Joseph L. Bates, Boston Merchant


Joseph L. Bates was born in 1807. For most of his life he was a merchant in Boston. Bates was listed in the 1845 Boston city directory as a partner selling musical instruments. In 1850 he was listed as being a seller of fancy goods at 129 Washington Street where he remained until 1878. Fancy goods were described as “Rich Dress Combs, Paper Mache and Ornamental Goods, Parian Ware (Statues), Fancy Boxes, Writing Desks, Money Cases, Fans, Toys, Perfumery, Cases, Umbrellas.” He moved the business to 4 Beacon in 1879 then to a smaller building in 1881 located at 13½ Broomfield where he remained until 1886. The inclusion of stereoscopes and views would have been a natural extension for Bates’ business and a recent find of a nice folding box of glass views shows Bates’ name and dates of early 1862. Bates most likely would have been selling a Brewster style viewer at that early of a date.  Bates even minted his own script currency with his name and address on the back.

A rare 1870's stereoview of busy Washington Street taken at 10:30 am from the third floor window of 132 Washington Street which was the studio of Charles Pollock. You can see about half the store front and the awning of Bates store at 129 Washington Street at the bottom right. The old South Meeting House with it's clock tower is on the left and the Old State House is about 2 blocks away. There were 40 photographers on Washington Street alone in 1870.


Another rare 1870's cabinet view showing the front of Bates store at 129 Washington Street again taken from the third floor window of 132 Washington Street. It took 10 years to find this view.

Bates was the secretary of the Charitable Mechanic Association from 1854 to 1884. This organization was started by Paul Revere and provided many sporting events, raised money for civic projects and held a popular yearly exposition in Boston where inventors and artists could show their goods and compete for prizes. Bates exhibited some of his stereoscopes and views in 1865 and was awarded a bronze medal. Frequent visitors to Bates' shop were Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Longfellow who were also members of the CMA.

Bates was a bachelor and owned a house at 57 Allen Street where he rented rooms to boarders. About 1873 he sold his home and moved in with his cousin Dr. William Cornell and his family. Bates died at home on March 2, 1886. A death notice was published in the Boston Morning Journal where it was noted that he was 79. The funeral was held March 4th at the house of Dr. Cornell at 135 W. Concord. It was customary to hold funerals in private homes at that time and none of the Boston papers published obituaries as is done today. 

The origin of the Holmes / Bates Stereoscope

Oliver Wendell Holmes invented the hand held stereoscope. In a letter to W. Le Conte Stephens, Holmes states “the original, great-grandfather pattern, the real Adam” of hand stereoscopes was born or developed in 1861. He further states about his stereoscope design “I think mine may be called simple, strong, cheap, handy.” Holmes wrote an article about his invention in January 1869 for the Philadelphia Photographer. He did not patent his design stating, “I did not care to make money by so obvious and simple a contrivance.” and tried to interest others in producing it without success. In one of his many articles Holmes writes; “Mr. Joseph L. Bates, to whom I had shown one of my first models, and who had had one made by my pattern, to my order, had been thinking over the matter pretty seriously and had come to the conclusion that there was something in my skeleton stereoscope. He went so far as to make a few of them on his own account and found purchasers for them. I was very glad to have somebody get profit and pleasure from my contrivance and made him quite welcome to whatever there was to be gained from its manufacture.” “From his establishment have come certain improvements of much value, particularly the sliding arrangement for adjusting the focus. The last improvement is that of fitting the hand instrument to the ordinary stand by a dovetailed groove.” Holmes did not give Bates credit for the hood shape which Bates designed after noticing that users were using their hands over their foreheads to shield out the light.

The first patent that includes the features of the Holmes design was issued to Antonio Quirolo on February 2, 1866. Brass tags on some early Bates models shows a patent date of August 13, 1867 so you can surmise that Bates was making this style prior to this date, between 1865 and 1867. Holmes later noted that Bates for some time enjoyed a monopoly of the trade in stereoscopes but did not patent his improvements. This type of hand held viewer has since been known as the Holmes / Bates viewer in tribute to these two gentlemen.

The First Bates Viewers 

The earliest viewers sold by Bates before 1868 came with a fat wood handle or with a handle and turned stand that was either mounted by use of a square wood block on the banjo or held by screws in front of the handle. These early viewers had paper hoods.


The next viewer with some improvements matches the one described by Holmes.  It has a unique iron dovetailed shoe for holding the handle and stand. These viewers also had a unique large brass clip on the crossbar. This is one of only two styles used by Bates, any other is a replacement. The viewer is mahogany; the hood is made of a leather bookbinder’s material. A wood hood was never used on these early viewers. Velvet was never used on any Bates viewer. Viewers will be found with wood hoods but close investigation will reveal that the hood has been replaced. The manufacture of wood hoods required steam whereas the paper hoods could be subcontracted and custom printed by any bookbinders shop which simplified manufacturing. The initials "JLB" are stamped on the center of the hood. There is a brass plate that bears the makers and patent mark along with a model of the viewer in a folded position. The brass plate always seems to be creased and bent, the result of poor mounting. The brass plate shows a patent date of August 13th, 1867. A 2009 search of records at the Patent Office shows new information. Bates filed for a "Design for a Trade-Mark" # 2,743, for the brass plate and not the stereoscope. Perhaps that was his way of trying to claim a patent for the stereoscope which had already been patented by Quirolo.

A later model, 1874,  (bottom right) has the optional four leg collapsible stand. The stand was patented by Charles G. Bush (1825 - 1900) on November 17, 1874, patent #156875. Bush lived in Boston at 65 Albion and was a well known maker of Kaleidoscopes. This stand version was modified to accept the “dovetailed groove” attachment Holmes spoke of. The stand also bears a patent date of November 17, 1874.  The legs could be removed in two pieces from the stem. In the patent filing Bush states that the stand was designed for Kaleidoscopes and other purposes. Other changes to the stereoscope are a heavy brass clip on the cross bar and a brass retainer that helped to hold the shoe to the receiver which was very sloppy. Again the hood is stamped "JLB" at the center. Due to the complex construction and the shape of the banjo I believe these early viewers were made by James Lee to be sold exclusively by Bates.

A detailed view of an early round base stand. This stand matches the one on the brass plate.

A close up of the patented Bush stand mounted on a Kaleidoscope, ca; 1875


Progressive Design Changes 

The standard hand held model shown below is the one seen most often. Many but not all bear his name or initials. Handle variations include this fat handle style with a wood receiver and the same style with a brass receiver. Other variants include the Bates patented multiple slide holder which Bates patented June 9, 1874, patent # 151,745. More detailed information on variants will be discussed later.


Matthias J. Rice

Matthias J. Rice, (born 1831) of Boston is listed in city directories first as a piano maker in 1865 and thereafter as a fancy wood worker. Perhaps a coincidence but this is the same year that Bates started selling stereoscopes in quantity. Bates earlier was a seller of musical instruments and his core business line was in fancy wooden goods. Rice’s shop was at 7 Province Court until 1871 and on the third floor of 19 Wareham thereafter. In the 1870 & 1872 Boston city directories Rice advertises “Stereoscopes and fancy boxes.” Rice applied for a design patent for a picture frame on April, 14, 1874. In February 1877 Rice applied jointly with Bates for a patent on a stereoscope improvement. The patent was issued to Rice on May 1, 1877, #190,160. This viewer, shown below on the top right, has a unique mounting for the handle and stand where the handle holds the shoe for the stand in place. Rice and Bates were likely business partners and Rice was the maker of most Bates viewers as evidenced by similarities in design features. Rice marked only a few of the viewers he produced. Shown below is a Rice viewer. The six pointed star is labeled "Trade Mark Boston" in the center of the star and the letters "M J R I C E" are found at the outside of each star point. The hood is beautifully embossed.


The hand held model on the left bears a striking resemblance to one with a similar star in the center of the hood and the initials M J Rice at the star points. This one has no makers mark but the banjo shape and the clip make identification easy.

A Bates Viewer with a card holder rack and viewer storage.

The advertisement illustrated below shows an early Bates viewer without the metal horseshoe mount but with a stand. This is proof that Bates sold viewers to other retailers. John Boynton of Clinton, Mass was a long time photographer having produced Ambrotypes and stereoviews starting in 1856. A similar ad may be found on views by Jotham French and D. H. Sawyer of Keene, N. H. B. W. Kilburn and Charles Bierstadt also advertised Bates viewers. One Bates made viewer has “CB” in large letters in the center of the hood. Perhaps Bates stamped the viewers sold in his own store and left those sold by other retailers unmarked. These viewers are not uncommon and it is not unreasonable to conclude that the thousands of stereo photographers who worked in this period sold a stereoscope along with their views. Perhaps mass retailing is the result of the “monopoly of the trade” comment by Holmes.



 Identifying Bates Viewers

Some features are varied and probably were changed as cost saving measures but there are two distinguishing features that are common to most models and leads me to believe that they all came from one manufacturer. 

First there is the ogee trim at the inside of the hood around the glass. No other maker used this style of trim.

Second is the crossbar that seems to be consistently the same except on the very early models shown above. The clip is unique with the shape, the round dimple where the stem attaches and the stem itself.

Markings: Markings are not always consistent or present. They can consist of marks and patent references on brass tags or stamped on hardware. They can be found stamped at the slide ends or just the initials "JLB" at the center of a hood. Many have no marks.

Hoods: Early models, as discussed above, were paper with leather bookbinders cloth, some had initials "JLB" in the center. One paper hood model contained extensive tooling. Later models are made of paper either plain, faux wood grain painted or bookbinders cloth with a variety of stamped scroll work in gold or designs around the edges, usually small four pointed stars. Perhaps they were sold in grades at additional cost. Tooled hoods with various initials such as “B” can be found. One viewer has initials “CB” perhaps for Charles Bierstadt. Hoods would have been made to order by book binders.

Hardware: Consists of brass or steel nails, round or pointed brass tacks on the hood and steel or brass screws. Hoods were secured with only 4 tacks or a combination of tacks and nails in most cases.

Nose dividers: In various sizes and styles some without the crossed trim at the end and some of those were rounded and some had a scalloped trim at the top. A unique feature of Bates scopes is that the nose piece fits into a slot in the banjo. These were easily broken.

Handles: Various designs of “fat handles” in different diameters with wood or brass threaded receivers on later models.

Slides or Banjo’s: Will be found in two variations as seen in the photo's above, both of them unique from other makers.

Other viewers sold by Bates

Bates was a retailer and for years sold the popular viewer models of the day such as Brewsters and Beckers. As noted above, Bates sold to many other photographers and likely other retail business establishments. I believe demand was greater than the supply at least for a time around 1874. Recently found stereoscopes contain a few design details that indicate they were made by A. L. Hudson. Hudson lived in the nearby town of Hingham. Features on these stereoscopes are the "JLB" mark stamped on the center of the paper hood, the "Joseph L. Bates, Boston" stamp at the end of the banjo and the familiar center punched hole on the card holder. The first viewer has a one piece of wood face plate that has a nice oval shape on the inside of the hood and may be found with or without a metal frame around the inside of the glass. Hudson made this style of viewer prior to 1874. Thereafter he used a multi part hood and cited the patent of Henry Dorr. The proof of Hudson's involvement is in the brass clip under the card holder which is unique to Hudson and also the width of the center punch hole on the crossbar.

Paper hooded Hudson made viewer sold by Bates before 1874.


Joseph L. Bates, Boston stamp on end of banjo and the Hudson clip, proof of the relationship.

Note the oval frame inside the hoods also with or without the metal frame inside the glass.


A second version shown below has the "JLB" stamp on the hood, the Boston stamp on the end of the slide and the standard Bates banjo and nose end. The handle has a screw into brass mount and the crossbar has the wide center punch hole and the Hudson brass clip. There is a raised trim around the inside of the one piece face plate that matches other Hudson viewers. These viewers are seldom found and I believe they were made only for a short time.


© 2006 - Del Phillips

Revision 2,  7-18-2007

Revision 3,   9-8-2007

Revision 4, 10-19-2007

Revision 5, 4-27-2008

Revision 6, 5-8-2009

Revision 7, 1-26-2011