The Grand Tour

A World of Travel Through the St. Louis Public Library

First seen as a “cultural finishing school” for privileged young British gentlemen, The Grand Tour of the 19th century included several months of European travel between the end of formal schooling and adulthood. Exposure to the art, culture, and beginnings of western civilization (primarily found in France and Italy) were considered a necessity for these men. Following the American Civil War, wealthy families took advantage of the burgeoning tourist trade in Europe and joined the tour. Travelers returned home with dozens of vivid photographs, postcards and stereograph slides taken by professionals and sold in big cities and famous sites along the tourist routes.

Among the American tourists traveling to Europe in 1867 was St. Louis fur trader and entrepreneur Robert Campbell. That year he gathered his wife and three sons and traveled by boat, train, and horse and carriage on a 10-month tour of Europe and North Africa.

Here’s a sneak peek at SLPL’s special collection of historic postcards that recreate some of the sights on Europe’s 19th century Grand Tour.

Postcards

Picture postcards became hugely popular in the United States in the 1890s. They were used for every type of communication; as advertisements, to promote civic pride, to picture celebrities, and most popularly, as souvenirs of travel and faraway sights. Postcard albums were proudly featured in parlors across the country. Newspapers discussed “the postcard craze.” Printing and selling postcards was a major business around the world, including here in St. Louis.

You might think of postcards as the Twitter of their day! Critics decried the sad effect of the brevity of postcards on the fine art of letter-writing. By 1913, the U.S. Post Office recorded over 900 million postcards mailed in this country alone. The years between 1905 and 1915 are sometimes called the Golden Age of Postcards, when the variety, quality, and sheer numbers reached their peak.

   

Stereographs

In 2015, computer programmers all over the world are working to bring to life realistic 3-dimensional experiences with state-of-the-art technology. That quest began long before our time, however. Stereograph images were the first form of ‘3-D’ and invented at virtually the same time as photography itself, becoming enormously popular in the 1850s.

Although they may look identical to the naked eye, the two images on a stereograph are taken from slightly different positions: spaced roughly the same two inches as the average distance between our eyes. Special cameras were created to take these paired images at just the right distance, and were carried all around the globe.

Viewed through a stereoscope, the images mimic the depth perception of human eyesight, giving the impression of looking into a real world. The process was refined through the years, and many stereograph images are remarkable experiences even today. Viewers in the 1800s, many of whom had never seen a photograph, were every bit as amazed by this astonishing new technology as you might be looking at a new 3-D flat screen.

For almost a century, stereographs provided a major source of entertainment, education, and armchair travel. (In 1860s France, a stereograph series known as Diableries, purporting to depict Hell, terrified thousands!) Public fascination, coupled with efficient manufacturing techniques, made both the images and the viewers affordable for enormous numbers of people, and stereograph collections could be found in schools and homes all across the United States. They were produced by the millions before losing popularity after the First World War, when movies captured the public’s interest.

Libraries and museums around the world have worked to preserve large numbers of stereographs, many containing the only record of vanished worlds. The St. Louis Public Library has a collection of about 3000, and is working now to digitize them to make them available online.

The surprising effect of this seemingly simple method continued to fascinate long after the heyday of stereographs had passed. Many of you toured the world – or watched cartoons! – on the View-Master®, which uses the same trick of perspective. Stereo cameras have continued to be produced through the years, and today, photographers use digital cameras to produce the effect. Early stereographs fascinate many modern photographers, who collect and study them as remarkable works of art and skill.

   

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