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The Great War in Stereoviews

Keystone View Company


Underwood & Underwood pioneered the sale of boxed stereograph sets to homes, businesses, and libraries. In 1892, B. Lloyd Singley, who had been a salesman for Underwood & Underwood during his time as a student at Allegheny College in 1887-89, began to operate the Keystone View Company out of his house in Meadville, PA. The subject matter largely consisted of travel scenes and comics. There was intense competition between Keystone and Underwood & Underwood not only for sales, but also to recruit college students as salesmen each year. In 1905, Keystone incorporated and created the Educational Department "for the purpose of selling lantern slides, stereographs, stereoscopes, projection equipment and accessories to schools." At that time, the original sales staff became known as "Department A."

From 1915 to 1921, Keystone purchased several smaller companies. Competition in the stereoview business came to an end in 1921, when Underwood & Underwood sold most of its stereoscopic library to Keystone. This purchase gave Keystone an archive of nearly one million views and made it "the unchallenged leader in the stereoscopic educational business." In 1932, Keystone began promoting the value of stereographs as therapy in correcting visual problems and established the Stereophthalmic Department to manage that business area. Singley retired as president of the company in 1937 at the age of 72. About that time, movies began to cut into the stereograph business, but the company held on thanks largely to its ophthalmic customers. The company was purchased in 1963 by Mast Development Co., which had interests in the audiovisual and ophthalmologic fields. After 80 years in Meadville, Keystone moved to Mast’s headquarters in Davenport, Iowa in 1972. The Mast Development Co. went out of business in 1978, and donated the stereographic library to the University of California, Riverside, California Museum of Photography in 1979.

The manufacture of stereographs was labor intensive. "The entire south side of the second floor [of the original factory building] was one long row of windows." Girls "would place the negative and printing paper in frames in the sunlight to make the positive print." This process was responsible for the different exposures noticeable in any batch of stereographs. Production capability varied depending upon the negative, weather, and season. Some negatives were "slow printers." On a dark day, production might be limited to only one or two prints from each negative, but on a bright day Keystone could make at least 10-12 prints from each negative. The prints with their characteristic arch shape were glued to mounts, then electrotype captions and descriptions were added.

The front markings on each card included the Keystone logo, the principal cities where the company had offices, the image number, and the title. Keystone assigned a unique 5-digit number to each image; a "V" prefix identified images purchased from Underwood & Underwood. The reverse of Underwood & Underwood stereographs was usually blank, but the reverse of most Keystone cards had the image number, the title, and a description. The exceptions were cards rushed into production at the beginning of the war and following US entry into the conflict, and cards catering to limited audiences.

World War Sets

In early 1915, Underwood & Underwood introduced their first European War boxed set, and Keystone quickly followed suit. Underwood & Underwood's first set included original recent shots of the war and others purchased from European manufacturers, but Keystone lacked the advantage of having a photographer on scene. The first Keystone set consisted exclusively of 30 file photos from travel series and past wars with text revised to bring them up to date. Subsequent Keystone sets included European views purchased from some of the same manufacturers Underwood & Underwood used.

After 1915, Keystone offered sets in versions of different sizes to accommodate any pocketbook. During the war and in the immediate postwar period, Keystone improved and expanded their World War I sets on a nearly annual basis in order to integrate newly available images. Throughout the period World War sets were on sale, Keystone creatively retitled and altered file photos to make them appear relevant to that conflict. The Great War Through Keystone Stereographs, available from Trafford Publishers, describes the evolution of the World War sets as Keystone acquired new images.

1915. Keystone scraped together 30 file images with geographic relevance to the theaters of military operations, rewrote key parts of the text, and rushed them to their salesmen. The subject breakdown was:    Title List    Images

1916. This set supplemented the old file photos with about 100 images purchased from European manufacturers. The first purchase in 1915 included images 18000-18064, most of which are known with 1915 copyright dates. The second purchase included 18065-18080, the earliest copies of which have 1916 copyright dates. Images 18081-18099 were included with this lot or were purchased soon after.  Stereoviews in this set up to 18052 the parenthetical expression "(European War)" after the title on the front of most stereographs, the exceptions being those cards having "Europe" in the title. Keystone war stereographs sold at this time were generally of poor quality and inferior to those of Underwood & Underwood. The subject matter usually consisted of staged shots well behind the lines, if in fact they were related to the conflict at all. The technical quality was poor, with dark, muddy images being common. Soldiers shown in these images have uniforms typical of 1914-15. Of the 100 images in this series, 14 were photos from past events, 70 were official French, British, and Belgian photos, and the remainder were from the German company NPG. A 100-card set was probably produced, but it has not yet been reconstructed. The Title List gives the reconstructed 30- and 48-view versions of the set, as well as the titles of cards likely to have been in the full set.    Title List    Images

1917-18. After the declaration of war on Germany in April 1917, Keystone added about 30 new images showing Fort Sheridan, Illinois, one of the Reserve Officers Training Camps established in May 1917 to train a cadre for the National Army. Once training of the conscripts began in earnest in August 1917, photographers were dispatched to army and navy bases and the new military cantonments springing up around the country. This resulted in a bloc of approximately 110 new images. A number of stereographs from this period lack text on the back and some lack sequence numbers, suggesting haste in getting them to market. Also in 1917, Keystone purchased almost 60 official French images that were technically better than earlier images. Several of them showed a more realistic view of the war and became staples of later sets. The wartime Keystone postcard at right includes part of the image from one of those views; it shows a French artillery unit, so Keystone (unsurprisingly) took some liberties writing "She Sees her Son in France." A set of 100 views was published in late 1917.    Title List    Images

1919. The Armistice ushered in a period of constant change for Keystone, with two major sets in the following year. The first 1919 set was an addition of 100 cards to the 1917-18 set to create Keystone's  first 200-view set. In a departure from Keystone's usual practice of integrating new cards into an existing set, the new cards were merely added on as numbers 101-200. The competitive pressure from Underwood & Underwood to field a set of 200 views must have been intense. Of the 100 added cards, only 33 were from newly available images. The rest were images that had been available but not selected for the 1917-18 set. This included 10 images from the 1915 and 1916 sets that had been removed, but were put back into this set. Other images that did not make the cut in 1917 included groups from the Punitive Expedition to Mexico and training at Fort Snelling and Illinois. There were a mere 16 post-Armistice views. The first 1919 set was in use only a short time before it was superseded by a new set. The two 1919 sets had 121 cards in common. Of the two major sets this year, the second is more common.    Title List—1st 1919 Set    Images—1st 1919 Set    Title List—2nd 1919 Set    Images—2nd 1919 Set

1920. The next postwar set was published in 1920, and had 126 images in common with the second 1919 set. As with all previous Keystone World War sets, it suffered from a paucity of action shots. An unusual feature of the 1920 set was that sequence numbers were placed in parentheses in front of the image numbers. A set might mix the parenthetical numbers of the 200-, 100-, 48-, and 36-view versions, so a proper sequence of five cards could read 79-40-14-82-19. Thanks to the resulting confusion, the cards still needed to be stamped with accurate numbers on the backs. Parenthetical sequence numbers did not last the entire life of the set; handstamped cards using the sequence numbers of the 1920 set but lacking parenthetical numbers are common. The editorial objective for the 1920 set appears to have been expansion of the coverage of postwar Europe, including scenes of devastation, Occupied Germany, victory celebrations, and the Peace Conference. Variant sets featuring African-Americans were sold in the northern cities that fielded units of colored troops. Of the three major sets published in the immediate postwar period, the 1920 set is the most common. Keystone's major sets and variants from this time can be easily identified by the presence of images of postwar subjects and the absence of Underwood & Underwood images (with a "V" prefix).    Title List    Images

1921. Keystone published a greatly modified World War set after purchasing the rights to Underwood & Underwood stereoviews in 1921. The influx of new images permitted expansion of the set to 300 views and markedly enhanced the quality. Of the 300 views in this set, 166, identified by a "V" prefix, came from Underwood & Underwood. The high proportion is a tacit admission that Underwood & Underwood marketed generally superior stereoviews. In promotional material, Keystone referred to this edition as the "Keystone-Underwood War Sets Supreme."    Title List    Images

1923. A veteran of the Great War, Major Joseph Mills Hanson, edited the Keystone stereographs into a comprehensive story of the war and its aftermath. Hanson, a professional writer in civilian life, was a National Guard officer who saw active service as adjutant of an artillery battalion then Officer-in-Charge of the Historical Sub-Section at American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) Headquarters, Chaumont, France. He also wrote articles for Stars and Stripes, the official AEF newspaper. The size of the basic 1923 WWI set remained at 300 cards. Hanson used a stricter chronological presentation than the 1921 set and continued the practice of interspersing topical areas, including the major American battles. The result is a set with dramatically improved flow and quality. The 1921 and 1923 sets had 240 images in common. The Hanson set was first issued in April 1923, and was accompanied by an informative book that not only described the stereograph set, but provided a chronological outline of the war, statistics about the combatants, and an account of US forces. This set was on sale for a decade, going through five editions. The First through Fourth Editions (1923-1927) were entitled The World War Through The Stereoscope. The Fifth Edition was published in 1928 as The World War Through The Telebinocular, indicating the set was accompanied by Keystone's new black matte-finished viewer. Accuracy and a coherent structure were Hanson's principal editorial objectives, but two others apparent in his choice of images for the 1923 set were enhanced stereoscopic effect and more action.    Title List    Images

1932. The 1932 set of 400 was fundamentally different from the 1923 set. Hanson was credited as the editor, although there is no evidence of his participation in this revision. The new World War set was issued during a growth era for Keystone View Co., which moved into a large, completely remodeled building in 1930 and increased the size of its popular Tour of the World set from 600 views to 1200 in 1935. The 1932 set is rare, probably because it was a high-priced item during the Depression, and the passage of time was diminishing interest in the Great War. Of the 300 images in the 1923 set, 57 were not selected for the 1932 set. To the resulting core of 243 were added 157 new images, the chief impacts of which were to balance the set's portrayal of the Central Powers and Russia and to increase the coverage of American combat operations. The infusion of images from French glass stereoviews made the set more action-oriented and greatly improved the coverage of the American presence. The French images captured the full scope of the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, the defining moment of the Post-Civil War Army.    Title List    Images

The sets are relatively easy to identify using the table below.



Newly Acquired Image Numbers


Sequence Numbers


1915 30


(except 11948-11958

& 16768-16770)


Printed in ( ) in front of title

Plain black box with separate lid


100(?), 48, 30



Handstamped on reverse in small black font, often no text on back

Plain black box with separate lid


100, 48, 30







Handstamped on reverse in small or large black font, often no text on back

100-card version: box simulating a pair of books, entitled World Wide War or World War.

Smaller versions: plain black boxes. Color map accompanied the set

1919 (1)

200 (smaller versions may exist)





Handstamped on reverse in small or large black font, often no text on back

200--card version: box simulating a pair of books, entitled World Wide War or World War.

Smaller versions: plain black boxes. Color map accompanied the set

1919 (2)

200, 100, 48, 36




Handstamped on reverse in large black or blue font

200-, 100-card versions: book-style boxes, entitled World War Through the Stereoscope.

36- & 48-card versions: plain black boxes.

Color map accompanied the set


200, 100, 48, 36





Handstamped on reverse in large black or blue font; sequence numbers in ( ) in front of title

200-, 100-card versions: book-style boxes, entitled World War Through the Stereoscope.

36- & 48-card versions: plain black boxes


300, 200, 100, 48, 36




Usually position number box on reverse: 36-48-100-200-300; stamped front in large black font

Black book-style boxes, entitled World War Through the Stereoscope; 48-card version in single-book style; 36-card version in plain black box. also known in Underwood & Underwood "European War" boxes relabeled "Keystone View Co." at bottom


300, 200, 100, 75, 50, 48






23306, 23314


Early years: 75-100-200-300 position number box on reverse.

Later years: "W" and number on front; «beneath the number identifies views in the 200- and 100-card versions, ««identifies views in the 200-card version; often found with both schemes

Black or maroon book-style boxes and guidebook, entitled World War Through the Stereoscope (First through Fourth Editions; Fifth (1928) Edition...the Telebinocular); 75- and 50-card versions in single-book boxes


400, 200, 100






(Few w/ "V" prefix)


Same as late 1923 markings. In addition, 1932 cards usually have a « on the upper right front corner; some cards also bear 1923 numbers center & 1932 numbers right

Dark blue book-style boxes, entitled World War, with card numbers below volume numbers. Guidebook World War Through the Telebinocular (Sixth Edition).

Keystone View Company either provided images to, or produced stereoviews for smaller companies under their names. The Standard Scenic Company listed an office in Meadville, Pa. on its stereoviews, suggesting a connection, given the small size of Meadville. Standard Scenic published a number of prewar views; one World War view using a Keystone image is known. The Fine Arts Photographers' Publishing Company, London,  and the Specialty Photo Company, Australasia, were other minor companies using Keystone images. The single known image from the former is a Russo-Japanese War image also used in World War sets, so it is not known for which war Keystone prepared the view.

Standard Scenic Company 18077—Preparing to Reconnoiter the Enemy's Position—Officers Entering the Cradle of a Captive Balloon
The Fine Arts Photographers' Publishing Company 14901—Japanese Howitzer Firing 500 lb. Shell into Port Arthur with Shell in Sight

The Great War Through Keystone Stereographs and the information on this website would not have been possible without the assistance of the owner of the Keystone-Mast collection, the California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside, and two particularly patient, friendly researchers, Don Parker and Steve Thomas. Laura Polo and Brenda Smith of the Crawford County Historical Society, provided extremely helpful newspaper clippings about the Keystone View Company in its heyday.

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