How did we get the word "stereotype" for a false conception, particularly of another culture or race? The Stereotype was originally, literally, a device that allowed citizens of the nineteenth-century to see in 3-D.
To quote http://www.ajmorris.com/roots/photo/types.php
"Also called stereo cards when mounted on cardboard (as the vast majority are) these images are easily recognized by having two nearly identical images mounted side by side. When looked at through a stereo viewer they give a three-dimensional image. Most popular from 1854 to 1938, they were produced in vast quantities, and many are of historical interest."
In other words they present the image the left eye would see to the left eye, and the image the right eye would see to the right eye. (If you can cross your eyes far enough to overlap the two side-by-side images and still focus, you can do without the machine - experienced intelligence agency photo interpreters can do this, and it's not all that difficult to learn.)
Almost as soon as there were photos, there were stereo photos. In fact, "prior to the perfection and announcement of the photographic process, the British scientist, Sir Charles Wheatstone developed some simple stereographic sketches and a rather complicated 3D viewer" according to a good summary of the history of stereo photography at http://www.oz3d.info/sscc/library/history/history.htm
Sir David Brewster created the first commercial stereoscopes but the cheaper design you'll probably find in an antique store was invented by none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes, of medical fame, in 1864.
Scenes of other parts of the world were very popular, and scenes of exotic natives in their most exotic ceremonial costumes were extremely popular.
But supply and demand are the life-blood of Capitalism, and the populace just didn't want to see how the rest of the world really was, nearly as much as they wanted to see something very exotic. So the manufacturers, the mass image media of their day, supplied that demand. Natives were seen only in the most strange costumes and poses because that's what sold. Inhabitants of other parts of the world doing ordinary things or anything that didn't fit European misconceptions didn't sell and so, soon weren't seen at all. Fakery eventually came into the equation too, in order to feed the public demand, their love of novelty, capacity for projection, and their prejudices. Quite literally, the developed world saw what it wanted to see.
The resultant process of image creation became extreme enough, and silly enough, to become a byword meaning "false image" or misconception.
It's worth revisiting this history, now that the internet is as popular as stereoscopes once were - since internet sites can easily become rigid little bubble worlds themselves. Who knows, if the thesis of little bubble worlds is true, maybe one day a couple of centuries from now, they'll say "that's an internet" to mean "that's a stereotype". (Although with luck, diverse sites such as Everything2.com will prevent that from happening.)
One further curious historical note. Stereo photography went in and out of fashion. Presumably, it wasn't popular in mid-century Germany. While the Allies used sequential reconnaissance photos (usually from two cameras shooting at slightly different angles) to produce a stereo effect to great profit in photo interpretation (V-2 rockets stuck out like a sore thumb), the Germans never used this technique in WWII, and they seem never to have thought of it. Of course, there are a number of these rather suspicious lacunae in German WW II technology and strategy, enough to make one suspicious that many apparently loyal German subjects didn't put forward all the helpful ideas they could have.
For example, during WW II the great physicist Heisenberg accepted some suspiciously bad logic of others that appeared to show that atomic weapons would be extremely difficult to build, requiring immense quantities of uranium and plutonium, and low-balled funding requests for the German Atomic Bomb project. I grant that it's impossible to know whether such a silence is why the German armed forces never used stereo photography (stupidity is also commonplace), and that it's awfully hard to discern Heisenberg's conscious and unconscious motivations at this historical remove, and given just how dangerous keeping diaries was in Hitler's Germany.
Many scientific minds voted with their feet or were expelled from Germany before the war, of course, accounting for many of these lapses; but it's impossible to entirely dismiss the suspicion that a great many others quite silently sabotaged the German war effort simply by keeping their mouths shut, or by not being as enthusiastically dedicated to Nazi success as they might have been.
So if it's true that Nazi stereotypes helped defeat Germany by chasing away talent, perhaps the lack of Stereotypes (of the photographic kind) in their parlors just may have helped doom them as well. It's at least amusing to think so.
First posted June 25, 2004