Editor’s note: this is the third of several posts by graduate students in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture (WPAMC), written as part of their Material Life in America class. Please note that you can click on the images to see larger versions of them.
Have you ever squinted at a Magic Eye picture, donned 3-D glasses at the movie theater, or peered through a View-Master to discover stereoscopic scenes of far-off places? If so, you may have been delighted and amazed at the special effects they produced. However, popular entertainments using optical effects are far from a modern-day phenomenon. In fact, such amusements have been around since at least the 1600s.
An unusual example from Winterthur’s collections offers a view into the fashion for optical entertainments in America during the 19th century. The object, known as a perspective glass, was made between 1830 and 1836 by the Philadelphia optical firm of John McAllister & Co. It consists of two large, round magnifying lenses fixed inside rectangular panels of cherry wood on top of a round stand. A framed mirror hinged to the back of the panels can be propped at a 45-degree angle using a pin and hook. Unlike other models, this perspective glass is remarkable for having two lenses instead of one—but more on that later.
How was it used? Setting a print on the table in front of the glass, the user could peer through the lens and view a magnified reflection of the print. Together, the magnification and reflection created an illusion of greater distance from the image, and the curved lens made the center of the image appear farther away than the edges. These optical effects lent depth and realism to the image, giving the viewer a sense of immersion in the depicted scene.
Perspective glasses became popular in Europe during the mid-1700s as part of a growing scientific culture brought about by the Enlightenment. Intellectual interest in scientific inquiry expanded into a widespread taste for “rational recreation,” which blurred the lines between education and amusement. People became interested in owning a wide range of optical devices, from actual scientific instruments like telescopes and microscopes to more recreational objects, such as magic lanterns. Such gadgetry delighted the user with novel and sometimes spectacular visual effects, while also supposedly teaching the optical principles behind them. The craze for the perspective glass soon spread across the ocean from European parlors to American ones, earning mentions in American newspaper advertisements as early as 1749.
Prints called perspective views or vues d’optique were created specifically to be viewed with the perspective glass. These prints used dramatic linear perspectives to maximize the sense of depth. The titles were often printed backward so that they could be read when reflected in the mirror. Perspective views mostly depicted foreign landscapes, street views, architectural interiors, and political or historical events.
These scenes of foreign locales permitted viewers a form of visual travel, allowing them to imagine themselves in distant places. In an age when actual travel was expensive, time-consuming, and frequently uncomfortable, cities could be explored hassle-free from within the comfort of the parlor. However, perspective views not only enabled virtual vacations but also gave the viewer valuable political and cultural instruction; in particular, they often served as an aid for mothers educating their children at home.
Beyond instructing and amusing, perspective glasses and prints also appealed to their owners as status symbols. These luxury objects served as elegant display pieces, as pseudo-scientific devices, and as fashionable entertainment in upper-class homes. Perspective glass owners invited guests into their parlors to participate in an exclusive activity that showed off their learning, wealth, and hosting skills.
Although the McAllister glass is not quite as flashy as some of the inlaid mahogany models produced during the 18th century, it has one thing the others don’t: two side-by-side lenses. Though we cannot know for certain why this unusual form was created, I can imagine it as a special order from an eccentric customer, or an experimental piece created at the maker’s whimsy. The two lenses are spaced too widely to have been meant for a single viewer’s left and right eyes, which suggests that the double-lens construction was instead designed to heighten the social aspect of the viewing experience. Rather than taking turns looking at the prints, a host and his guest (or a mother and her child) might peer together into the side-by-side lenses and explore the images as a shared activity.
Through the efforts of Director of Collections Linda Eaton, I was able to have the McAllister perspective glass set up for viewing with some of Winterthur’s perspective prints. Although Winterthur students have handling privileges in the museum collections, it’s not every day that we’re given the chance to interact with the objects as they might originally have been used. Viewing prints through the McAllister glass was like getting to sit down in an antique chair with a “DO NOT SIT” label on it, or trying on an 18th-century dress to see how it felt. I couldn’t believe I was being allowed to (carefully) prop the mirror on its hinge and peer through one of the lenses at colorful vistas of Venice, Paris, and Boston. Finally, I thought, I would see what all the fuss was about: the vivid images would visually transport me to distant places.
My virtual voyage, however, did not live up to the hype. Although the convex lens magnified the beautifully colored prints, the illusion of depth was much less striking than I had expected—barely perceptible, in fact. The awkward angles created by the framing of the mirror and the lens were distracting, and I could still see the tabletop and the room around me. Had my eyes become jaded by years of seeing images enhanced with special effects, or was the effect of the perspective glass just not that special?
It’s hard to imagine what a perspective view would look like through the glass to someone who had never seen a photograph, much less a movie or computer display. We live in a culture saturated with flashy technology and moving images—but in the early 1800s, brightly colored prints seen through a perspective glass were perhaps the closest anyone could come to experiencing virtual reality.
If you take Winterthur’s introductory tour this spring, be sure to keep an eye out for the McAllister perspective glass in Maple-Port Royal Hall! It will certainly be keeping an eye (or two) on you.