The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Photography
The Smithsonian Institution has been collecting “specimens” related to the history of photography since photography was still considered a new technology. Thomas William Smillie, the Smithsonian’s first and chief photographer from 1871 to 1917, began collecting materials relevant to photography (both examples of photographic processes as well as photographic equipment) in 1888. His first documented purchase was of a daguerreotype apparatus used by Samuel F. B. Morse. Smillie recognized early on that photographic technology was advancing rapidly and had the foresight to begin creating a record of the history of photography lest it be lost to future generations.
Smillie’s collection first started gaining traction when it was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Central States, in Cincinnati, 1888. However, it wasn’t until the purchase of fifty photographs from the Capital Camera Club of the Capital Bicycle Club’s 1896 exhibition (regarded as the first recorded purchase of photographs as works of art by a museum) that the quite significant collection consisting of 1284 specimens gained official status. On July 15, 1896 , the Section of Photography, Division of Graphic Arts, United States National Museum was created. In addition to his duties as the Smithsonian’s chief photographer, Thomas Smillie was appointed Custodian of the Section of Photography.
With formal status and administrative support for the historical photography collection, Smillie began to articulate a framework for his vision. Acknowledging that the collection was lacking in contemporary photography, he set out to “complete the series so that it will be a worthy representation of the progress of the art from the beginning until now.” (Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, 1881-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives) Due in large part to the fact that Smillie’s attention was divided between his duties in the photographic laboratory and his new custodial position, there was not an onsite photography exhibit at the Smithsonian until 1913.
Occupying the northwest court of the Arts and Industries Building, the exhibit of historical photographs and equipment meticulously collected by Smillie over the course of several decades were arranged chronologically—illustrating, from Camera Obscura to newer technologies in color, x-ray, spectrum, solar, and moving picture, a thorough and comprehensive history of photography.
In the century since his death, the historic photography collection that was so thoughtfully composed by Thomas W. Smillie has grown considerably, and is now called the Photographic History Collection, Division of Culture and the Arts, National Museum of American History. The tradition of having the collections maintained and added to by the chief photographer acting as custodian continued until 1943, when the functions of the photographic laboratory and the Section of Photography were finally divided. This allowed for greater curatorial instruction and focus on the growth of the collection, not to mention a new emphasis on photographic preservation in the 1960s.
Today, the Photographic History Collection has over 200,000 images and 12,000 pieces of equipment. Over the span of 120 years and numerous administrative reorganizations, the Photographic History Collection continues to reflect on all aspects of photography, with representative specimens illustrating an in depth regard for the breadth of photographic processes, genres, and concepts. The collection serves to realize Smillie’s vision that “an effort will be made hereafter, especially in connection with the future expositions of amateur photography, to secure such works as are necessary to make the collection in the National Museum a reference and record collection, which shall not only be a matter of interest and pleasure to the public, but of practical value to the photographers themselves."
Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, 1881-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 529, National Museum of American History (U.S.) Division of Photographic History, Records, circa 1883-1984, Smithsonian Institution Archives
David E. Haberstitch, Photographs at the Smithsonian Institution. Picturescope 32 (1): 4-20 (Summer 1985), p. 7.
Hidden Treasures: The Photographic History Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Teaching Photography
In the fall of 2015, we officially moved over 3 million photographic negatives from the cold storage vault in the basement of the National Museum of American History to our new space at the Smithsonian Institution Support Center in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Thanks to that move, there are new possibilities for projects that will bring great discoveries for the Archives. The first project we started was scanning glass plate negatives from the United States National Museum, Division of Graphic Arts. The collection of glass plates range in date from 1860 to roughly 1920. Sadly, this collection came to SIA with little to no information, so each glass plate is a mystery to be solved.
The question becomes, how do we determine what each image is? The majority falls on institutional knowledge. It seems as though the longer someone has worked at the Smithsonian, the more images they’re able to recognize. One example I’ve discovered is when trying to determine if an image is from the Castle or the Arts and Industries Building. Images from within the building at first glance appear to be the same. However, I started to look at the light fixtures or the windows, and slowly I started to recognize the differences between the two. Knowing the history of the Smithsonian can do wonders when identifying unknown images!
Possessing a strong background in history can also help one identify unknown images. The Smithsonian has pictures of important landmarks, persons, objects, expeditions; the list goes on and on. Some of us are able to recognize people or places because we might be familiar with that subject matter. Each individual becomes invaluable for his or her own specialty.
When all else fails, we have the benefit of reaching out to our Smithsonian Institution colleagues. Curators who specialize in certain subject areas such as textiles, aircrafts or ship models can help. Sometimes, we even reach out to the public to help identify unknown images. Especially for images of buildings or geographic areas that are unknown to us, the general public may be able to help identify them.
With nearly 20,000 glass plates to scan from this collection, we have many more mysteries to solve. Ultimately, we hope to identify each image, but we have to have a realistic expectation and understand that we might not be able to accomplish that. In the end, we want to use all the resources we have available to make this wonderful collection more accessible. This project is a fantastic way to gain more knowledge of what was occurring at the Smithsonian over 150 years ago.
What Does a Photograph Archivist Do?, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Unlocking the Vault, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Walking on Broken Glass, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Let’s Play the Name Game: Identifying Women Scientists on the Flickr Commons, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
In its time it was described in Scientific American as a ”radical departure and notable advancement in transportation.” That’s why when a canopied, steam-powered tricycle pulled up to the doors of the Smithsonian Institution in 1888, it was an event worthy of a photograph. Now, nearly 130 years later, that prediction was proven accurate. The machine parked in front of the Smithsonian Castle by its inventor, engineer Lucius Copeland, turned out to be an important precursor to the motorcycle—and a convenient way to take the exercise out of cycling.
By the time he visited the Smithsonian, Copeland had already made a name for himself experimenting with steam propelled vehicles, from cars to bicycles to tricycles. His first foray into what is now referred to as an early motorcycle was in 1881, when he attached a steam boiler to a penny-farthing bicycle. Notably, the bicycle had a driving pulley, like the belt drive on a motorcycle.
A few years later, after Copeland had demonstrated his new invention on the West Coast, he set up shop in Camden, N.J. and decided to make some improvements. Those changes included a more powerful engine and a third wheel, allowing for a bench to seat multiple passengers.
Not quite a motorcycle—but not quite a tricycle—Lucius Copeland’s steam-powered three-wheeler could reach average speeds of 10 miles an hour on the road, with a range of 30 miles per tank of water. According to an 1887 description of the “rather novel steam tricycle,” published in the Washington D.C. Evening Star, water and steam exhaust pipes ran through the frame of the bike, powered by boiler-heated water, with its rear wheel driven by a leather belt. To demonstrate the power of his invention, Copeland traveled from his home in Camden to Atlantic City and back (a trip of approximately 120 miles), aboard his steam tricycle.
Copeland later took one of his machines, which he called the “Phaeton Moto-Cycle,” to the Smithsonian just a year after production on the machines began. It was typical during this time for scientists to demonstrate their latest innovations at the Smithsonian—in fact, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone for Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry and his daughters at the Castle in 1877, a few days before Bell’s second patent on the invention was issued.
It was also a trend in Copeland’s time to experiment with the bicycle, an invention that had become wildly popular in the United States and Europe throughout the mid-to-late 1800s. The steam powered tricycle was one of many innovative new designs based off of the traditional penny-farthing bike. Designs for tricycles fitted with blades to paddle on the water, or with a “walking beam” footrest in place of pedals, or pulled by a team of dogs, were frequently featured in Popular Mechanics throughout the turn of the 20th century. Detachable bicycle motors, an evolution of Copeland’s invention, were even advertised in the magazine in the 1910s. Copeland’s “Moto-Cycle” was just one part of a larger cultural fascination with the bicycle and transportation innovation (one that continues with today's trendy electric-powered bikes).
Among the crowd to see Copeland’s machine in D.C. was John Elfreth Watkins, an engineer who became curator of the Smithsonian’s transportation collection (who began the institution’s cycle collection in 1889), along with Edwin H. Hawley, of the Department of Anthropology. The woman sitting on the cycle’s front seat was Frances Benjamin Johnston, an early female photojournalist, trained by George Eastman (of Eastman Kodak) and Thomas Smillie, the Smithsonian’s first photographer.
Copeland’s early motorcycle didn’t last long on the market, however. The business didn’t prove lucrative enough for Copeland and he retired in 1891. That didn’t stop his invention (or other steam-powered bicycles like it) from receiving considerable attention in newspaper pages across the country. When Copeland’s promoter, Sandford Northrop (pictured in the photo, to the left), returned to D.C. aboard his tricycle a year later, he made the Evening Star pages again for attracting “considerable attention on the streets” with a machine that was able to drive “at the rate of twelve miles per hour.”
A writer for the “Wheels and Wheelmen” column in Utah’s Salt Lake Herald, 1889, fondly recalled seeing a steam tricycle while in Philadelphia: “It certainly was a most beautiful vehicle and the steam apparatus the very acme of ingenuity.” (Though, the columnist was quick to note that the engine seemed too complicated for an everyday driver to handle).
And San Franciscan speed-racer John Broad was name-checked in his local newspaper in 1892 for “tearing through the gloaming at the rate of twenty miles an hour on his steam tricycle, and it was his whistling for the right of way that startled the neighbors.” When interviewed, Broad noted that he loved to “spin along the highways of his native city,” but found the actual pedaling of the bike “distasteful.” Rather, “what he wanted was exercise without the expenditure of physical force.” His solution? The steam tricycle.
An Ode to the Bicycle, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
America on the Move: Smithsonian Bicycle Collection, National Musuem of American History
Object Project: Bicycles, National Musuem of American History
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