A Peek at the Past


Old stereoviews have such intriguing sets. They show many articles of everyday life, such as you find today in antique stores or see artfully displayed in historic sites. But there’s nothing quite like seeing them surrounded by the people who originally used them.

I can get lost on Flickr or Pinterest, just playing voyeur. But of course it’s pictures that show sewing that are especially fascinating! The theme of this 1860s photo, an exasperated mother mending her child’s torn pants, was a favorite for humorous stereoviews and postcards for many decades.

What do we find here? Mother sits on a stool by the fire with her sleeves pushed up while she works, wearing one of those pretty headdresses that fill the pages of Godey’s and Peterson’s. She’s mending the pants which already have one patch (badly done to be obvious, since no neat seamstress would ever flaunt that), and glancing sternly at the culprit.

The little boy waits shame-faced on the table, wearing only his shirt, stockings and shoes. His little sister sits on the floor against a three-legged stool, playing with her doll. The older brother is wearing a suit and lying on the floor with a whirly wooden toy.

The image on other side of the card.
The image on other side of the card.

Clothes are drying over the fire, and the mantel holds candlesticks, plates and an unidentifiable object. Bowls are stacked on the table and the bellows hang below dippers and a frying pan.

But wait! There’s more! Why waste the carefully staged scene on a single card? A quick search turned up a superior version, which was also tinted. The photographer captures more of the props in this one.

Here the family has moved a bit. Now Mother’s pagoda sleeves are down (no visible undersleeves), little sister has recrossed her legs, and older brother is sitting on a crate. You can clearly see the saw by the door, and a lamp and dried vegetables (?) hanging from the ceiling. A wooden bucket waits under the table for slops (or perhaps a trip to the well), a colander hangs by the chimney, and a covered dish just shows behind the bowls.

What have I missed? Something, I’m sure. Or just my time-traveling self, peeking in the door to say hello!

A version with more goodies and – yes – color! (Courtesy W. Wiggers)

5 thoughts on “A Peek at the Past

  1. Fascinating. I’ve now got umpteen questions! Do you have many images that are not stage sets? We have plenty in history books. They always look grim – and at first glance at the picture in your post I was taken in. If you hadn’t explained the ‘set up’ I wouldn’t have known. I’ve never heard of ‘stereoview’ either. One thing that does jump out is how very thin in the face the mother is.


    1. I’ve only got a few sewing related ones, a couple I’ve already posted. They’re easy to find online, though. You can search stereoscope or stereograph for the history, and then ebay, pinterest, flickr, and institutional archives for tons of the cards! Some were narrative and were made in series, and others were humorous or had stereotype themes, like “hen-pecked husbands.” You’re right about the mother. I wonder if she was also the photographer’s wife?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a “stereopticon” as my grandparents called it. And quite a view cards to view. Some are in a series (of staged scenes) that are humorous, others are just travel scenes, or scenes as staged above. Haven’t looked at them in a very long time, but always good to remind ourselves of what amusement and “thrills” meant more than a century ago.


    1. Lucky you! Those must be fun to look through. All I had (long gone) was the old children’s Viewmaster with scenes from fairy tales or Disney movies. But I remember looking at the pictures and wishing I could reach “into” them and be there!



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