The Keystone View Company was founded in 1892 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. by amateur photographer B. L. Singley (Benneville Lloyd Singley). The trade list at the end of 1892 consisted of only a hundred titles but by 1940 they had commercially produced more than 40,000 titles.
Among the first thousand Keystone views were a variety of subjects, several of which included images of Singley himself, as well as his friends and family.
Prior to 1897 Singley made the negatives himself and the quality of the prints from this period is generally quite poor (later prints vastly improved with the help of a much expanded company, a highly skilled team and better equipment and methods).
I digitally cleaned the following stereoview somewhat but the inadequate washing of the print had left several bleach marks and stains (plus the card itself has been much-loved and left grubby).
The Keystone stereoview numbering is not chronological before 1898; some numbers were never used, some numbers were duplicated many times and the numbering often reflects the date of issue, not when the negative was taken. To add to confusion, between 1892 and 1896 alone Singley used at least ten different types of mounts. The Keystone View Co. later also bought the negatives of different stereoview manufacturers, including Underwood & Underwood and H.C. White; stereoviews produced from these negatives are denoted on the Keystone mounts as U for Underwood and W for H.C. White. Wish anyone trying to organise Keystone View Co. stereoviews luck!
The views sold by the company in the U.K. from 1898 to 1906 were distributed under the name ‘The Fine-Art Photographers’ Publishing Co.’ and included instructions on how to view them with a ‘Realistiscope’; the company were manufacturing and selling stereoscopes from 1898 onwards.
There was an increased popularity of stereographs between 1898 and 1906, during which Keystone (like Underwood & Underwood) entered the box-set market. Along with topographical, nature, events and genre-view scenes, Keystone also began an Educational department in 1898 which issued sets illustrating geography, commerce, technology, history and natural studies.
After 1920 the Keystone View Company was the major global publisher of stereoviews, between 1915 and 1921 they had bought the negatives of nearly all of their competitors. With offices all over the world at this time the company was successful, especially from the sales of World War I stereoview sets.
The Keystone View Company maintained regular production right up until 1939 but continued to manufacture views for optometric purposes, with individual orders for stereoviews being filled up until the early 1970s.
In 1978 Keystone’s stock was donated to the University of California’s California Museum of Photography. This collection is called the Keystone-Mast collection and comprises of 250,000 stereoscopic glass-plate and film negatives and 100,000 vintage prints. Currently 20% of this collection is available online and can be found here.
A museum still exists in Pennsylvania which features the photography of the Keystone View Company, The Johnson-Shaw Stereoscopic Museum. Founded by descendants of those who used to work for the Keystone View Company, you can find information about the museum here.
I hope you enjoyed this brief post about the history of the Keystone View Company; the images don’t always exactly match the text because I don’t have a vast collection (and much of what I do have is very pet-orientated apparently!). My appreciation of Keystone started with me buying a stereoview of theirs showing a city where I attended University. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to have seen many of the views produced by Keystone and I really enjoy the quality, depth, history, humour, sentimentality and educational aspects of most of them.
Bringing this post right up to date, the Keystone Mast collection has been used in an amazing project by the University of Washington and Google, called ‘KeystoneDepth’, which began in 2019. KeystoneDepth is a collection of 37,239 antique stereographs of historical scenes captured between 1864 and 1966 with clean rectified stereo image pairs, disparity maps (bottom), and metadata. From their webpage “This paper introduces KeystoneDepth, the largest and most diverse collection of rectified historical stereo image pairs to date, consisting of tens of thousands of stereographs of people, events, objects, and scenes recorded between 1864 and 1966. Leveraging the Keystone-Mast Collection of stereographs from the California Museum of Photography, we apply multiple processing steps to produce clean stereo image pairs, complete with calibration data, rectification transforms, and disparity maps. We introduce a novel stereo rectification technique based on the unique properties of antique stereo cameras. To better the results on 2D displays, we also introduce a self-supervised deep view synthesis technique trained on historical imagery”. For more information on the paper, please click here. To visit the results of this project, which can also be downloaded, please click here (it may take several minutes to load).
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