Curator’s Favorite: Expedition Stereographs

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Armchair Tourism: Expedition Stereographs


Expedition stereographs were not only informative tools that fueled territorial expansion, but a form of parlor entertainment that allowed middle-class audiences, or “armchair tourists,” to explore distant, exotic landscapes from the comfort of their own homes. Photographers often accompanied expedition groups in the second half of the nineteenth century to document and illustrate the physical geography, including the botanical, zoological, and mineralogical traits, of unexplored territories. This was no easy feat; cameras and equipment were heavy and cumbersome, requiring a skilled photographer who could consistently produce quality work under harsh conditions.

The Print and Photograph Department contains several series of these expedition views, including twelve stereographs published 1870-1871 by J. F. Jarvis of Thomas O. Selfridge’s Darién Expedition. Under the auspices of the United States’ War Department, the expedition set out in 1870 with photographer Timothy O’Sullivan to explore the Isthmus of Darién (Panama) to determine the feasibility of constructing a canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Although the journey was fraught with successive misfortunes, Sullivan was able to capture in his photographs the natural beauty of the villages, people, rock formations, small islands, and waterfalls indigenous to the Panama area.

Timothy O’Sullivan, Santa Maria del Real, from Tropical Scenery. Darien Expedition. Comd’r Selfridge, Comd’g. (Washington, D.C.: J.F. Jarvis, 1870 or 1871).

Timothy O’Sullivan, Santa Maria del Real, from Tropical Scenery. Darien Expedition. Comd’r Selfridge, Comd’g. (Washington, D.C.: J.F. Jarvis, 1870 or 1871).

In 1871, and between 1873 and 1875, Timothy O’Sullivan also photographed many of George M. Wheeler’s geographic surveys west of the 100th meridian, which were backed by a military motive to find a more direct route for troops from the northwestern states south to Arizona. However, for unknown reasons in 1872, Philadelphia commercial photographer William Bell took O’Sullivan’s place on this expedition and his views are included in the Library Company’s collections. Directed to gather information related to the geography, geology, agriculture, and populations of the region, Bell created views that included the expedition party amid the breathtaking rock formations, canyons, and plateaus of Arizona.

W. Bell, Grand Cañon; mouth of Kanab Wash, No. 64 from Colorado River Series. Explorations West of the 100th Meridian. Expedition of 1872, Lieut. Geo. M. Wheeler, Com’dg. (Philadelphia: William Bell, ca. 1872).

W. Bell, Grand Cañon; mouth of Kanab Wash, No. 64 from Colorado River Series. Explorations West of the 100th Meridian. Expedition of 1872, Lieut. Geo. M. Wheeler, Com’dg. (Philadelphia: William Bell, ca. 1872).

In the near future, these series, along with the rest of the Library Company’s stereograph collection, will be uploaded into our digital catalog ImPAC as part of the library’s current NEH-funded ephemera grant project.

Linda Wisniewski
Visual Materials Cataloger, Print and Photograph Department

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