Friday, 28 March 2014

Sepia Saturday 221: The Photo Boat


Sepia Saturday by Alan Burnett and Marilyn Brindley

Travelling photographers catered for quite a different section of the portrait trade from those who had established studios in larger towns. The population of smaller towns and villages just didn't generate enough business to keep a full time permanent studio viable year round. In order to make ends meet, the photographer who either lived in or wished to cater to a small town needed to either find extra work in an alternative trade, or travel further afield in search of customers.

In previous articles here on Photo-Sleuth I have written about several of these itinerant tradesmen who worked in Derbyshire, England: "Professor" Frank Simpson, Charles Tyler and Charles Warwick all owned caravans and toured the countryside, often following the circuit of summer fairs.

Image © and courtesy of Richard D. Sheaff
J.B. Silvis' U.P.P.R. Photograph Car
Image © and courtesy of Richard D. Sheaff

In North America the rapid settlement of vast expanses of land in the late nineteenth century meant that practitioners who wished to ply their trade there needed to be inventive. Much of the expansion took place along the network of railroads, it is therefore not surprising that railroad photographers set up business to service these disparate communities. The most famous of these was perhaps John B. Silvis, proprietor of the Union Pacific Rail Road car, who took portraits and sold stereoscopic and other landscape views along the Union Pacific and other companies' railway tracks from 1870 until 1882.

Image © and courtesy of Jana Last
F.E. Webster's Dental and Photo Boats, Lake Charles, Calcasieu, Louisiana
Mounted paper print, 204 x 153mm
Image © and courtesy of Jana Last

In parts of the United States, however, communities were linked by waterways rather than roads or railways. Many tradespeople serviced their customers from riverboats, but I had never come across a photographic studio housed on one until I saw this image shared by Jana Last on her family history blog. Jana's maternal great-grandfather Frederick Emory Webster (1864-1946) graduated from the Western Dental College, Kansas City, Missouri in April 1896. Some time during the next decade he appears to have operated a dental surgery from the boat shown at centre in the photograph above which, according to the handwritten caption, is on the shore of Lake Charles in Louisiana.

Image © and courtesy of Jana Last
Detail of F.E. Webster's Photo Boat, Lake Charles, Calcasieu, Louisiana

Moored alongside is an almost identical craft with a sign reading "F E WEBSTER PHOTO BOAT." (Click on the image above for more detail.) That it does indeed house a photographic studio seems quite plausible, as the end of the boat closest to shore has large windows and a special skylight with pitched roof which I believe was the actual room where portraits would have been taken.

Image © and courtesy of Jana Last
F.E. Webster's Dental and Photo Boats, unknown location
Mounted paper print, 202 x 124mm
Image © and courtesy of Jana Last

Jana has at least two more photographs of her great-grandfather's boats, although the photographer's studio has now been replaced by the premises of an optician. That the same boat was converted from studio to eye-testing rooms, and presumably a dispensary (or how would he have made a living, since the eye-tests were advertised as free?), is fairly certain because the characteristic skylight is still just visible in both photographs.

In fact, the Photo Boat may have been Webster's first craft, as the name painted on the prow appears to read "F.E. Webster No. 1," while that on the dental boat is quite clearly "No. 2." I've not been able to decipher the caption fully (it is written in either Portuguese or Galician, in neither of which I am proficient), but it appears to state that the floating theatre is towed by the steamboat with two smokestacks.

Image © and courtesy of Jana Last
Detail of F.E. Webster's Dental & Photo Boats, Lake Charles, Louisiana

That steamboat appears to be a different one from that in the first photograph taken at Lake Charles (see detail above). Judging from the apparent lack of paddles or smokestacks on the floating studio and surgery, they were not self-propelled, but rather barges towed by a paddle steamer. It's not clear whether Webster owned his own steamer, or whether he just hired one to tow the two barges whenever they had exhausted the opportunities for business in one location and wanted to move to another. However, I did note that the steamboat superstructure also has "Photographer" signwritten on the wheelhouse.

Image © and courtesy of Jana Last
F.E. Webster's Dental and Optical Boats, Natchez, Mississippi
Mounted paper print, 205 x 153mm
Image © and courtesy of Jana Last

The caption on the third photograph indicates that it was taken at Natchez, Mississipi. Locations in FE Webster's timeline show a general migration south, away from his former residences in Stockton (Kansas) and Kansas City (Missouri), down first the Missouri River and then the Mississippi, although since none of the photographs are accurately dated it is difficult to be precise about his movements. By April 1899, when he was granted a patent for a dental handpiece, and shortly after the granting of a divorce from his first wife, he gave his address as "Clarendon, Monroe, Arkansas." It may have been an address of convenience, perhaps that of his lawyer, as presumably he was on the move much of the time.

Image © and courtesy of Jana Last
Portrait of Cynthia Maria Webster née Waterman (1834-1895)
taken by The F.E. Webster Photo Boat, c.1894-1897
Albumen print (47 x 61mm) mounted on printed card (60 x 77mm)
Image © and courtesy of Jana Last

Jana is also very fortunate to have a portrait taken F.E. Webster's Photo Boat studio. Although identified as the photographer's mother, who died in September 1895, I think it's possible it might be the portrait of one of her daughters. Whoever it is, we can see from the card mount that it was produced on the boat, and I believe from the wide sleeves worn by the subject that it was taken in the mid-1890s.

Image © and courtesy of Jana Last
Frederick (Watson) Emory Webster (1864-1946), taken c.1890-1896
Cabinet card print by David P. Thomson of Kansas City, Missouri
Image © and courtesy of Jana Last

Webster, pictured here in Kansas City while he was studying to be a dentist or on his graduation, may not have lasted very long in the photograhic trade, but his choice of studio was pretty unusual. I've not yet found evidence of any other portrait photographer using this mode of transport, although there may well have been some.


Doremus' Mississippi Views Photograph Gallery, c.1870s

J.P. Doremus was a portrait photographer from Patterson, New Jersey, who in 1874 constructed a floating photographic studio which he used to travel down the Mississippi:
... from St Paul, Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico photographing steamboats, waterfronts, bridges, lumberyards, log rafts, and river towns. Doremus would then convert these images to stereo card views which he described in a short work entitled "Floating Down the Mississippi" (1877).
While there are plenty of extant stereoviews by Doremus, there is no evidence that he took any portraits in this studio. Perhaps Webster's studio was one of a kind.

I'm very grateful to Jana Last for the opportunity to use these photographs from her private collection. Thanks also to Dick Sheaff for the use of one of his fine images. You may or may not find similar modes of water transport in this week's Sepia Saturday contributions, but I can guarantee that there will be plenty of interesting images.

Post Script 31 March 2014

Mike Brubaker has very kindly drawn my attention to a collection of photographs of Photo Studio Boats on the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library web site, which demonstrates that Mr Webster's venture was not the only one of its kind. From this page, I extracted details of the following:
- Williams Photo Boat, Sistersville, West Virginia, 1896-1900, and on the Muskingum River, Marietta, Washington County
- H.O. Schroeter's Floating Photo Studio, Green River, Kentucky, 1900
- Doremus Photo Gallery No.1 named Success and No. 2 named Flora
- Thornton Barrette's Photograph Boat, Russell, Ky., 1899-1900
- Little Gem Floating Pictures, unknown location and date
- Eureka Photo, unknown location and date
Clearly more research can be done on this topic.

References

Last, Jana (2014) The F. E. Webster Dental and Photo Boats, Jana's Genealogy and Family History Blog, 3 February 2014.

J.P. Doremus, on the Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium web site.

Stereoviews by J.B. Doremus, from George Eastman House.

36 comments:

  1. I'd not heard of a floating photographer before - but it makes a lot of sense.

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    1. Yes it does, and now I'm surprised I could not find more. I suspect that there are more out there somewhere.

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  2. The Mississippi River boat sounds especially interesting to me because I live near the Mississippi.

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    1. Being a Mark Twain fan, I have a fascination with it too, although I've yet to see it.

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  3. I like the idea of a floating studio. And I need a skylight like that in my studio, which is not floating or photographic or optomical.

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    1. Photographers dealing with the photosensitive emulsions of the nineteenth century had to be able to control the amount of light, both direct and indirect, very carefully. This made outdoors portrait photography much more tricky.

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  4. I should imagine taking portraits or practicing dentistry or optometry on a floating barge would be a bit challenging. I mean – even moored close to shore, there must have been enough wave action from time to time to ‘rock the boat’. A muffed portrait wouldn’t be so bad. But I don’t believe I’d like to have someone poking around in my mouth or eyes when the barge shifted! Brave souls, those who went down to the river to, perhaps, pray before their dental or optometry appointments. (Sorry, the chorus I sing with is doing a medley from “O Brother, Where Art Thou” & now I’m going to be humming that dang song all day!) :))

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    1. Well if it's not that song it will be another, I suspect. Yes, I can think of better things to do than manipulating bottles and trays of noxious developing fluids on a boat.

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  5. Very interesting! I would love to see if any other portraits taken on the F. E. Webster Photo Boat ever turn up. I have several photographs in my collection that were taken on train cars - but none from photo boats.

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    1. Intriguing. I know there were a few railroad photographers, but I'd be interested to hear of any more of the aquatic variety.

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  6. Now, that is a novel idea, a floating photography shop! I had never heard of that until now, really liked your post!!

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    1. Thanks for visiting, Rosie. A first for me too.

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  7. Great post, Brett. Just this week I picked up two cabinet cards of a St. Paul, MN photographer because the backs had an illustration of the photographer's special train car studio not unlike your first image. It was allowed to travel the rail line out to Yellowstone Park in the 1880s-1890s in return for providing the railway company with promotional train photos.

    I've seen vintage photos of other photo studio barges in the web archives on the history of the Ohio and Mississippi riverboats. I've wondered if these floating businesses might have been a way to avoiding town taxes and business license fees. This was also a time when bridges along these great rivers were spread so very far apart that a tradesman who could have a movable location on both sides of the water had a big advantage over land bound businesses.

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    1. Very interesting Mike. I'd be keen to see your railway photographer card backs, and if you can remember where you found those other photo studio barges, I'd be very grateful for the URLs, please.

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  8. Brett, Brett. You are the master.

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  9. Quite fascinating. I have always found those early days of photography, and in particular those early photographers, such an interesting field of study. They were bringing new technology of the day to the people, giving ordinary people a photographic likeness of themselves that would - and clearly has - lasted a century or more. Smart phones will find it difficult to live up to that.

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    1. Yes you're right Alan. Indeed with snapchat smart phones have introduced the self-destructing photograph.

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  10. I don't know why I was surprised to see floating dental & photography boats -- up here in Maine we have boats to carry the mail to the offshore islands; we have boats that carry Santa Claus up rivers and across lakes...what a fun post this is, Brett!

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    1. Thanks Deb. Likewise in the nineteenth century much of New Zealand was better serviced by coastal cutters and river boats than by roads in the thickly forested interior.

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  11. When I first read Jana's posts about her traveling dentist, I was amazed at the novelty. Yet you're telling me that such set-ups were rather normal for the day. Your analysis of the boat structure helps me visualize how such a combination of careers could work.

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    1. I don't yet have a good handle on how many travelling photographers there were in North America. I suspect the vast distances between small settlements meant that they were fairly limited, unlike in England where a horse-drawn gipsy-style caravan could travel between one village and the next in a matter of hours.

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  12. Mr Webster certainly was a versatile character!

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    1. He was indeed, Jo, although I suspect the photographic studio proved to be a less profitable business than the dental and optical ventures.

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  13. We learn so much from Sepia Saturday. I had never thought of river boats dedicated to separate occupations, I always think in terms of the wonderful Showboat. How wonderful to have services brought to your nearest riverside. Thank you

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    1. It is still my dream to travel on one of those Mississippi paddle steamers.

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  14. That is a coincidence, the last two blogs that I read were about water craft on the Mississippi. A train going across the river on a barge and now a photographic studio and dentist. It interests me because we have booked to go on a Mississippi River cruise later in the year.

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    1. Hope you have a lovely trip, Diane, and that you'll post some photos of it for us.

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  15. Amazing!
    Quite innovative marketing for the day I imagine.
    I too would avoid a dentist on water I think.

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    1. Well if it was a question of a dentist on water or none at all, I think I might be tempted. When you gotta go, you gotta go!

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  16. Very interesting historical post on how the waterways provided transit and trade. I had not thought about that before despite living near the great Mississippi now and watching for the first spring harbinger barge...so far it's been ice breakers. I think the small town areas, we have visited Lake Charles, Natchez, etc. would have welcomed any outreach even a floating dentist. Things were different then.

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    1. I was wondering whether some of those smaller lakes and rivers would even have supported such a trade, but I guess from your comment they would have.

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  17. Ah Brett. You do us proud again. Fascinating post.

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  18. A fine post. I am always pleasantly surprised by the depth of your research. Good work.

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    1. Thanks for your kind comment anyjazz.

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