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Underwood & Underwood

once one of the largest makers of stereoscopic prints in the world

Elmer Underwood was born in Fulton County, IL in 1859; his brother Bert was born in Oxford, IL in 1862. The Underwood family moved to Ottawa, Kansas, in 1878.

Elmer (left) and Bert (right) Underwood
Elmer (left) and Bert (right) Underwood

In 1879, Elmer started a publishing business in Ottawa, while Bert began selling a home-care medical book door to door. The brothers teamed up to form Underwood & Underwood in 1881, and began selling stereoscopic prints door to door. Within months they were hiring entire teams of college students to do door-to-door canvassing, and they subsequently became the exclusive sales agency for some of the most prominent stereographic publishers in the country-- including J. F. Jarvis in Washington, DC, and The Littleton View Company of Littleton, NH. Underwood & Underwood had branch offices throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain by 1887, and they moved their headquarters to New York City in 1891.

Underwood & Underwood began producing their own stereoscopic prints sometime around 1890, and began selling news photos to newspapers and magazines in 1896. By 1901 the company was producing 25,000 prints a day, and was selling over 300,000 a year. The brothers established their own news agency in 1904, and went on to dominate the news photo field for the next thirty years. Underwood & Underwood photographers captured images of every major conflict of the early 20th century, including the Greco-Turkish War, Balkan Wars, and World War I, as well as of European royalty, natural wonders around the world, and exotic peoples and cultures.

British soldiers gathering on a battlefield in Europe during World War I
World War I print

Never ones to rest on their laurels, the Underwoods continued to expand and improve their product line, and in 1905 began packaging "stereoscopic tours" of natural wonders, current events, religions, cultures, etc., in imitation book bindings and selling them as the "Underwood Travel System." Although other companies also published boxed sets, those put out by Underwood & Underwood came with detailed notes on each print and/or a companion booklet that explained what the viewer was seeing on each print. The "Underwood Travel System" was an immediate success, as it allowed people to see the world without having to leave home, and Underwood & Underwood was for many years the world's leading supplier of stereoscopic prints and boxed sets.

a logging road in the Pacific Northwest
logging road in the Pacific Northweast

the entrance to Yellowstone Park
the entrance to Yellowstone Park

a library of Underwood and Underwood books
a library of Underwood & Underwood books

Movies eventually began replacing stereoscopes as sources of entertainment, and the Underwoods sold their entire stock of stereographic prints to the Keystone View Company in 1920. Both brothers retired in 1925, after which the company fragmented into several individual offices that operated virtually independently. Sons and grandsons of the brothers kept Underwood & Underwood going for two decades, but competition from other news photo companies -- especially the Associated Press and United Press International -- eventually took its toll, and the company was out of business by the mid-1940's. Bert Underwood died in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1947; Elmer died in Tucson, Arizona in 1943.


Balkan Wars
World War I

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The Robinson Library >> Technology >> Photography >> Biography

This page was last updated on 09/23/2017.