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In the Sandals of Pharaoh: James Henry Breasted and the Stereoscope, Occasional Paper

by Elaine A. Evans, Curator/Adjunct Assistant Professor, McClung Museum

TodayI invite you to travel with the eminent American Egyptologist James Henry Breasted (1865-1935) in his quest to promote ancient Egypt in the United States via the stereoscope. Essential to this journey was his partnership with the firm of Underwood & Underwood, the American Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century publisher of stereoscopic views. Documentation will be presented about the state of the stereoscopic industry, why the two principals came together in a successful relationship, and why James Henry Breasted realized the possibilities the stereoscope had to promote his cause. Why did a scholar of such renown decide to involve himself in the popular, stereoscopic world? These and other questions will be touched upon.

Before we continue on our travels with Breasted, a few brief remarks will be given about the early invention of the stereoscope, which allowed two images to be viewed as a single image and an amazing three-dimensional illusion to appear before ones eyes. But what is not too well known is that already in the very early nineteenth century the stereoscope had become quite a popular method of travel, entertainment, and learning in the homes of the upper and middle classes. Later it would captivate James Henry Breasted. In the 1850s, the studio of the daguerreotype and stereographic images had thoroughly spread through the social and economic landscape.

In the early 1840’s, the Scottish physicist Sir David Brewster (1781-1868) had begun experimenting with the stereoscope, too. In 1849, he presented his paper on his findings about several improved stereoscopes before the Royal Scottish Society of the Arts.

One was brought deeply into the scene as one gazed through the stereoscope, hand-held before one’s eyes. Now images were as close to actuality as possible. Stereoscopic views were factual they told the truth they were real. In its January 1, 1858 issue, the Times of London noted, “You look through your stereoscope, and straightway you stand beside the fabled Nile, watching the crocodile asleep upon its sandy shore, with the superb ruins of Philae in the distance. The scene changes, and you are in the Desert…. The views were from a set of one hundred made by Francies Frith and an engineer Francis H. Wenham on one of their trips to Egypt in September 1856 to July 1857. The November 1858 Art Journal, London, also reviewed Frith’s renowned views in his book Stereoscopic Views of the Holy Land, Egypt and Nubia, published by the London firm Negretti & Zambra as both card and glass mounts. The Art Journal also noted that …in this series we have only the plain unvarnished truth: the actual is absolutely before us, and we know it.” Today, in this age of visual technology we can only guess at the delight the views caused.

We have had just a glimpse of what had taken place well before the Egyptologist James Henry Breasted and the firm of Underwood & Underwood came together. Many varieties of stereoscopes were being manufactured in all sizes and styles to captivate the both the armchair explorer and the well travelled.

Figure 1. Stereoview of the Pyramid of Khafre and the Great Sphinx at Gizeh. Underwood & Underwood, 1908.
Sir David Brewster
Figure 4. Sir David Brewster with one of His Stereoscopes, ca. 1856. From Paul Wing, Stereoscopes, The First Hundred Years, 1996.
Figure 5. Drawing of a woman Adjusting a Counterweighted, Hinged Lid for Reflecting Tints to Transparencies on a Brewster Stereoscope, ca. 1854.
Elmer Underwood
Figure 10. Elmer Underwood
Bert Underwood
Figure 11. Bert Underwood.

As we move ahead to the later part of the Nineteenth Century we meet the American Underwood brothers, who would seize this trend and create an outstanding stereoscopic company. It is a curious fact that the brothers Bert and Elmer Underwood were born in Illinois as was James Henry Breasted, Elmer in 1859 and his brother Bert in 1862, the latter three years before Breasted’s birth in 1865.

In 1878, the Underwood family moved to Ottawa, Kansas , where the brothers furthered their education. In 1879, at age 20, Elmer found himself starting up a publishing firm. The younger Bert, on the other hand, soon became a door-to-door sales agent of a home-care medical book, but in 1881 Bert decided to sell stereoscopes, produced by the Kilburn Brothers of New Hampshire as well as other producers. It became clear that the stereoscope venture was proving quite profitable. The brothers joined forces and went on to establish a successful stereoscope business in their hometown of Ottawa , Kansas . The business flourished and by 1883 they were hiring numerous salesmen.

At this time James Henry Breasted was studying in the Chicago College of Pharmacy and later, in 1890he entered Yale University. Desiring to focus on Egyptology, he travelled overseas to Germany, where for three years he studied at the University of Berlin under the great Egyptologist Adolf Erman, immersing himself in German, Hebrew, Coptic and hieroglyphic writings. In 1894, he received his Ph.D. from Berlin, with distinction and great pride. It is important to remember that up to the 1890s there had been no instruction in hieroglyphics, or textbook for the subject in the United States . “Interest in the past was firmly rooted in the Bible and in the Greek and Roman classics.”1 But the 29 years old Breasted was on the path of change.

In 1894, he married Miss Francis Hart, whom he had met, while she was studying music in Berlin. To her surprise the couple travelled to Egypt for their honeymoon. After their arrival they experienced the reality and drama of Egyptian life surrounding them, good and bad, clean and dirty, noisy and quiet. In Cairo, with carriage wheels clacking down the streets and muezzin chanting the faithful to prayer from a minaret—they were amazed. The varieties and complexities they experienced during this trip would fill Breasted with great zeal for his work and teaching about Egypt. His star was rising. In 1895, he joined the faculty and was made assistant director of the Haskell Oriental Museum at the University of Chicago. In 1901, was appointed director of the Museum and in 1905 professor of Egyptology and Oriental History, posts he held until 1935.

The honeymoon couple stayed at the old Hotel du Nil for a time and soon made their plans for a two months trip up the Nile. The well-known British Egyptologist Flinders Petrie suggested a boat was best for travel and invited them to visit his excavations at Coptos and Nagadeh. They would travel by train southward to Assiut and then by boat to Assuan some five hundred and eighty miles from Cairo , drifting downstream stopping at temples and tombs along the way. It was a momentous journey. Breasted would examine everything in sight, the remains and original records so close to his heart of a great civilization’s past.

Every known inscription would later be copied and result in publication. “He foresaw that his own most important work in Egypt would be the reconstruction of her ancient past rather than the recovery of the archaeological remains of her civilization. Excavation seemed to be eminently worth-while but of secondary importance.” 2This first Nile journey would result in rich material for his future lectures and scholarly books, and a popular guide titled Egypt through the Stereoscope for Underwood & Underwood.

Back in the United States Bert and Elmer Underwood were planning their own trip to Egypt for the winter of 1895-1896Bert had briefly studied photographic techniques in 1881 under Maurice Abel of Menton , France , an experience which encouraged him to utilize his skill more fully in Egypt . The company had been using the photographs of various photographers most of whom are unidentified. At least one photographer of Egyptian views is noted in their 1890 Catalogue of Underwood & Underwood’s Choice Stereoscopic Views as “Negatives by Bierstadt.” The photographer Charles Bierstadt of Niagara Falls , New York , brother of Albert Bierstadt, the celebrated American painter, travelled to the Near East to photograph scenes of the Holy Land and Egypt . His outstanding negatives of Egyptian views were used and republished by Underwood & Underwood. 4

James Henry Breasted and His wife
Figure 12. James Henry Breasted and His wife Ride Camels in the Egyptian Desert. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago.
Figure 13. Advertisement for Hotel du Nil.
James Henry Breasted
Figure 14. James Henry Breasted Copies Inscriptions in Nubia , 1906. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago.
Elmer Underwood
Figure 15. Elmer Underwood Studies World Globe.
Figure16. Obelisk at Assuan—Bert or Elmer Underwood in the Stereoview?
Figure 17. Title Page for A Trip Around the World, 1897.

In Egypt the brothers produced a large, handsome series of stereoscopic negatives of ancient monuments along the Nile River and modern Egyptian life. The Underwoods arranged their new photographs as a tour up the Nile. This photographic journey marked a major and important phase in enhancing their stereoview portfolio. Although Bert Underwood had become the company’s chief photographer, in 1897,following his return from photographing Egypt, he decided it best to hire other photographers to meet the huge demand. It was also a winning step that would attract Breasted, whose quotes of praise were an important asset to the Underwood publications.

By 1897the company had become international. Listed their 1897 catalogue, A Trip Around the World, were offices in New York, London, England, Ottawa, Kansas, Toronto, Canada and Branch Agencies in the principal cities around the world as far as India and New Zealand. James Henry Breasted readily wrote enthusiastic words of support for their Egypt box set of stereoviews. The up and coming faculty member at the University of Chicago stated, “Having seen the Oriental photographs of Mesrs. Underwood & Underwood, I am very glad to testify to their unusual beauty and value, and to assure the publishers that their collection offers to the purchaser a very vivid and adequate picture of the countries and peoples illustrated.” Breasted was hooked. Several years later he would become even more involved.

Breasted was an extraordinary scholar, but also alert to different and popular ideas. So it was that early in his career he recognized the great potential of the double, photographic process. Breasted had observed the popularity of the stereoscope and in particular the advancements made by Underwood & Underwood. Here was an important method to introduce to the public and students the land of the pharaohs in full, three-dimensional detail, offering them an exciting way to experience Egypt. As a scholar he had travelled in the sandals of pharaoh to examine in depth Egyptian monuments. He was well aware of the importance of photography, which he used extensively in his work copying ancient Egyptian inscriptions on monuments. Breasted was an innovative educator. He lived in a time when the stereoscope was a proven success in home entertainment and public education. He envisioned its benefits and great importance to stimulating interest in Egyptology and attracting young recruits. Underwood and Underwood also knew the attraction Egypt had, even more so in the Victorian age of Egyptomania.

Each day was one of flurrying activity. By 1901, Underwood &Underwood was the greatest publisher in the business. All levels of society were interested in the stereoscope, not just the middle and upper classes. Success was mainly in selling sets of stereoviews, not individual cards. Underwood & Underwood were pioneers in the concept of “Boxed Sets” of related views, fully developing “the concept of thematic groupings of views.”

Cards had brief descriptions on the backs and captions in six languages. As was mentioned earlier, the basic idea of the travel set already had been recognized in 1858 by Negretti and Zambra, a London photographic publisher The important innovation by Underwood was the introduction of longer, explanatory text written by a leading expert on the back of each stereoview card, not just a line of text on the front and caption on the back as seen here. Also, leading experts wrote an accompanying guidebook and provided data for the detailed maps.

The Underwood set was not merely a series of views of a particular region, it was a carefully integrated sequence of views that would show cities, government buildings, industry, topography, natural resources, agriculture and people—all peoples in a mixed population. Nothing like it had been done before. A basic “Travel System” for Egypt included a boxed set of one hundred stereoviews, the guidebook with an insert for the patent key maps, and a stereoscope. This whole educational concept set well with Breasted. He was quite vocal about the responsibility one had in broadly educating everyone and from different points of view.

Figure 18. Drawing of a Man with a Stereoscope, Pointing to Egypt, ca. 1905.
Bert Underwood
Figure 19. Bert Underwood with Shelved Boxed Sets in Background, 1908.
Figure 20. Front of a Stereoview.
Figure 21. Back of a Stereoview.
Figure 23. Cover of The Stereoscopic Photograph, 1902.
James Henry Breasted
Figure 24. James Henry Breasted Focuses His Camera in Egypt. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago.

The Underwood company advertised, “…Tours are carefully selected by persons of wide experience and liberal education…. Schools and public libraries are turning more and more to the stereoscope to put students and readers in touch with the actual places of which they are studying. 5 It was an educational boon that was supported by universities, too.

A 1902 Underwood & Underwood magazine The Stereoscopic Photograph, features a female figure holding a stereoscopic camera on its Art Nouveau style cover. Near her is listed some forty American, British and Canadian universities whose faculty members endorsed Underwood & Underwood stereoviews. The list includes the University of Chicago and its prominent faculty member and also the University of Tennessee.

Appreciating its great educational value and potential to his field of Egyptology, Breasted continued to offer his praises in Underwood & Underwood publications. He had also agreed to prepare a guide book to accompany the Underwood’s set of one hundred Egyptian views. It far and away would surpass their earlier guides The Land of the Pharaohs through the Perfecscope of 1897 and others. 6 On July 31, 1901, Underwood & Underwood wrote to him about writing an Egyptian guide for them. In their letter they asked he “…put what he has to say in the first person much as he would talk as if he could stand with a person in the presence of the actual places.” In a letter of October 25, 190l, it was stated that Mr. Chas H. Baker, a photographer, was to be sent to Egypt to “Make up a set from which can be selected a splendid series….” 7By August of 1903, Breasted had made a selection of one hundred stereoviews. Alas, much tense correspondence followed about missed deadlines, changes and delays. Finally, a June 1905 letter noted the guide was near to completion. Its preparation had turned out to be quite time consuming.

So it was that in the heat of a summer visit to California in August 1905, Breasted was teaching during the day and spending evenings and weekends reading proofs, and making indexes for his great masterpiece History of Egypt, working on his important Ancient Records, and also finishing up details on Egypt Through the Stereoscope. While he worked on the popular guide, he was filled with enthusiasm for the whole idea of the stereoscope. In the book’s Introduction Breasted said as much: “In the preparation of the following pages, I have constantly had my eyes within the hood of the stereoscope, and I cannot forbear to express here the growing surprise and delight, with which I observed as the work proceeded, that it became more and more easy to speak of the prospect revealed in the instrument, as one actually spread out before me. The surprising depth and atmosphere with which the scientifically constructed instrument interpreted what were actually but bits of paper and pasteboard, were a revelation; indeed, I constantly sat by an open window looking out over the actual ruins of the Nile Valley, which I could study, one after another, at will.” 8

Also, to produce good maps careful study of a subject or area was necessary. The photographer placed his camera at various, ingenious vantage points to capture expansive vistas with striking effects and where the traveller might look upon the scene. In other instances, the photographer placed himself in a crowd of people and caught their expressions in conversation, prayer or at work. Breasted advised the photographer.

The 1905 guide was a great success so much so that in 1908 the second edition of Egypt through the Stereoscope and boxed set was published. The Egypt tour, with explanatory notes, included a boxed set of one hundred views, a 360 page guide book by Breasted, and twenty Underwood patent maps. Underwood & Underwood frequently advertised that “Each Guide book is written by a well-known author, thoroughly conversant with the country, city or locality which the tour covers; the writer assumes the role of a personal guide, standing by the side of the traveler on the spot.” The stereoview cards contained “original” views not photographic copies. The McClung Museum was fortunate, indeed, to acquire a set in 1998.

The McClung Museum’s 1908 boxed set and sampling of views:

The guide was finished and in November 1905 he and his family were in Egypt to pursue yet another scholarly expedition up the Nile .

As visionaries and astute businessmen the brothers Underwood foresaw, alas, the demise of stereoscopes caused by illustrated books, magazines, post cards, movies and radio. During 1921 and 1923 they sold all their stereoview and stereoscope holdings to the Keystone View Company and in 1925 they retired.

Nevertheless, stereoviews still continued to amaze as illustrated by the young man on the cover of the January 1922 Saturday Evening Post. Spot appears eager to have a look, too.

Boxed set
Figure 25. The 1908 Boxed Set, Maps and Stereoscope in the Collection of the McClung Museum . McClung Museum: 1998.10.1-3; 2003.2.
Colossus of Memnon
Figure 33. Colossus of Memnon, West Bank, Thebes.

No doubt, throughout his career James Henry Breasted never forgot having played a meaningful role in his earlier venture with Underwood & Underwood. “In the dozen years preceding 1905, successful and spectacular excavations had aroused an extra-ordinary interest in ancient Egypt. Ever since he published his doctoral dissertation at the University of Berlin in 1894 about the pharaoh Akhenaten, he knew “that there was progress in ancient Egyptian thought and that the Egyptians had made major contribu-tions to the philosophy and moral feeling of mankind.” 9 This idea was new to a Victorian world focused on the Bible. Breasted was a scholar who took giant steps to open up people’s minds about ancient Egypt . He dispelled myths. Breasted wanted to present an historical truth about the greatness of Egypt . Educational benefits would result through a visual device, which was the next best thing to a direct experience. It would condition one to appreciate the subject.

The opportunity to associate himself with the world of stereoscopes and the potential they held for furthering his educational ideology could not be passed up. The stereoscope had fired his imagination. Breasted was intensely interested in new methods and new techniques in recovering early chapters of man’s history, but chiefly in promoting a new attitude to and a new interpretation of the past. Breasted and the stereoscope had caught the moment.

* This paper was presented before members of Association for the Study of Travel in Egypt and the Near East, July 12, 2003, Worcester College, Oxford University, Oxford, England. Spellings for names and sites are those used by James Henry Breasted.

A version was published in Who Travels Sees More: Artists, Architects and Archaeologists Discover Egypt andthe Near East, Diane Fortenberry (ed.), Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2007.

My grateful thanks to the staff of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Stereoscopic Research Library for their kindness in allowing me access to the collections. Also, my sincere appreciation to the staff of the Smithsonian Institution Archives for their assistance.


  1. Wilson, p. 97.
  2. Breasted, Pioneer, p. 77.
  3. A grateful note of thanks to Shirley Glubok-Tamarin for suggesting it was Charles Bierstadt.
  4. Darrah, p. 46; Waldsmith, p. 94.
  5. Manual, p. 42
  6. Price List, p. 2.
  7. My sincere appreciation to John Larson, Archivist, Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, for making the Breasted letters available to me.
  8. Breasted, Guide, p. 13
  9. Wilson , p. 102.

Selected Reading

Breasted, Charles, Pioneer to the Past. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943.

Breasted, James Henry, Egypt though the Stereoscope . New York : Underwood & Underwood, 1905.

Brey, William, “Ten Million Stereo Views a Year” in Stereo World, January/February 1990.

Darrah,William C., The World of Stereographs. Gettysburg : W. C. Darrah, Publisher, 1977.

Osborne, Albert E., The Stereograph and The Stereoscope with Special Maps and Books Forming
a Travel System. What They Mean for the Individual and What They Promise for the Spread
of Civilization. 
New York : Underwood & Underwood, 1900.

The Photographic and Fine Art Journal for January, April, June, December 1856.

“Stereograph Making” in The Stereoscope Photograph, volume l, number l, June 1901.

Treadwell, T. K., Underwood & Underwood’s 1890 Stereoview Catalog and Other Documents. The
Institute for Photographic Research 1995.

Underwood & Underwood, A Trip Around the World. New York : Underwood & Underwood, 1897.

__________, Manual of Instruction from Underwood & Underwood. New York : Underwood &
Underwood, 1900.

__________, The Stereocopic Photograph, vol. 2, No. l. New York : Underwood & Underwood,
Summer 1902.

__________, Original Stereographs. Catalogue No. 25. New York ; Underwood & Underwood, 1905.

__________, The Underwood Travel System: What Is It? New York : Underwood & Underwood, 1906.

__________, Catalogue 28. The Underwood Travel System. New York : Underwood & Underwood, [1908].

__________, Price-List. The Underwood Travel System. New York : Underwood & Underwood, 1908.

Veasey, Beryl A. (ed.), Egypt. A Journey through the land of the Pharaohs. New York : Camera/ Graphic Press, Ltd., 1978.

Waldsmith, John, Stereoviews. An Illustrated History and Price Guide. Radnor: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1991.

Wilson, John A., “Biographical Memoir of James Henry Breasted 1865-1935” in the National
Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
 , vol. XVIII, Washington 1938.

Wing,Paul, Stereoscopes. The First One Hundred Years. Nashua : Transition Publishing, 1996.