Two Gilded Age Gentlemen

Two dressed-up men smile into the camera on a spring day. One holds a Kodak camera.
Two men in high silk hats breathe the style of the times.  The year is 1889.  They are old enough to remember the century’s watershed event, the Civil War, which is long in the past, it being more than two decades since Appomattox.  These gentlemen, and millions of others, have moved on.  They are Gilded Age creatures, inhabitants of a rapidly modernizing society enjoying ever-increasing wealth.  Their era was empty of historical grandeur: in that respect, the 1880s, with their intense but under-examined social problems (including widening economic inequality), were somewhat similar to today.

Formally attired, but looking like they are often so, the two men smile into the camera of Uriah Hunt Painter.  Painter and the man on the left may be engaged in a mutual photo-shoot, for each has a Kodak camera, a new invention that became the era’s most fashionable ‘toy.’  This picture captures how people had begun to use it—not too differently from how people use their cell phones now.

The sun is shining on this Easter Monday, as all Washington gathers for the first-ever Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn.  The watch-chain of one man snakes along the surface of his taut belly, a symbol of the symbiosis between efficiency and attaining plenty.  He and his friend both sport the flamboyant facial hair that was a hallmark of the Gilded Age—the vast mustaches and expansive mutton-chops that would prevail even it Teddy Roosevelt’s time, the mutton chops first popularized by General Burnside, and eventually leading to the coinage of the enduring term, ‘sideburns.’

Image from this source.

Girl with a Kodak on a Winter’s Day

A girl holding a Kodak camera and standing in a snowy Washington DC smiles for an unknown photographer.

George Eastman (1854-1932) had been on a tear.  He had dreamed up a series of innovations that, when realized, transformed photography and its role in society, so much so that we may credit him with inventing this photograph and the two-Kodak family who arranged themselves around a slushy curb to take it in Washington DC.  Thanks to Eastman, private life gained a new means of preserving its own history, an advance that marked the birth of modernity, in a visual sense at least.

Before the ‘Kodak revolution,’ a family’s ability to record its own existence, its own specific reality, was limited indeed.  It helped if one were literate or could draw or paint, for art was the only direct means of capturing the look of one’s child’s face or the cut and color of the clothes one’s beloved wore.  Photographers were professionals who wrangled obdurate equipment and understood the complex alchemy of developing the imagery.  Either such a one, or a professional artist, could capture the look of a freak snowstorm as it was melting.  Without photography of an accessible kind, one’s only hope of chronicling the weather or family life was to write a lot of letters or keep a careful diary.

Eastman’s genius was mechanical and conceptual, too.  He invented a new camera and new film processes, while also envisioning a whole new social role for photography, which he realized by assuming all the burden of developing the photographs that Kodak customers made.  “You press the button—we do the rest.”  With that notion, Eastman transformed the relationship between the would-be photographer and the medium.  He gave the world the snapshot, empowering amateurs to practice photography.

Eastman’s Kodak camera hit the streets in 1888.  It was lightweight, small, and easy to work.  Instead of sensitive or messy plates, his affordable camera was the first to employ roll film (another of his inventions).  Once the pictures were taken, customers sent the film back to the company for developing.  The very earliest Kodak prints were round, like the one above.

The new technology brought an immediacy to photography that, before, it seldom achieved.  It eliminated the middleman, allowing a relationship-driven photography.   The girl in this picture epitomizes the change, as she stands stock still, grinning, hugging a new Kodak camera close to her body.  The wind lifts her coat hem.  Her style and the swing of her mother’s skirt are just as they were in that earlier century.  In the street, her father, Uriah Hunt Painter, presses a button, capturing his willowy wife and daughter as they half-stop and smile, a two-Kodak family on a winter’s day.

Image from this source.

Theodore Roosevelt Jumping, 1902

Rear view of an action photograph unusual for the time.

As one of history’s most active presidents came on the stage, photography raced to catch up with him.  This rather extraordinary photograph from 1902 shows Teddy Roosevelt, then president, jumping his horse over a split-rail fence.  Such beautifully crisp shots of objects in motion were exceedingly rare at that date. Continue reading

The bicycle starts a revolution

A couple dressed in cycling clothes congratulates themselves for leaving the cumbersome fashions of the nineteenth century behind.
THE BICYCLE possessed some kind of magic, its mute presence transforming American society.  Originally known as a velocipede, the bicycle had been around since the early nineteenth century, but only after 1890 did the contraption become safer and gain popularity throughout the States as something associated with freedom and pleasure. Continue reading

Ferris: His Wonderland

The First Ferris Wheel, Chicago, 1893; photograph by Starks W. Lewis (Courtesy Brooklyn Museum via the Commons on Flickr)

Around this time of year in 1893, millions of people were flocking to Chicago to see the great world’s fair the city was hosting.  Formally known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, the fair belatedly commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World.

In a bid for national and international celebrity, Chicagoans (whose young city had burned to the ground 22 years earlier) went all out in constructing the fair’s great White City: acres and acres of magnificent pavilions, illuminated at night by millions of dazzling electrical lights, and all organized around a network of waterways.

To make it even more special, the organizing committee hired a young engineer named George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., to dream up something similar to the amazing tower that George Eiffel had designed for the world’s fair in Paris in 1889.  Similar to that tower, but better.  Yet at first the organizers of Chicago’s fair were doubtful about the idea that Ferris came up with.

Ferris, 34 years old (and destined to die of typhoid fever just three years later), had already gained an impressive reputation as an engineer and bridge-builder, a reputation that sprang from his understanding of steel.  The design that he proposed to the fair’s organizers was for a gargantuan wheel, that, if built, would tower above everything and lift passengers effortlessly, treating them to aerial views from astonishing heights.

Starks W. Lewis, an amateur photographer who managed to get his camera (it would have been pretty bulky) set up on the wheel, captured the wonder of it all.  From his vantage, the intricate workmanship of the wheel itself, as well as size and design of the passenger cars, each of which was designed to hold 60 people, is clearly revealed.

Despite organizers’ fears, Ferris’s daring contraption worked perfectly.  Rising to a height of 264 feet and measuring 825 feet around, the Wheel weighed more than 2.6 million pounds.  It was powered by two 1,000-horsepower steam engines and operated reliably, unimpaired by lightning and gale-force winds.  According to Judith Adams-Volpe, writing about Ferris in the American National Biography, the wheel became the Fair’s leading attraction, the first instance of “technology being harnessed purely as a pleasure machine.”

View of the Fair from the Ferris Wheel, 1893 photograph by Starks Lewis (Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum via Flickr Commons)

What steel gave society was the capacity to rise above the earth and gain an entirely new perspective on itself.  The people who visited the Fair from all over the US could see their world as they had never seen it, from a perspective previously offered only by mountains or the occasional steeple.  In the wondrous aerial vision Ferris gave the world came a hint of the built marvels that were still to come.

Images: Photographs of and from the first Ferris Wheel
by Starks W. Lewis, 1893, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum, from this source.