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The Great War in Stereoviews

Underwood & Underwood

In 1881, Bert and Elmer Underwood started their photography business in Ottawa, Kansas. They acquired stereoview distribution rights in Kansas and Missouri from three publishers, including J. F. Jarvis in Washington, DC, and The Littleton View Company of Littleton, NH. They developed a network of door-to-door salesmen and soon were granted marketing rights for the entire country, and began to take their own photographs. Underwood opened an eastern supply depot in Baltimore, MD in 1887. Shortly thereafter, they sent agents to establish presence in Toronto, Canada and Liverpool, England (later moved to London). By 1891, they had outgrown the Ottawa office and moved to the New York area in order to be closer to Transatlantic shipping. About this time, the Underwood brothers hit upon a successful marketing scheme for stereoviews—selling boxed sets with a common theme, accompanied by optional guide books. In order to carry out a worldwide undertaking, distribution points were established in Russia, China, India, France, Germany, and other countries. For several years they were the largest stereoview company in the world were largely responsible for making stereoscope travelogues standard fare in Victorian parlors. By 1910, the company had assembled more than 300 sets into the "Underwood Stereographic Library." This number included standard trade sets and small sets produced to order for private organizations.

Underwood & Underwood photographers, including Bert Underwood himself, covered all the major conflicts and disasters around the turn of the century. They successfully covered European subjects like the Boer War, Balkan wars, and royalty, and established a sizable clientele in Great Britain and on the continent. For much of this time, Elmer Underwood operated out of the London office. In the early years of the 20th Century, Underwood & Underwood was manufacturing up to 300,000 stereographs per year and was a leading purveyor of photographs to periodicals in the USA and Europe.

Albert K. Hibbard had been head of European operations for Underwood & Underwood since1910, and was based in London. In August 1914, he rushed to Serbia, then back to France. By the latter part of the year, censorship of press and photography had increased dramatically. In early December, after hearing the Kaiser had decreed any foreign photographer or journalist would be deemed hostile, Bert Underwood ordered Hibbard to return home. He did so and delivered the first war negatives to Underwood & Underwood's New Jersey studio after Christmas. Hibbard was responsible for most of the 12000 series of images. In early 1915, Underwood & Underwood introduced their first European War boxed set. (Sources: Stereoviews: an Illustrated History and Price Guide, by John Waldsmith, available at and a separate e-mail from Mr. Waldsmith) The company did not rely entirely on Hibbard. Some of the earliest Underwood & Underwood stereoviews originated with the German firm NPG, and no doubt other purchases supplemented Hibbard's original stereographs.

The earliest WWI cards have the same left side marking as those from the Spanish-American and Russo-Japanese Wars. That marking listed the main office in New York and offices in London and Toronto, as well as the original office. In 1904, the right side marking listed works and studios in Arlington, NJ, Littleton, NH, and Washington, DC. About 1905, the Littleton studio was closed and replaced by one in Westwood, NJ; like Arlington, it was across the river from New York in Bergen County. By 1915, the Washington studio was no longer listed, and the domestic part of the stereoview business was concentrated in the New York City area. Studios in Washington and Chicago concentrated on portraits, commercial photography, and news photography. The company was a pioneer in the transmission of images by wire. Even before the war, the news and commercial departments had become more profitable than the stereoview department. Except for images of the war, few new stereoviews were added after 1912.

Left Side Marking on Cards from the Spanish-American War, Russo-Japanese War, and Early WWI Period

Right Side Markings: 1904 (top), 1905 (middle), and 1915 (bottom)

Underwood & Underwood was among the most prolific vendors of Great War photographs of all kinds. Underwood stereograph sets were published in sizes of 36, 48, 100, 200, and 300 cards; 100-card sets appear to have been the most common size. The larger sets probably were not produced until 1917. Since Underwood sets rarely used sequence numbers, sets cannot be reconstructed from single stereographs in the same manner as Keystone sets. Cards can, however, be dated using subject matter, markings, and image numbers. In turn, sets can be dated by their relative proportions of various images.

The markings on both sides changed by late 1916 or early 1917. The left marking called Underwood & Underwood "European Publishers" with a London office, probably to emphasize their European connections and access to images of the war. The right marking included the offices in New York and Ottawa, KS, and the works in Arlington, NJ. Toronto and Westwood, NJ were not mentioned and may reflect further consolidation of facilities. The earliest style of the new markings has a less elaborate font than the previous style and was used only briefly. It is also known on unnumbered English cards not intended for the American market.

Early Font Used 1916 and Later (Left)

Early Font Used 1916 and Later (Right)

The more common style is shown below. All cards seen from US sets numbered higher than 12317 have been seen only with the "European Publishers" markings, as do numbered cards in the English War of the Nations sets. Older cards printed for later sets bear these markings, so cards up to 12317 may be found with either marking scheme.

Standard Font Used 1916 and Later (Left)

Standard Font Used 1916 and Later (Right)

Bert Underwood was commissioned a major in the Army Signal Corps and served during the war as head of the Special Services Division, Office of the Chief Signal Officer, War Department. In this capacity he implemented the guidance of the Committee on Public Information. In at least one case in 1918, he prevented Underwood & Underwood from publishing a news photo with a caption to which the CPI chairman, George Creel, had registered an objection.

Interesting variants of Underwood & Underwood sets are two lithograph sets attributed to the Pan-Chro Scope Corporation of Indianapolis. As shown in the table below (where they are called PC-1 and PC-2), they include Spanish-American War-vintage naval images and far more coverage of patriotic US activity such as Preparedness Parades than typical sets. It is likely that Underwood permitted use of some older, commercially less desirable images. Dating of other sets is approximate; because of the lack of sequence numbers, it is not known to what extent Underwood & Underwood sold these groups of cards in identical sets.

Images Number Subject 1915 1916 PC-1 PC-2 1918 1919 1920
<11818 21 Prewar Images, inc. US Navy     38% 2% 1%   0.5%
11818-12058 241 Early Battles (All Fronts), UK 100% 56% 31% 35% 58% 30.3% 6.5%
12114-12119 6 Early battles - Longwy   6%       1.3% 0.5%
12164-12168 5 UK troops in France, 1915   3% 2%   3% 1.7%  
12248-12317 70 All fronts, 1915-16   34% 23% 10% 18% 8.3% 4%
12334-12339 6 Western Front c. 1916         1% 1.7% 0.5%
12398-12404 7 Ordnance shops (1 old US, 6 UK)     2%        
12427-12431 5 Western & Italian Fronts     4% 2% 3% 0.7%  
12447-12448 2 Zeppelin LZ77, Meuse, Feb 1916         1% 0.3%  
12951-12962 12 Various Fronts, 1916         5% 2.3%  
13050-13063 14 Italian & Western Fronts, 1916       2% 2% 2.3% 1.5%
13064-13068 5 Preparedness Parade, 1917       8%      
13159-13164 6 Preparedness Parade, Apr. 1917       4%      
13206-13232 27 Plattsburg, NY Training Camp       25%   0.3% 0.5%
13676-13692 17 Russian Troops on Eastern Front           1% 1.5%
13699-13733 35 Stateside Training - Army       8%   1.3% 2%
13821 1 Russian Dead on Eastern Front         1% 0.3%  
13894-13902 9 Training at Camp Devens, MA             1%
13958-13965 8 Stateside Training - Army       2%      
14007-14033 27 Balkan Troops and Salonika         7% 5% 5%
14044-14054 11 Stateside Training - Army           0.3% 1.5%
14081-14094 14 Stateside Training - Navy              
14181-14228 48 Postwar - US & Overseas           6.3% 8%
14289-14427 139 Wartime, inc. Verdun & Somme           29% 50%
14506-14510 5 Occupation and Postwar France           0.7% 2%
14536-14567 32 Mixed Wartime & Postwar           6.7% 13.5%



Set Size:

100 100 48 48 100 300 200

Underwood & Underwood ceased production of stereoviews in 1920, largely because its European supply depots had become unprofitable due to the war. In 1921, the company sold the rights to its sizable stereograph library to the Keystone View Company. Bert and Elmer Underwood retired in 1925, and the company fragmented into separate studios in New York, Washington, and Chicago, which concentrated on commercial photography, news, and portraits. Bert died in Tucson, AZ in 1943, and Elmer died in St. Petersburg, FL in 1947.

Title Lists By Image Number:    Up to 12058    12114-13692    13699-14094    14181-14567    (NOTE: Several earlier cards lack titles and are only known to have been sold by Underwood & Underwood because the repository of records of the Keystone View Company, the Keystone-Mast Collection of the University of California, Riverside, California Museum of Photography, contains photos annotated with the Underwood image numbers.)

Sources: Newspaper clippings and typescripts provided by the Franklin Co. Historical Society, Ottawa, KS 66067; Records Group 63, National Archives and Records Administration.

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