The first one is actually a French stereoview, and is definitely the oldest of the three – could be as early as the 1860s, but more likely 1870s. The Vatican Library is an Underwood & Underwood from 1903. The Castel Sant’Angelo is also an Underwood, and it is dated 1897.
Over the weekend I went to a camera swap meet in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. You know, one of those things they hold in a hotel ballroom where dealers in used gear set up tables and put out all kinds of odds and ends for sale, and some will actively buy your used cameras too. I can remember not so many years ago when these things were huge, attracting 75+ vendors in some pretty big spaces in some pretty decent hotels.
Now, though, not so much. This show is now in the basement ballroom of what is quite possibly the lowest-rent hotel in Tyson’s Corner (it hasn’t been redecorated since the 60’s). I would guess that there were not more than 20 vendors. To describe it as a flea market would be verging on charitable. There were some nice items, for sure, but most of it was glorified (and some not even glorified) junk. I did see a few momentary temptations (a beautifully preserved Nikon F with the non-metered prism, but it was so nice it looked to be a collector piece not a user), but nothing to compel my wallet to open, camera-wise. I did find some stereoviews, including this one, for $2 each.
I know, here I was saying I’m not collecting stereoviews, which is not entirely accurate, nor is it entirely inaccurate either. I pick up a few here and there when I see one that tickles my fancy. I’m sure that 99% of them when I die will still be worth what I paid for them, in large part because I don’t actively collect. Stereoviews were made in series, much like this one. Underwood & Underwood was one of the largest publishers of stereoviews, and they printed thousands upon thousands of them, with themes like “The Grand Tour of Europe” or “The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” or “Vignettes from Oriental Life” showing pictures of the peoples and customs of Asia. They were the 1860s to 1910s equivalent of newsreels and National Geographic movies before motion pictures and television existed, and served to bring the world in all its variety into the homes of the working classes who could not travel and see these things, and perhaps were illiterate and unable to read about them in books and newspapers.
Each stereoview is numbered, and within individual sets, there are always some rare ones. Chasing down the rare numbers reminds me too much of collecting baseball cards, so that’s why I don’t get into it – the image is more important to me than the rarity of the paper behind it. Not that I’d ever turn down a set of Alexander Gardner’s stereoviews of the Lincoln Assassin’s execution. I’m just not going out looking for them.