National Treasure: Progress and the Past

In section one, reciprocity between history and identity is evident in the themes of the narratives on the stereographs. The stereograph publishers used texts based on their understanding of the history of America and promoted American values based on that history. This connection between identity and history cultivates what we might today term American exceptionalism. Through the repetition and mythicizing of certain events like the writing and adoption of the Declaration of Independence and people like William Penn, the stereograph publishers develop an epic, historical narrative replete with heroes, relics, and sites of pilgrimage. The United States, through the linking of the religious and political foundations of America, has an esteemed place in the world as propagated by the stereographs. Additionally, the photographic works inextricably connect previous generations of Americans with those living, as well as the past with the present through rhetoric about the American Revolution and America as a turn-of-the-century industrial power. The gap that would otherwise exist between historicity and modernity is closed. As a result of this bridging, the modern-day “stereo-viewer,” is united both with those viewing the stereograph today and in past years.


And yet, the texts reveal significant ambiguities and tensions between the value of historical sites and the need to commodify the connection of America’s past with its future. The stereographs in this section illustrate these stresses and their resolution.

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James Cremer, [Gloria Dei Church], ca. 1873.



James Cremer, [Gloria Dei Church], ca. 1873.

James Cremer, [Gloria Dei Church],
ca. 1873.

Combined with the image of the gravestones, the text and especially the song excerpt evoke a feeling of loss and of passing time that is both melancholy and inevitable. Cremer appears to want the viewer to contemplate the question, if change is inescapable, how will we remember the past and how will we greet the future?


James Cremer, [Gloria Dei Church], ca. 1873.