Stockton’s prominence at the time stereoviews were popular has ensured some amazing three-dimensional glimpses of the city from as early as the 1870s. One of the men who made that possible was Benjamin P. Batchelder, one of Stockton’s first photographers, who occupied a studio on El Dorado Street from 1874 to 1893. A successful producer of portraits, he also published some of the city’s earliest stereoviews of the commercial waterfront and the developing downtown area.
Stereoviews, or stereographs, consist of two almost identical images that when viewed through a stereoscope create an interesting illusion of three-dimensional depth. Some of the first stereoviews were made by Charles Wheatstone in Britain around 1833. Since photography was still in its infancy, the early stereoviews were actually drawings. The introduction of photography in 1850 quickly led to the use of photographic images instead.
To create a stereoview, the photographer used a stereo camera equipped with two lenses set a few inches apart. This process produced duplicate negatives that were printed and mounted side by side on card stock. Thanks to the stereoscope, an invention of Oliver Wendell Holmes, the negatives could be viewed easily and the setup soon became common in Victorian parlors. Entrepreneurs marketed stereoviews of popular places to the public as entertainment and to schools for educational purposes.
Several companies emerged as leading publishers and distributors of stereoviews. Companies that photographed Stockton in stereoviews included the Kilburn Brothers from New Hampshire and Lawrence and Houseworth from San Francisco. However, the photographer most responsible for preserving early Stockton in stereoviews was John Pitcher Spooner.
Spooner moved from San Francisco to Stockton following an apprenticeship in photography. In 1879, he opened his own studio on Main Street. Skilled in the production of glass plate photographs and stereoviews, he soon became the city’s most prolific pioneer photographer. Much of what we know about Stockton between 1880 and 1900, the earliest period of the city’s civic and commercial growth, has been preserved through his work.
We have the privilege to view online Spooner’s incredible stereoview collection, although not in three dimensions. To see the images, visit the Spooner Stereograph Collection at the Holt-Atherton Special Collections, the University of the Pacific.
Alice van Ommeren is a local historian from Stockton and the author of Stockton in Vintage Postcards.