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19 Stereoscopic Views of 19th-Century Los Angeles

Almost as soon as photography had emerged as a commercial art practice by the mid-1800s, innovative photographers began experimenting with ways to bring their flat, still, monochromatic images to life. Some added color and scale by transferring the images to glass slides, tinting them by hand, and projecting them before an audience with the aid of a “magic lantern.” Others created the illusion of motion by capturing a burst of photographs and then flickering the photographic sequence before the eye with the aid of a zoetrope.

And then there were those who defeated the inherent flatness of the photograph through the art of stereography.

With our two horizontally offset eyes and a brain that unites the visual information from each one, we humans are accustomed to perceiving depth in the world. That depth perception allows us to intuit whether an object is near or far without moving. It presents us with a three-dimensional world. Cameras with only one lens can’t capture that depth, but stereoscopic cameras, with their two lenses spaced a few inches apart, can. When a stereograph’s twin images are held before the eyes at the right distance with the aid of a stereoscope (often shorted to stereo), stereoscopic photography can mimic our visual system’s binocular effect.

Soon after London’s Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851 popularized this optical marvel, photographers began publishing stereographs in a variety of genres – including city views that transported viewers, in 3-D, to distant settlements like Los Angeles. These made their way across the world and ultimately, in the case of the stereographs below, into the New York Public Library’s Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views.

The art of stereography isn’t exactly dead today – many of us will remember peering through red, handheld View-Master devices as children, and 3-D films are essentially stereography applied to cinematography – but its relationship to Los Angeles certainly changed with the advent of air travel and the city’s emergence as a cinematic backdrop. For many 19th-century viewers, these stereographs were the closest they’d ever come to glimpsing Los Angeles with their own two eyes.

1880 view of Los Angeles from the tower of its City Hall
This stereograph is apparently mis-captioned; what was then City Hall (built 1888-89 at 226 S. Fort St.) appears at top-left, just behind Congregation B'nai B'rith.
The Hills of Los Angeles
Urban development later shortened many of the hills of downtown Los Angeles. Some were erased completely.
Main Street north from Temple Block, Los Angeles, Cal.
A view looking north up Main Street from the Temple Block toward the historic Los Angeles Plaza.
Plaza, Los Angeles
A reverse-angle shot of Main Street, looking north toward the Temple Block.
St. Charles Hotel
The Bella Union – renamed the St. Charles by the time of this stereograph – opened on Main Street in 1849 as Los Angeles' first hotel.
Sea Bathing, Santa Monica, Cal.
Bath houses on the Santa Monica beach served tourists who, wearing full-body bathing suits, dipped themselves into the cold Pacific.
Santa Monica Wharf, California.
At the time of its construction in 1894, Santa Monica's "Long Wharf" was the longest pier in the world at 4,600 feet.
One of the beautiful streets of Los Angeles, Cal.
"One of the beautiful streets of Los Angeles, Cal." – likely Figueroa Street.

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San Fernando Tunnel
Built by Chinese laborers for the Southern Pacific, the San Fernando Tunnel was one of the last segments completed in Los Angeles' transcontinental rail link with the rest of the U.S.
Echo Mountain funicular
The Great Incline funicular up Echo Mountain, part of the Mt. Lowe Railway system, gained some 1,900 feet in elevation at grades as steep as 62%.
Our Party, Pasadena, California, U.S.A.
Hikers above Pasadena in what was then typical outdoor attire.
Rose Tree, Pasadena, Cal.
This hand-tinted stereograph showcased a plant for which Pasadena would later become famous.
Palms at Los Angeles, Cal.
These fan palms off San Pedro Street became aboreal landmarks. One of them – perhaps L.A.'s oldest palm tree – still grows today outside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
This Avenue of Palms survives today on the campus of the Los Angeles Orthopaedic Institute.
This Avenue of Palms in West Adams survives today on the campus of the Los Angeles Orthopaedic Institute.
Cactus Fence
The cactus fence guarding the grounds of George Lehman's Round House became a landmark in its own right.
Where 16,000 pigeons live in constant peace, Los Angeles, Cal., U.S.A.
J. Y. Johnson's Los Angeles pigeon ranch – "where 16,000 pigeons live in constant peace" – became a major tourist attraction.
Ostrich Farm, Pasadena, California, U.S.A.
Tourists also flocked to Southern California ostrich farms around the turn of the 20th century.
Mission San Gabriel, Estab. Sept. 8th, 1771.
The Spanish founded a mission on the San Gabriel River in 1771, but flooding forced them to move it to its present-day location, pictured above, a few years later.
Los Angeles Mission, Los Angeles
Completed in 1822, the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles, ranks among the oldest buildings within the Los Angeles city limits.