Get Ahead, Get a Hat

Get Ahead, Get a Hat

I’m very fortunate to welcome to the Stereoscopy Blog photo historian, independent lecturer, author and collector of amazing stereoscopic images, Dr. Peter Blair. If you’ve attended any of his presentations, or read his publications, you will know how passionate his is about the history of stereoscopy and how interesting, enjoyable and approachable he makes it. He’s one of the rare breed of researchers who makes the history of stereoscopy both educational and entertaining, with a deep appreciation of the subject.

In his first blog post, he will introduce you to the world of sales and advertising in stereoscopy, through an incredible set of unusual Verascope slides in his collection.


Written by Dr. Peter Blair

“Ceci n’est pas un chapeau” – a slightly surrealistic stereoscopic story

One of the little researched facets of stereoscopy is in its use for sales and marketing. Among the first to take advantage of the potential were the photographers and retailers who simply added advertisements to the rear of the stereoscopic images. This could be a list of other available images (see Figure 1) or an advert promoting the business (see Figure 2).


Figure 1. Rear of Francis Bedford stereoview of Chester, c.1865


Figure 2. Rear of Bierstadt view of Niagara, c.1875

Promotional advertising for the photographic studio is surprisingly rare on stereoviews. Usually the rear of the card is either blank, sometimes identifies the photographer, or simply offers the title of the view, perhaps with some contextual information.

On the other hand, it seems to have been commonplace, almost de rigueur, on the much smaller cartes-de-visite (CDVs), to have an attractive studio advert (Figure 3). Some even collect CDVs for their appealing versos, rather than for the photo on the front! The verso of William England’s stereoviews is completely blank, but his CDVs provide great detail of the medals he has won and the different series and formats of his photographs available. Similarly, George Washington Wilson offers simply his name and the title of the view on his stereoviews, but the versos of his CDVs contain promotional material. It does seem odd to me that the larger space available on the versos of stereoviews were not commonly put to better promotional use.


Figure 3. CDV versos – J.H Nicholls c.1880, W. England c.1880, GW Wilson c.1875

An altogether more imaginative use of stereoscopy in sales and marketing was to apply the immersive and three-dimensional visualisation properties of the technique to promote actual products. As for most uses found for stereoscopy, this was initially imagined and discussed by Sir David Brewster in 1856 in his seminal work “The Stereoscope.”1 In his consideration of applications in the natural history field, he commented that products “may be exhibited in all their roundness and solidity in the stereoscope; and as articles of commerce they might be purchased on the authority of their pictures in relief.”

In 1859, Oliver Wendell Holmes noted that “already a workman has been travelling about the country with stereographic views of furniture, showing his employer’s patterns in this way, and taking orders for them. This is a mere hint of what is coming before long.”2

Judging by the rarity of such promotional views, it seems that this promising application of stereoscopy was never fully exploited. Or perhaps such views had a transient life expectancy and were jettisoned once they were out of date.

I have one fine example of this sales and marketing approach in my collection, a promotional set of views of hats created for the Tress Company (see Appendix A) around 1910-1920.

Delivered in an elegant mahogany case (Figure 4), the set includes a beautiful Verascope viewer (see Appendix B) and a selection of over two dozen glass Verascope views of hats offered by the company. Rather than stocking a wide range of hats in a variety of sizes, the stereoscopic “catalogue” allowed customers to explore the product range in “virtual reality”. Their preferred model could be selected, their hat size measured and the exact hat ordered, thus reducing stock, waste and working capital.


Figure 4. The Tress & Co. Stereoscopic Catalogue

It is only very recently, with the benefits of high technology, that we are able to recreate this sort of marketing approach being pioneered over 100 years ago.

Perusing the selection of hats floating in mid-air through the stereoscope is a slightly surrealistic experience, especially the bowler hats, which immediately recall their association with René Magritte. The shape of the various models is clearly delineated, but does it work as a sales and marketing tool?

There is no information on what the hat might look like perched on your own head and therein lies the fundamental flaw. It is all very well looking at images of fashion, clothes, shoes or hats, and a 3D image does provide far more information than its flat poorer relation. But, for the majority of people, there is a fundamental need to try these items on, to check that they suit you and are comfortable.

Therefore it is unlikely that stereoscopic sales and marketing tools for hats were particularly successful. Instead we are left with a rather rare and charmingly surreal curiosity.


Figure 5. A Selection of Tress & Co. Hats

Appendix A – The Tress Hat Company

Tress & Co. was established in 1846 and was finally taken over by Christy’s in 1953. Its hats were sold globally and received prize medals at exhibitions in Paris 1855, 1867 & 1878, London 1862, Philadelphia 1876, Sydney 1879 and Calcutta.

It was a huge operation. The main manufacturing base was at Southwark in London, pictured below. The only remaining part of this complex is now the Mad Hatter Hotel on Stamford Street. It also had manufacturing in Luton.


Figure 6. A view of Tress & Co. London factory, from the film “The Hat Treasures of SE1”

Appendix B – Verascope3

Jules Richard (1848 – 1930) introduced the small 107 x 45mm format camera, the Verascope in 1893. It includes a slide holder box for ten plates. This was the first in a long line of similar stereo cameras that were still in production in the 1950s. It has been estimated that over 100,000 small format cameras were sold. The format is very common in France but less so in the UK. A selection of viewers was available for the slides, ranging from small hand-held lenticular viewers, like that included with the Tress & Co. kit, to the very sophisticated Taxiphote table-top rotary viewer. The smaller format meant that the glass plate negatives were much cheaper and the camera more portable than a full-size stereocamera outfit. This resulted in a new wave of amateurs taking up stereophotography.

1. Brewster, David, The Stereoscope, Its History, Theory and Construction, London, Murray, 1856
2. Holmes, Oliver Wendell, The Atlantic Monthly, June 1859, pp 738-748

Dr. Peter Blair


If you would like to see more of Peter Blair’s stereoscopic collection then please have a look at his websites: – for Scottish views and stereo-photographers – for alpine views and stereo-photographers

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One thought on “Get Ahead, Get a Hat

  1. I love the hat stereos. Very surreal, as you say.
    In my collection I have a Camerascope style tinplate viewer and set of cards made for the Spirella corset company in the 1930s by the look of it. Spirella was active from the 1920s-60s and employed corsetières to demonstrate its products to customers and the stereoscope was presumably one of the tools available to them. You can see some 2D examples here
    I have also seen Stereo Realist slides of furniture in a travelling salesman type outfit from the 1950s and there are doubtless other examples out there.

    Liked by 1 person

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