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Annotations from the Archive: Before the Movies

Annotations from the Archive: Before the Movies

The Cather family's stereoscope

With limited access to opera and theater and even movies right now, how many of us are filling our days with other types of stories—novels or Netflix or Instagram—any stories we can get? A recent donation to the museum collections at the National Willa Cather Center made us think about how important stories are to us!

One of the Cather artifacts on display at the Willa Cather Childhood Home is a stereoscope and set of cards that belonged to the Cather family. In 1861, poet and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes invented this style of stereoscope, an economical model made largely of wood. The stereo card is held in front of fixed prismatic lenses, allowing a viewer to see right- and left-eye images as a single three-dimensional image. Viewing these stereocards was a wildly popular form of home entertainment in the 19th century. The Cather family enjoyed using this stereoscope in their parlor. The stereoscope and a small collection of cards were donated to the National Willa Cather Center by the Cather family in the 1960s.

While the Cather family's stereoscope cards largely featured tourist attractions and natural wonders, other types of cards were available. More recently, these cards and the simple wooden viewer that accompanied them were donated by the family of Julia Pavelka Skupa (the daughter of John and Anna Pavelka, the inspiration for Ántonia). This set features the work of William H. Rau, a Philadelphia photographer who in 1877 purchased a stereograph company and began producing popular stereo cards of the Spanish American War, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, presidential funerals and other picturesque and historic scenes. In 1902 he created a series of photos featuring Mr. and Mrs. Turtledove through their courtship and marriage. The comic photo story, though simple in plot, is charming in its execution. 

We know from Anna Pavelka's children and grandchildren just how much she loved going to the movies; we might surmise then, from the way Willa Cather portrayed Anna in My Ántonia, that she loved stories of all kinds. It comes as no surprise then that Anna would have loved stereoscope cards that told a story. We hope you enjoy Mr. and Mrs. Turtledove as much as she did!