Double Vision: An Orbit Day Trip to the Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum

stereoscope view card of zeppelin in flight
Zeppelin, baby! In stereo!! “The Maiden Flight of the ‘U.S.S. Akron.’ Sept. 23, 1931.” A stereoscopic view card with its characteristic double image and concave bend produced by the Keystone View Company of Meadville, PA

Meadville, Pa., New York, N.Y., Chicago, Ill., London, England. A hundred years ago, these four city names were printed on hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of photographic view cards enjoyed the world over.

With apologies to the fine people of Crawford County, one of these cities is not like the rest. That said, Meadville—little Meadville, a town of 13,000 people an hour-and-a-half due north of Pittsburgh—was actually the ring leader in this particular group in one important context.

Home to the Keystone View Company from the 1890s to the 1960s, Meadville found itself as one of, if not the, largest manufacturers of stereoscopes and stereoscopic “views” during the medium’s heyday in the first half of the twentieth century. New York, Chicago, and London were but vassals selling and distributing the wares created and produced in Meadville.

hand-tinted stereoscope view card of woman in canoe in river
Canoe dig it? “Far from Gay Cities and the Ways of Men.” A hand-tinted color view card
stereoscope view cards of nature scenes
Egrets, I’ve had a few. “A Close View of American Egrets.” / spider’s web

If you’ve never had the pleasure—or just didn’t know what they were called—a stereoscope is a handheld device with two lenses that a person looks through. Stiff paper cards with specially-printed images are placed into a slider aligned with the viewer’s eye holes.

The two photos—they’re usually photos, but come in other media too—were taken with special cameras equipped with a pair of lenses spaced at roughly the distance between a person’s eyeballs. With each of the viewer’s eyes focused on a slightly different perspective of the same scene an illusion of three-dimensionality is created.

doll figure in easy chair holding a stereoscope
A tiny man with a tiny stereoscope in a tiny comfy chair

The history of both this unique, pre-television entertainment/educational/optical technology and, more specifically the Keystone View Company, is documented at the Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum in Meadville.

The museum houses thousands of view cards produced by Keystone in their seven-decade run. Travel photos, news and current events, teaching aids, children’s stories, optical illusions, and visual gags are all collected in banks of cards available for the visitor’s perusal. One could spend an entire visit riding the old-school 3-D wave from Lake Conneaut to distant Asia and everywhere in between.

humorous stereoscope view card of mother rabbit with babies holding tiny plates
Humor was simpler back then. “The Bunnies’ Breakfast Hour.”
stereoscope view card of cartoon characters climbing a telephone pole
… and so was physical fitness. “The Human Body is Strengthened by Proper Exercise—The Eyes are no Exception.”

Hard to capture in photos is the care the Johnson/Shaw has taken to showing the way Keystone created its products. Factory workers ground the lenses, hand-carved the wooden stereoscopes, assembled the parts, glued pictures to cards, and hand-tinted black-and-white photos into gloriously over-saturated color scenes that one imagines were the pride of any stereophile’s collection.

The museum includes examples of the desks and workstations, tinting tables and shipping molds for the full process, each step attended-to by a period-dressed mannequin.

hand-tinted stereoscope view card of oranges in tree
“Orange Blossoms and Fruit, Los Angeles, California.” A hand-tinted color view card
stereoscope view cards of humorous cartoon scenes
collection of humorous color view cards
mannequin with framed photographs
Mannequin fever, Meadville-style! One of several displays showing how view cards were created.

It will come as a surprise to no one—especially those who’ve never heard of stereoscopes—that the medium didn’t last. In a pre-Internet, pre-television era, stereo views were a solid way to armchair travel to places and events far from home. They could be borrowed, traded, and housed at libraries and museums for use by larger audiences, even if viewing a particular scene was a decidedly personal experience.

But—you know where this is going—by the time America got past the depression and World War II there were just a lot more options out there: a television right in the living room, movies in vibrant technicolor, glossy magazines full of frivolity, and bebop jazz and rock-and-roll’s daring thrill. Putting a view card in the slot of a stereoscope so you could see a still image have a little extra dimension must have felt hopelessly quaint by the mid-1950s.

woman with red/blue 3-D glasses
The world looks better through rose—and blue—colored glasses. A satisfied 3-D museum-goer at Johnson/Shaw

The concept didn’t die there, though, and all of us who grew up with View-Masters and their rotating slides and stories are living proof. [Side note: apparently these are still available brand new, but it’s hard to imagine today’s youths getting that excited about them.] Old school blue/red 3-D glasses used a different optical technology but were a similar attempt to bring the third dimension to photography and film. These updates to the world of stereoscopic entertainment are also covered by Johnson/Shaw’s collection.

stereoscope view card of snare drum and drummer's hands and sticks
unlabeled view (snare drummer optical illusion)
stereoscope view card of childrens story
“The Three Bears”

That’s a lot, huh? … but there’s more!

The Johnson/Shaw also contains a unique array of glass milk bottles, each with seemingly a different size, shape, and/or graphic treatment. If you’re into the history of Western Pennsylvania dairies, The James August Roha Milk Bottle Collection is the place to be. This museum-within-a-museum has giant display cases full of silk-screened glassware memorializing extinct dairies from Erie to Uniontown. Each bears the beautiful simplicity of mid-century typography on crystalline, reusable glass and is well worth your time … if you can stop digging through the stereoscope views.

detail of milk bottle graphic
Art Deco meets oil extraction on Titusville Dairy’s milk bottle
old milk bottles from different Pennsylvania dairies in display case
A small portion of the James August Roha Milk Bottle Collection

Getting there: The Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum and James August Roha Milk Bottle Collection is located at 423 Chestnut St. in Meadville. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from Pittsburgh and is real near Conneaut and Pymatuning lakes, if you’re up that way. The museum’s only scheduled open hours are on Saturdays (10am – 4pm) but is also open by appointment on other dates (call 814-720-4306 to schedule).

exterior of brick The Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum in Meadville, PA
The Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum and James August Roha Milk Bottle Collection, Meadville

The Meadville PennDOT Road Sign Sculptures, Part 2: The Flower Garden

flower sculpture made from one way and stop roadsigns, Meadville, PA

Back in July, we ran a piece on the PennDOT road sign sculptures in Meadville, just up the highway from Pittsburgh. That post detailed the quarter-mile-long fence/mural that stretches down Route 322 and forms the majority of the immense sculptural project on the property of the local highway maintenance yard.

But not all of it. There is so much art in the PennDOT project that we decided to break the story in two parts, with this second post dedicated to the gorgeous flower garden that sits at the corner of Rt. 322 and Mercer Pike/Rt. 102.

flower sculpture made from highway roadsigns, Meadville, PA

It’s interesting that with all its financial backing and oversight, the brand new Whitney Museum was not sited at a location with Sheetz and Dairy Queen franchises on opposing corners. Worry not: no such oversight was committed in Meadville. Why, if the Crawford County art connoisseur and gastronomist wanted both an order of Sheetz’ Pretzel Meltz or Shnack Wrapz paired with a DQ Peanut Butter Cookie Dough Smash Blizzard Treat, well, she’d be all set, wouldn’t she? And what if her old man had a hankering for one of Sheetz Cold Subz or Saladz, washed down with an original Orange Julius? You know he could find that too–hopefully with room for a Peanut Buster Parfait.

flower sculpture made from highway roadsigns, Meadville, PA

In their present form the flowers look like the work of some combination between Dr. Seuss and Dr. Jekyll. All fantasy shapes and riveted steel; eye-popping iridescent reflectors and crudely cut welded metal. These photos may or may not accurately represent the scale of these pieces, so let’s just say this tall blogger was dwarfed by even the shortest of the flowers which easily topped-out at ceiling height.

silhouette of the underside of flower sculpture made from highway roadsigns, Meadville, PA

Trying to figure out which particular specimins the sculptures may represent–or even if they’re modeled on reality–led this blogger down the rabbit hole of Pennsylvania flower identification. Where’s cub reporter Tim when you need him? I won’t claim we came away with any clear IDs, but we’ve got our suspicions.

flower sculpture made from highway detour roadsigns, Meadville, PA

We’re pretty sure we located sweet wakerobin (Trillium vaseyi) in the garden, [note to self: consider “Sweet Wakerobin” for next band name] maybe a sunflower, but, we realized pretty quick that trying to match bent steel that reads Boy Scout Troup 254 to a nature guide is a fool’s errand. Maybe we could put some real scouts to work, you know, scouting actual local flora against these art flowers. Or maybe we should just sit back back with our M.T.O. Chicken Stripz and enjoy the scenery.

flower sculpture made from highway speed limit and direction roadsigns, Meadville, PA

Like the best art, the Meadville PennDOT sculptures are equal parts wonder and inspiration. How did they do that? at the same time as I want to do that! And I truly would love to do that. Maybe all it would take is a pair of tin snips, a couple trips to Construction Junction, and box of Band-Aids. Oh, and that pesky basement cleanout.

flower sculpture made from highway roadsigns, Meadville, PA

 

The Meadville PennDOT Road Sign Sculptures, Part I: The Fence/Mural

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence detail of cow

It was a dreary, cool, rainy day when The Orbit crew pulled off the highway for some high art and a bag of Combos. We’d describe the weather as very un-summer-like, except it was very much in keeping with this particular summer. This cool-weather-lover is certainly not complaining–give him forty-five degrees and drizzling and you’ll find one happy blogger chortling to himself as he types. That said, we were hoping for a break in the rain long enough to photograph one particular roadside curiosity, and were granted that particular wish.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of hot air balloons

Thurston Balloon Classic over Weight Limit Mountain

An hour-and-a-half due north of Pittsburgh lies Meadville, the seat of Crawford County. This smallish town is the unlikely host of an immense collection of sculptures, all in connection with and displayed by the local Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”) maintenance yard.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of barn and silo

Stop barn with Jct silo

According to PennDOT, the fence/mural project and its adjunct flower garden (more about that, later) were conceived by Allegheny College art professor Amara Geffen and Jack Molke, former Crawford County maintenance manager. The actual work was executed both by Allegheny College art students and the local PennDOT workers. It began back in 2001, but continued over many years until the entire maintenance yard fence was covered.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence detail of great blue heron

Great blue heron

From PennDOT:

The mural depicts life in Crawford County highlighting annual events such as the Thurston Balloon Classic and the Crawford County Fair. Local community landmarks such as the Crawford County Courthouse, Conneaut Lake Park, and Allegheny College’s Bentley Hall highlight the scene. The project depicts life in Crawford County with farm scenes, seasonal scenes and downtown Meadville buildings.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of trees

Lane change ahead tree

What no set of photographs will accurately depict is the sheer immensity of this piece. The fence is well over human height and probably reaches up to ten or twelve feet. It stretches some 1,200 feet (approx. a quarter mile) down Route 322 and around the corner. The fence is at once a single continuous piece and also dozens of distinct interlocking sections that each bleed into one another.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of singing cowboy on stage

Singin’ cowboy down at the (railroad) crossroads

There are broad strokes like rolling Crawford County hillsides and a series of sections devoted to (downtown Meadville?) storefronts. But the detail on the pieces is terrific with little touches that play with the recycled signage and “Easter egg” details that you’d never catch if you just did a drive-by.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence house

Bridge outhouse … or Bridge Out house

For all these reasons, it’s really worth parking and taking a walk down the full length of the fence and back. Then, like all great art experiences, you can cross the highway to Sheetz for some M.T.O. and group reflection.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of Canada goose

Baltimore Life/Canada goose

Are the sculptures worth a trip from Pittsburgh? They’re pretty great, and no set of photographs is really going to do them justice, so we’d have to say yes. That said, combine them with the next time you’re heading to Erie, or Conneaut Lake, or are just making a run to Meadville’s own Voodoo Brewery and you’ll have yourself a fine combo for your Combos.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of merry-go-round

Ferris wheel

Getting there: The PennDOT building and maintenance yard is on Rt. 322, literally just a minute (maybe a half mile?) from the Meadville exit off I-79. The sculptures leap out at you and go on for a quarter mile so you really “can’t miss it.”

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of clouds, rain, mountains, and tree

Art imitates life: rainy day scene