The Invention of “Home” Photography
Popular photography can properly be said to have started 120 years ago with the introduction of the Kodak camera, the invention of an American, George Eastman (1854-1932). It was a simple, leather-covered wooden box – small and light enough to be held in the hands. Taking a photograph with the Kodak was very easy, requiring only three simple actions; turning the key (to wind on the film); pulling the string (to set the shutter); and pressing the button (to take the photograph).
The Kodak produced circular snapshots, two and a half inches in diameter. The Kodak was sold already loaded with enough paper-based roll film to take one hundred photographs. After the film had been exposed, the entire camera was returned to the factory for the film to be developed and printed. The camera, reloaded with fresh film, was then returned to its owner, together with a set of prints. To sum up the Kodak system, Eastman devised the brilliantly simple sales slogan: ‘You press the button, we do the rest.’
Ghosts of the Past - Decayed Daguerreotypes from the Matthew Brady Studio, 1844-1860
Daguerreotype portraits were made by the model posing (often with head fixed in place with a clamp to keep it still the few minutes required) before an exposed light-sensitive silvered copper plate, which was then developed by mercury fumes and fixed with salts. This fixing however was far from permanent – like the people they captured the images too were subject to change and decay. They were extremely sensitive to scratches, dust, hair, etc, and particularly the rubbing of the glass cover if the glue holding it in place deteriorated. As well as rubbing, the glass itself can also deteriorate and bubbles of solvent explode upon the image.
The daguerreotypes above are from the studio of Matthew Brady, one of the most celebrated 19th century American photographers, best known for his portraits of celebrities and his documentation of the American Civil War which earned him the title of “father of photojournalism”. The Library of Congress received the majority of the Brady daguerreotypes as a gift from the Army War College in 1920.
The Snowflake Man — The World’s First Picture of a Snowflake
In 1885, at the age of 20, Wilson Bentley, a farmer who would live all his life in the small town of Jericho in Vermont, gave the world its first ever photograph of a snowflake. Throughout the following winters, until his death in 1931, Bentley would go on to capture over 5000 snowflakes, or more correctly, snow crystals, on film. Despite the fact that he rarely left Jericho, thousands of Americans knew him as The Snowflake Man or simply Snowflake Bentley. Our belief that “no two snowflakes are alike” stems from a line in a 1925 report in which he remarked: “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost.”
It started with a microscope his mother gave him at age 15 which opened the world of the small to young Wilson. A lover of winter, he made plans to use his microscope to view snowflakes. His initial investigations proved both fascinating and frustrating as he tried to observe the short-lived flakes. So that he could share his discoveries, he began by sketching what he saw, accumulating several hundred sketches by his seventeenth birthday. When his father purchased a camera for his son, Wilson combined it with his microscope, and went on to make his first successful photomicrograph of a snow crystal on 15 January 1885.
War and Prosthetic Limbs
There’s something undeniably beautiful about prosthetic limbs, designed to echo the physical grace and mechanical engineering of the human body. For most people, these objects elicit some combination of squeamish discomfort and utmost respect. But far fewer of us connect those feelings to the untold generations of battle-scarred amputees whose sacrifices made prosthetics a public priority.
Origins of the Christmas Tree
Curious History: Scariest Vintage Family Portrait Ever, 1880s
“Eaten by mountain rats in the year 1876”
The Opium Epidemic in 19th Century San Fransisco
The first shipment of Chinese opium fifty-two boxes in all arrived in San Francisco in 1861 aboard the clipper Ocean Pearl. By 1864, “the Year of Opium” in San Francisco, huge shipments were arriving regularly.
Despite occasional crackdowns, the opium trade was never seriously menaced by law enforcement. Chinatown itself was hardly ever visited by police, and the opium dens were almost completely ignored. An English journalist wrote in the 1880’s: “Occasionally, when the police are short of funds, they make a descent on some of the dens but, as a rule, the proprietors are left unmolested.”
In the late 1880’s the San Francisco Call estimated that there were about 300 opium dens in the city, most of them in Chinatown, serving the roughly 3,000 hardcore “hop-heads” or “opium fiends,” along with the countless others who indulged less immoderately. The opium dens bore red signs above their doors reading “PIPES AND LAMPS ALWAYS CONVENIENT” in Chinese calligraphy.
The opium dens were finally wiped out in the earthquake and fire of 1906; most were never rebuilt, and the few that lingered were put out of business by the nationwide drug crackdown a decade later.
Children with Strange Playthings