New David Snedeker Collection Introduces Students to Stereoviews and Retro Technology

By James Cusick – We’ve been having a lot of fun at recent classes held in the libraries. We now have our own version of steampunk technology in the form of a working 1905 stereoviewer that’s operated by nickels! Donated by UF alumnus David Snedeker, the Mills Novelty stereoviewer allows students to see a show of twelve stereoviews of Florida from the 1890s and early 1900s.

1905 Mills Novelty Viewer
The Mills Novelty viewer donated by David Snedeker is the type that would have been used in an arcade and may have originally looked like the one at right with stand and sign. 

What are stereoviews and why do we like them? Well, for tourists and travelers in the 1880s through the 1920s, they were a photographic sensation, the Gilded Age and Progressive Era equivalent of 3-D or Virtual Reality.  Also called stereographs, they present two images of the same object or place, taken at slightly different angles, mounted side by side on card stock. When seen through a viewer the right eye sees only the right-side image, and the left eye the left-side. By coaxing the eyes to look at identical but slightly off-set images, the viewer mimics human binocular sight. The two images, sent along the optic nerves to the brain, merge together and, voila!, you get depth perception and the illusion that you are looking through a window at a scene from the past.

Hand-held viewer
Prior to the donation of the Mills Novelty stereoviewer, we showed our stereocards using handheld viewers like this one from the 1920s

From the 1880s on, stereoviews were enormously popular. Sets of views would present a short skit or play, like a still frame movie. Travelers regularly purchased cards to show people back home some of the places they had visited. Cities from London to New York to San Francisco were featured, as were “world wonders” like the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China. In Florida, popular subjects for stereoview cards included forts, riverboats on the Ocklawaha, the Flagler and Plant hotels, ostrich and alligator farms, orange groves, and street scenes.  One whole series covered the Spanish American War of 1898, including troops bivouacking and assembling in Tampa.

But stereoview cards were not just produced and sold as personal souvenirs. Arcades contained banks of slot-operated viewers for public entertainment. Typical commercial viewers (like our Mills Novelty viewer) were wooden cabinets with a front access panel, top-mounted viewing scope, and slot for dropping nickels.  A show generally consisted of 12 to 20 views, the cards mounted in a roller deck of frames that flipped one at a time beneath the viewing portal.

Our 1905 viewer can be primed by cranking, and then, by dropping in a nickel, it will show a series of Florida-themed cards. Originally illuminated by incandescent bulb, it is now equipped with a removable LED light.  When the cabinet is open, you can also watch the clock-work like gears that flip the cards.

Sample stereographs of St. Augustine
Two stereographs from the Snedeker Collection showing the Catholic church in St. Augustine and a view of a St. Augustine street, probably from the mid-1880s

The nickelodeon was a deluxe version of a viewer and was intended for commercial use. Rows of them would grace tourist meccas like Coney Island. There were also personal hand-held viewers that people kept in their homes.  The library has a variety of these, including inexpensive versions made from plastic and cardboard that can still be purchased on the Internet.

There are also plenty of views to see! David Snedeker’s donation not only included the stereoviewer, but 2,000 stereo photographs of Florida, depicting locations all over the state. The range of images includes photographs of Harriet Beecher Stowe at her house on the St. Johns River, portraits of individuals from the Kiowa, Comanche, and Arapaho nations who were imprisoned at the Castillo de San Marco in the 187os, and Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in Tampa in 1898. Special Collections also has a second large set of about 900 stereograph views from all over the United States as part of the Jim Liversidge Collection in Popular Culture.

The stereoviewer and stereograph collection is just one of the donations David Snedeker has gifted to the Libraries.  Other recently donated materials from him include an exhibit commemorating the U.S. Constitution and a set of “Beautiful Florida” postcards for the postcard collection.

About the Donor

David Snedeker graduated from the University of Florida in 1972 with a double major in political science and history and a certificate in teaching. A life-long supporter of the School of Music and the Gator Marching Band, he helps to maintain “Big Boom,” the gigantic six-foot-diameter bass drum featured at sporting events. Snedeker has taken the drum on field ever since his junior year at UF  in the 1970s.

Pride of the Sunshine Drum
James Cusick, curator for Florida history, and David Snedeker beside the Gator marching band drum Big Boom that he has looked after and maintained since the 1970s.

After college he became a teacher and principal for the Osceola County school system and served on a voluntary basis as the president of the county’s historical society for fifteen years. Under his direction, the historical society added a citrus packing house and one-room school house to its pioneer village of standing historic architecture. Seeking to build up the historical society’s collections and exhibitable materials, Snedeker also began to acquire collections out of personal interest, focusing on political memorabilia and postcards. From there he his collecting expanded into UF football programs and other memorabilia.

David and Bridget
David Snedeker and Florida history coordinator Bridget Bihm-Manuel in front of some of his Gator memorabilia

He is also active in environmental science and education. In Osceola County, he spearheaded the creation of an environmental studies center at Reedy Creek near Kissimmee that now comprises more than 1000 acres of land. It started with a twenty-acre donation of land from the Gulf of America Corporation, supplemented by additional land acquisition and donated lands arranged through the school district and water management district. Today it has 500 acres of cypress swamp accessible by boardwalk featuring trees that are 400 years old and a blue heron rookery, with a second area on Lake Russell that allows students to learn about a scrub habitat.

We are very appreciative of David’s generosity to the Libraries and are pleased that his materials are now featured every year in classes related to history and museum studies.