
Of course, the Victorians were pretty well obsessed with ghosts. They were a reliable hit in the nascent mass media, as Atlas Obscura points out:
“There were several very excellent and popular Victorian magazines, including one run by Charles Dickens,” notes Jack Sullivan, a professor of English at Rider University, the editor of The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, and one of the leading literary scholars of the horror genre. Dickens was not a genre writer like his contemporaries Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James, but it’s a Dickens story that may be the best-known Victorian-era ghost story today: A Christmas Carol.
This 2013 piece from the Guardian delves a bit into why spirits were such a perennial fascination. It likely had something to do with the rapid technological progress that produced things like stereoscopic cards:
In the 19th century, people were increasingly able to communicate at a distance, in disembodied fashion. The telegraph allowed messages to be tapped out in code over long distances – not so unlike the Fox sisters’ purported ghost – and the ability to communicate first with other cities, then countries, eventually to transmit messages across the Atlantic, was brilliant and alarming. “If you can have people communicating from 3,000 miles away,” says Robbins, “words coming across the ocean, tapped out in Morse code, it may actually be quite a small leap of the imagination to say, ‘There’s a dead person who I used to know quite well who is talking to me through Morse code.’”
Change: the scariest thing of all. (That, and the state of sanitation in Victorian London.)