Civil War - 3D Viewing
The start of the American Civil War in 1861 coincided with a surge in stereo photography—a technique that makes it possible to see photos with three-dimensional depth. A pair of images combines into a single 3D scene, using a special viewer. (Or, you can “freeview” by crossing your eyes!)

Even as 2D images, these old stereos provide a wonderful doorway for walking into history!

This Flickr set lets you visit Fort Sumter; a Union war council and wounded troops; city ruins in both the South and the North; an ironclad monitor warship; and more. The examples of recently made “digital anaglyphs” bring the 3D sensation to life when viewed with red/cyan glasses.

At the Library’s own Web site you can see more than 2,000 original Civil War glass plate and vintage card stereos. All told, we have more than 50,000 stereographs, spanning the 1850s to the 1930s and covering an encyclopedic array of subjects.

How can you see the 3D effect?
Digital anaglyphs are one tool. Two color-filtered images are overlaid to create the illusion of depth when viewed through glasses with complementary color lenses, often red and cyan.

As an example, here’s one of the anaglyphs that Matt Raymond is making from historic stereographs at LOC and donating to our collections.

Sample anaglyphs are also displayed at the Center for Civil War Photography Web site by Bob Zeller. His several books describe the 3D aspects of the war images in detail.

Many kinds of viewers for physical cards are also available. For an illustrated summary, see the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum

How did the negatives become 3D views in the 1800s?
Typically, a camera with two lenses exposed side-by-side images onto a single glass plate negative. Look closely at the tent tops behind the ladder to see the slightly different angle captured by each lens.

In the raw, uncut negative, the image on the right shows what your left eye would see—more of the tent is visible to the left of the ladder.

Where can you see more Civil War stereos?
Or, make your own 3D views?

To create a print for 3D viewing, the images from uncut negatives had to be switched, cropped, printed, and pasted on card stock at a distance similar to the space between your eyes. The finished cards are usually 3.5 x 7 inches.

Most of the Library’s Civil War glass plate negatives were long ago separated into two parts. Almost 1,500 pairs of separated negatives are online. They are the easiest source to work with, if you’d like to try your own hand at creating 3D images. Wikipedia and other sites offer instructions for making digital anaglyphs.

Or, tap into the digitized stereo cards.

Almost 700 uncut stereo plates are also online at the LOC, if you have more time to crop and switch halves as well as align the parts digitally. Reminder: For digital 3D viewing from these uncut negatives, switch the left and right images to match what your eyes would naturally see.

Learn More About It …

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
o Stereograph Card Viewing
o Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints

Center for Civil War Photography

Goldwyn, Craig. Viewing stereography and 3D photography

National Stereoscopic Association

Zeller, Bob. Civil War in Depth: History in 3-D. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997-2000. 2 volumes.

Zeller, Bob, and John Richter. Lincoln in 3-D. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2010.
20 photos · 46,885 views