Depth Perception

Union School Stereoview 1870-79

Stereograph, “UNION SCHOOL, WELLINGTON, O.,” [1870-1879] measuring 3 7/8″ L x 7″ W.

I recently acquired this marvelous black and white stereograph depicting the Union School in the nineteenth century. Stereographs were created for use in stereoscopes. If you ever played with a View-Master as a child, you have used a modern stereoscope. The stereograph features two copies of the same image mounted side-by-side on heavy card stock, and gazing at it through the lenses of the stereoscope gives the viewer a three-dimensional perception of the scene.

Though this card is undated, it notes that the image was produced while Watson R. Wean (1843-1927) was superintendent of the Wellington school system. Wean served from September 1870 until June 1879. The Union School was completed in 1868, making this one of the earlier images ever captured of it. It is also unique among initial depictions of the school in that it includes the students and staff, lined up outside the building and also sitting in all the windows of both the first and second floors.

In addition to his career in education, Watson Wean served as mayor of the village in the 1880s. It was during his tenure that our present Town Hall was built. He was involved in several profitable ventures, including becoming a partner in cheese (and later vegetable) export firm Horr-Warner in 1887, at which point his name was added to make it Wean, Horr, Warner & Company. Wean lived on South Main Street, next door to business associate Sidney Warner, having erected a magnificent residence there in 1878. In 1899, the widowed Wean married Warner’s daughter, popular local teacher Orrie Louisa Warner. She was forty-five at the time of her marriage, and had led a fascinating life of her own, including being the personal guest of First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes during the 1881 inauguration of her husband’s successor, President James A. Garfield. The Weans and the Warners remain side-by-side to this day in Greenwood Cemetery.

Given the possible date range of the image, I found myself wondering whether William Sawtell was its photographer. That thought tickled a memory of having read something connecting Sawtell to exterior photography of buildings. After searching my files, I located this notice in the Wellington Enterprise: “–Mr. Sawtell has engaged A. K. A. Liebich a Cleveland artist to visit Wellington the coming spring and make stereoscopic views of some of our residences, public buildings and principal points of interest in and about our village. He will also make large size photographs of dwellings suitable for framing. He is an artist of acknowledged ability and has done much of the finest work in that line in the city of Cleveland. Specimens may be seen by calling at Mr. Sawtell’s room and orders left for work. It will pay you to examine the work [even] if you do not want any done and Mr. Sawtell will take pleasure in showing any one who may call for that purpose” (12-19-1878, pg. 3). I was not able to find any confirmation that Liebich–whose work is now held in such notable collections as the Getty Museum–visited Wellington in the spring of 1879. The stereograph itself is marked “Smith & Co.’s | Oberlin, O.” It seems clear that stereographic photography was considered a separate skill set from studio portrait photography, and William Sawtell did not create this image.

The stereograph seems to me a poetic visual metaphor for historical research. At first glance, it seems simple, perhaps almost to the point of being unknowable. But it provokes questions in us, encouraging us to look more deeply into its subject. The more we probe and the deeper we sink, the wider the world we perceive and the more sharply everything comes into focus.


4 thoughts on “Depth Perception

  1. Matt N.

    Another great article! Was this the stereograph that was recently for sale on eBay? I saw it and was hoping someone with Wellington history connection would acquire it. Very nice.

  2. Stuart Bradley

    The reason William Sawtell did not take stereoscopic photographs is that you need a special camera which he probably did not own. A stereoscopic camera has two lenses that are the same distance apart as your eyes are. So the reality is that the two photographs on a stereograph are slightly different and when put in a viewer the brain recreates the depth perception. Stereograph collecting was a very popular hobby well into the 1920s.


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