Santa Claus in wiggle stereoscopy 1897

Figure 1 - Wiggle Steroscopy of Santa Claus calling for back-up supplies, 1897. From Public Domain and in the public domain because of its age.

Figure 1 – Wiggle Stereoscopy of Santa Claus calling for back-up supplies, 1897. From Public Domain Review and in the public domain because of its age.

OK, so it is nearly Christmas, and I have spend more time than I should have searching for antique images of Santa Claus, aka Old Saint Nick.  The modern branding of this figure, of course, comes from Clement Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas.”  Yesterday I came across the curious image of Figure 1. It is an example of “Wiggle Stereoscopy” from 1897. I got this from Public Domain Review but the original is apparently in the United States Library of Congress’ Image Collection. It is actually a part of a series of stereopairs concerning Santa’s visit. As the story goes Santa has run out of supplies and needs to use that most modern of conveniences, the telephone, to call the elves for back up.

Is the real magic here Santa Claus or the stereo image? There are many ways of viewing a stereo pair. Wiggle stereoscopy is closely related to shuttered stereoscopy, where a shutter flips your eye’s view from one image to the next. It is remarkable that the mere act of flipping, and not so rapidly at that, creates the sense not just of 3D but of motion. Again this effect lies in the difference between physical optics and physiological optics. We cannot perceive a thing without our brains. And here our brain does a marvelous job of filling in the unseen but expected. The brain is inseparable from perception.

You may imagine further that there was something cute about Santa Claus, so antique a fellow, reaching for the modern telephone – and that back in 1897. Santa is truly technology-forward and today it would likely be an IPhone. The ambiguous paradox that is Santa Claus extends beyond our previous discussion of how does Santa Claus manages to confine himself to physical law and still visit every child in the world?  Back in the olden days, Santa was like Geppetto and made only wooden toys. But as you can already see in this 1897 image he continuously modernizes, and it is not so easy to manufacture using thermoplastic molds in a workshop at the North Pole. And then there is this small issue about patent infringement.  Has Santa become merely a distributor –  a money launderer of Christmas gifts? What will become of Santa Claus, indeed of the entire Elfen Workforce, when Amazon truly switches to drone technology?

Think of these weighty issue come Christmas eve. Ponder the conflict between modernism and myth as you listen for the sound of sleigh bells on the roof.

This entry was posted in History of Photography.