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The Great War in Stereoviews

French Stereoviews

Of the principal combatants in the Great War, France mobilized more men and suffered more losses than any nation except Russia and Germany. By the end of the war 43 percent of her male population had been mobilized[1] and she had lost 4,938,000 killed, wounded, missing, and prisoners.[2] Her territory had been ravaged and a substantial proportion of her noncombatant population made into refugees. Not surprisingly for the country that was the focus of the conflict, France produced the richest, most varied collection of stereographs of any of the warring nations.

The high quality of the photographic record happened in spite of the French government, which was determined to exert control over images of the war to gain a propaganda advantage. The authorities wanted to present evidence of German barbarism while minimizing the visual impact of suffering by the French military. In May 1915, the Minister of War created the Army Photographic Section (SPA-Section photographique de l’armée, later the SPCA—Section photographique et cinématographique de l’armée) to achieve those goals through censorship.[3] An order forbidding the possession by ordinary soldiers of cameras in the war zone was obeyed no more than the order banning keeping of diaries.

Government control of the dissemination of photographs during the war spared the public the full impact of unprecedented artillery concentrations on land and  human beings, of rivers of mud, and of the filth of trench warfare.  But that did not mean such photos were not being avidly snapped by soldier photographers. With the end of censorship after the Armistice, they fed a growing market for photography of previously forbidden subjects.

At least five major manufacturers produced glass and paper stereoviews for the domestic market. All French manufacturers used brief titles, often with a place name or the name of a major battle. Each maker usually placed image, sequence, or series numbers on its stereoviews. The earliest paper stereoviews were mounted on decent curved cardstock similar to that used by American and British companies. As the war went on and the military consumed ever-greater quantities of wood, stereoviews were mounted on cheap cardstock, then finally just unmounted photo paper. Approved propaganda themes may be inferred from wartime stereoviews:

o       Germans are barbarians destroying French religious and cultural heritage

o       The French soldier is well-fed and cared for in camps; trenches provide adequate protection and sanitation

o       French ordnance is plentiful and powerful

o       France does not fight alone, but has brave allies, including its colonies

Wartime stereographs provided the enemy no useful information, such as unit locations and weapon capabilities. With an eye towards the home front, they did not show wounded or dead French soldiers or the reality of life in the trenches: fatigue, poor sanitation, mud, vermin, and the terror of artillery bombardments. Some manufacturers did produce stereoviews showing the chasse aux poux or hunting for lice. Since ordinary people at that time had questionable sanitary practices and often slept on straw ticking, that must have been seen as a homey touch, rather than a misery the troops had to endure.

French Glass Stereoviews

There were three major wartime producers of glass stereoviews. Éditions S.T.L. produced medium format (6 x 13 cm) and small format (45 x 107mm) glass stereoviews, as well as paper copies; most bear an “STL” mark and  have a distinctive layout. Verascope Richard, founded by Jules Richard, a pioneer in stereoscopy and an accomplished photographer, produced small format slides that usually bear the name of the company and a distinctive 6-digit number.  La Stéréoscopie Universelle (LSU) produced medium and small format glass slides, most of which bear an “LSU” mark.  They also produced paper stereoviews, probably after the war. All three manufacturers were based in Paris and were probably retailers as well as wholesalers. The chart below shows the distinctive features of their glass views.

STL 346, Casque ayant reçu un éclat d’un obus

Helmet having received a shell
fragment (medium format)

The narrow title bars at center are characteristic of the medium (6 x 13 cm) format. STL views look clean and almost always follow the pattern of number, title, and “S.T.L. Ed.” or “S.T.L.”

Verascope Richard 163506, Reims: rue près de la place Royale— ruines

Reims: Street near the Place Royale—ruins (small format)

The wide center space is characteristic of the small (45 x 107 mm) format. The typed company name and the 6-digit number are distinctive. Verascope Richard titles are sometimes typed.

LSU 2047, Maison de Champagne 1916 Boyau de 1ère ligne

Maison de Champagne 1916 First-line trench (medium format)

LSU images usually bear the marking “L.S.U.”, often in stylized form, and a 3- or 4-digit number. Reversed text and extraneous titles and numbers are common on LSU stereoviews. This slide has the original title on the bottom.


There were two other major producers of glass military stereographs, both of which chiefly operated after the Armistice and sold sets composed of stereoviews by multiple photographers. The actual company name of what may have been the largest is unknown, but is referred to here as the Brentano’s/Over There Group. Its views are often encountered packed in boxes labeled “Brentano’s,” which was then and remains today a Parisian book store specializing in English-language publications. While Brentano’s no longer has business records from the World War One period that would prove its role in the manufacture and sale of stereographs,[4] there was an American connection that suggests the store had a central role. Unlike STL, Verascope Richard, and LSU, this group included extensive coverage of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).  Brentano’s advertised in Stars and Stripes, the AEF newspaper, and the maker of this group marketed its stereoviews in the United States through at least two New York companies, Over There Review, Inc. and STERECO. The small format stereoviews in this group most often have characteristic handwritten titles instead of title bars. Medium format stereoviews by this manufacturer have title bars that were often carried over when views originally produced in this size were produced in small format.

Fleury: cadavres français et allemands

Fleury: French and German corpses

This image would not have been approved for wartime sale. Handwritten titles are common in this group. The title was written on each slide as it was produced.

Craonne: entonnoir organisé

Craonne: Crater organized (for defense)

Several types of title bars were used in this group. Title bars were part of the image and did not need to be put upon each slide. The clear bars show this slide  was originally medium format.

The other major postwar maker of glass stereographs was the Service des Ventes de l’Union Nationale des Combattants (SDV de l’UNC—Sellers’ Service of the National Union of Combatants). The UNC is a French organization similar to the American Legion and was formed shortly after the Armistice. Its SDV assembled a group of over 800 glass stereoviews in medium and small formats. The majority of SDV views came from LSU, suggesting that company operated the SDV. SDV views may be identified by their characteristic 3- or 4-digit number. They were sold in series of 10, numbered with a series number of zero to 106 and a view number of zero to nine, so a view with a number of  436 or 43 6 refers to the 6th view in series 43.

SDV 436 Verdun Après l'Attaque

Verdun After the Attack

This slide shows the number reversed. It is common to find some or all of the titling reversed on LSU-produced stereoviews. Note that this slide bears its original LSU number 2072, and that the title was the same for both LSU and SDV versions.

Each of the major manufacturers of glass stereoviews except Verascope Richard sold stereographs to American companies. A few STL and LSU images were obtained by Underwood & Underwood during the war, then subsequently by Keystone after it purchased the rights to Underwood & Underwood stereographs in 1921. Keystone acquired several Brentano’s/Over There images for its definitive 1932 World War set. Troutman and Fisherview acquired some STL and LSU images.

Appearance of similar images of the same event illustrates the intense competition among the companies to obtain the best shots. The distinctive position of the German pilot's body and the tent-like structure mark these as multiple images of the same crash, which occurred  behind the French lines near Verdun.

STL 837 Avion boche abattu (German aircraft shot down) is the most common image. It was used by Underwood & Underwood and Keystone.

Brentano’s Avion allemand descendu devant Verdun (Crashed German aircraft by Verdun) is nearly identical to the STL image, but the French officer at center has his right elbow bent. LSU also produced a slide with this image.

SDV 292 Avion descendu is an entirely different view of the same crash.

SDV 804 Avion abattu avec son pilote (Aircraft shot down with its pilot) shows  bystanders bending over looking at the wreck.

There are only a few other instances of multiple manufacturers using the same or similar images of the same event. Of over 1600 different French glass stereoviews known to the author, there are five instances where LSU/SDV, STL, or Brentano’s used similar images and five where they used identical images. This small number (00.6% of the total) is not likely to have been intentional.

Glass stereoviews, and to a lesser extent paper stereoviews, often had locality names in their titles that were not the accepted names of major battles. This link associates some of those locations with the major campaigns of the war.

After the war, an unusual type of stereo viewer called the Alternascope was marketed in France. It used large glass plates containing 12 stereo pairs each. Several Great War plates were made, all containing STL images.

French Paper Stereoviews

The principal producer of paper stereoviews during the war was Paris-Stéréo. Its stereoviews were are most often found on paper, although medium format glass stereoviews exist. Early paper versions are contact prints of 6x13 cm glass originals mounted on 85 x 170 mm cardstock; these have typed titles in the center. Later cards were usually unmounted on 85 x 165 mm photo paper with the titles under the right images. Wartime advertisements noted that Paris-Stéréo views were authorized by the French government. The subject matter was fairly tame and reflected Ministry of Defense propaganda guidance.  Troutman was the only American manufacturer to produce stereographs from Paris-Stéréo images.

2670 La lettre du pays.

The letter from home.

The typed center title is characteristic of early Paris-Stéréo prints.

2630 Maricourt. L'Eglise bombardée.

Maricourt. Bombed-out church.

This is a Paris-Stéréo glass stereograph. It has the same type of title as the early paper stereoviews.

2771 Une ville sous bois. Construction d’un abri

A city under the woods. Construction of a shelter.

This is a later Paris-Stéréo print that was unmounted and had the typed title in the lower right border.


STL produced paper stereoviews as well as glass. Early STL paper views had black center title bars and were not marked with the company name. Later editions had titles and the company name printed at lower right. Both were usually unmounted.

Bataille de Verdun (court abandonné)

Battle of Verdun (abandoned short-barrel howitzer)

The title on a black center bar is characteristic of early paper views.

155 court abandonné

Abandoned short-barrel 155mm howitzer

The later version has the title and company marking at lower right.

STL 748 Un 155 court abandonné

An abandoned short-barrel 155mm howitzer

The same image was also produced in a glass stereograph.

The most common LSU paper stereoviews (arbitrarily called Type I) have the title, and usually a sequence number and series name, printed directly on one of the images in black or white. They are known both mounted and unmounted. LSU produced hundreds of glass stereoviews during the war, but the only ones known in paper are the later group with numbers in the 8000s and 9000s. Neither the glass views in those series nor the derivative paper views bore any manufacturer’s name. LSU Type I views included a series devoted to the AEF and were apparently popular with American troops. Several were included in the Troutman World War set.

10. Armée Americaine Leçons d’Anglais et Français

American Army English and French Lessons.

This is a typical LSU Type I paper stereoview.

There were a few other types of paper stereographs that may have been produced by LSU, although none bear any manufacturer’s mark. The table below shows a standard LSU type I card and a later copy with a second distinctive title characteristic of a group called Type II. The fairly scarce Type II cards have the title printed under either the left or right image. This Type II showing Xivray church retained the Type I title on the left image, suggesting Type II was a later style of Type I. A further variant is the Type III card with the title in an ornate font. While the manufacturer is unknown, Types II and III were mounted on cheap, yellowish card stock identical to that used for LSU Type I cards and wholly unlike that used by the other major manufacturer of paper stereographs, Paris-Stéréo. If Types I, II, and III were not made by the same manufacturer, their mounts were provided by a common supplier.

Église de Xivray. 1ère ligne sans cesse bombardée

Church of Xivray. First line bombarded without ceasing

This LSU Type I is mounted on cheap, yellowish card. It has a long title, necessitating a smaller font and use of both white and black letters (close-up below).

Église de X. 1ère ligne sans cesse bombardée

Church of X. First line bombarded without ceasing

This bears a Type II title in addition to the original (close-up below).

Église de Souain - Intérieur

Souain Church - Interior

Type III cards have an ornate script font (close-up below). 


There are a few known Brentano’s/Over There stereoviews on paper. They are poor quality and mounted on cheap cardboard. They lack titles, but have sequence numbers. One cardboard view bears the notation “I.M.R. Co.”, which was a New York firm that marketed peep show machines, including those with stereoviews. Given the relative scarcity of paper stereoviews from this group and their characteristics, it may be that they were only produced for this use.

This is an untitled paper version of Brentano's glass stereoview 229, Une Cagna La Manille (A Dugout— The Card Game); manille was a popular card game played with a deck of 32 and the tens ranked above aces.

Assuming this stereoview was made for use in a machine, the sequence number (13) at center would have been keyed to an index.

A French manufacturer of lithographed Great War paper stereoviews was Lévy Fils & Cie., Paris, which primarily made postcards. Lévy's lithographs were sold during and after the war. The series, called American Stéréorama, may have included a few hundred views. After the war, Lévy published a series of 230 stereo photographs. A maker of specialty war stereographs was F. Meiller, in the Paris suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine. After the war, he published some glossy views entitled Pages d'Histoire Oculaire. The sources of Lévy's and Meiller's images are not known.

[1]Major Joseph Mills Hanson, The World War Through the Stereoscope, (Meadville, Pennsylvania: Keystone View Company, 1923), 130.

[2]Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1916-1918, Part One, (Norwalk, Connecticut: Easton Press, 1991), 52.

[3]Jean-Pierre Verney and Jérôme Pecnard, L’Album de la Grande Guerre, (Paris, 2004), 11.

[4]E-mail, Brentano’s, 12 Feb 2004.

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