Stereo pictures enjoyed enormous popularity in nineteenth-century America, heightening the illusion of reality seen in a daguerreotype or photograph. As these three-dimensional images quickly became big business, many photographers turned to distribution as well as production. Illustrating a vast range of subjects and sold to a wide popular audience, as well as to schools and libraries, these images functioned as visual encyclopedias. By the end of the nineteenth century, sets of mass-produced stereographs were manufactured by large companies such as Keystone, the American Stereoscopic Company, and Underwood & Underwood.
Elmer (1859–1947) and Bert (1862–1943) Underwood went into business in Ottawa, Kansas, in 1881. By 1901 they were selliing ten million stereo views a year. In addition to their own pictures, they were the sole agents for Charles Bierstadt’s views of Niagra Falls, J.F. Jarvis’s views of Washington, D.C., and George Barker’s views, including his well-known images of the Johnstown Flood, and the entire output of the Littleton View Company of New Hampshire. The views sold for under twenty cents each, the stereoscope for as little as ninety cents.
Nearly all aspects of farming—especially planting, harvesting, and processing products—were depicted in stereo views. Those showing horse-drawn farm equipment, wagons, and homesteads presented a turn-of-the-century way of life that would soon disappear.
Merry A. Foresta American Photographs: The First Century (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art with the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996)