Graphics Inventory Project Completed!


Written by James DaMico, Special Collections Curator

At 5pm on July 31st, the most comprehensive inventory of our Graphics collection backlog was completed. A total of 7,800 new catalog entries were created, and 257,524 items were processed.

The 7,800 catalog records represent collection level and single item entries. This total represents approximately 800 linear feet of previously hidden collections. Or to put it another way, about 8 football fields worth of material laid out end to end.

Here’s a breakdown by type of object:

Object Type Total
NEGATIVES (Glass, Nitrate, Safety) 52,780
DIRECT PHOTOGRAPHS (Tintypes, Daguerreotype, Ambrotypes) 1,204
TRANSPARENCY FILM (35mm, 16mm, stereoscopic, etc.) 29,821
PHOTOGRAPHIC PRINTS (Cabinet cards, albumen, silver gelatin, etc.) 109,094
MECHANICAL PRINTS (Engravings, halftones, etc.) 18,993
VOLUMES (Photo albums, scrapbooks, etc.) 2,009
DRAWINGS (Watercolor, Pencil,Charcoal,etc.) 3,998
MAPS 3,035
AUDIO 3,375

This Graphics Inventory project, initiated with an 18 month grant from an anonymous donor interested in the Society’s amazing graphics collection, officially began on January 16, 2007. We soon realized that 18 months wasn’t nearly enough time for this mammoth undertaking so an application was made to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) for a Museums for America grant.

In 2009, great news was delivered when the Society was informed by the IMLS that we were awarded a 3 year, $99,400 grant to complete this project. The staff who worked on the application can be proud to know that the Society was one of 154 grant recipients out of a total of 371 applicants.

What makes this project so important is that we are able to input the entire backlog into one unified database instead of the information being in multiple disparate locations such as shelf lists. At the time, before the launch of our on-line catalog NETOP, creating an Access database to capture all of the relevant information was decided to be a wise idea. From the Access database we can now export the 7,800 catalog records that were created over the last 5.5 years into NETOP.

But this project wasn’t just about counting – each object in each collection was looked at, described and generally re-housed in archival materials. In total, 257,524 individual items were looked at and added to the appropriate object type. What this means is that for collection level records, we now know how many of a particular item, say Cabinet card photographs, are in a given collection. Some collections that were found in their original, strewn together arrangement could take up to 2 weeks to process and instill a usable order.

Copyright RIHS 2012

A box of carefully house glass plate negative.

Copyright RIHS 2012

The first sort!

Copyright RIHS 2012

Yes, this collection actually came in a Chiquita banana box!

Copyright RIHS 2012

The inventory shows us that we are weak in visual material for the better part of the mid to late 20th century especially for the towns and cities outside of Providence and it also shows that our holdings are not very diverse. This will allow us to make very precise acquisitions decisions. Another great aspect of this project is that we can now re-link collections that had been intellectually broken apart in years past thus reestablishing the context of the records creators across all of our collecting areas of museum objects, manuscripts and printed material.

Some basic statistics that have been culled from the Inventory project tells us that of the total number of individual items:

  • 20.5 percent are photographic negatives
  • 42 percent are photographic prints dating from the 1850’s to the 20th century
  • 82 percent of the 7800 collections inventoried need to be cataloged
  • 66 percent of the collections need some type of new archival housing
  • Only 2% or 165 of the collections have a finding aid or a mention in a finding aid

In addition, the data shows that we will need to purchase some 146, 574 archival enclosures. This ranges from simple boxes and folders to oversize map folders and four flap enclosures for glass plate negatives. This survey shows that it isn’t free to house and provide access to researchers these very special collections and how important it is to have the proper funding for archival supplies to provide long term care for the collections under our roof.

For example, to properly house a collection of 100 one of kind glass plate negatives would cost approximately $240.

Copyright RIHS 2012

Glass plate and four flap enclosure

Copyright RIHS 2012

This does not include the labor, employee benefits, heating and cooling the building, electric, phone, insurance and water bills. If an item needs professional conservation work the expense goes up even higher.

In addition, many items or collections that were thought missing were found again and a few rare items were rediscovered such as Ambrose Burnside’s passport and a rare 1841 Dorr War broadside.

For internal staff, the Graphics Inventory means that they can now search for items in one central database thus allowing them to make more informed acquisitions decisions. Accession information such as an intake date, that was found with or on an item is also included in the Inventory. Moreover, the data that has been captured will allow the staff to prioritize processing projects and write grants to purchase archival supplies and process collections more fully.

It is a great feeling to clear up a 30 year backlog!

Preservation notes


Written by James DaMico, Graphics Project Archivist

One of the tasks of the archivist is to ensure that collections are stable enough for a researcher to handle. This task is called preservation. The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) defines preservation as “The protection of cultural property through activities that minimize chemical and physical deterioration and damage and that prevent loss of informational content. The primary goal of preservation is to prolong the existence of cultural property.”[a]

Examples of this task range from placing material in Mylar sleeves, four flap enclosures, archival mats or creating copy photographs or microfilm of the original that has been deemed too fragile to handle. All of the above mentioned methods provide and protect the original item and surrounding items from further damage.

All material such as newspapers, photographs, architectural drawings and magnetic media suffers from inherent vice which is a term used to describe the internal instability of an item that is “introduced during its manufacture” [b]. This instability leads to both mechanical and chemical failure. Other factors that contribute to the degradation of cultural property are poor handling, improper storage material, uncontrolled temperature and humidity, pests, pollutants both external and internal and theft.

For example, newspapers are composed of highly acidic wood pulp which turns brittle and yellow in a short span of time. Flexible photographic negatives were first manufactured using cellulose nitrate plastic and then cellulose acetate plastic, also known as safety film. The former, particularly in motion picture film, is highly volatile and once it begins to deteriorate, loss of image becomes greater at an increased rate.  For more information see:

Top view of the [Bennett family (?) photo album]

Copyright RIHS 2011

This is a photo album comprised of family portraits in the tintype and carte de visite photograph formats. A Tintype is a direct photograph that uses the wet collodion negative process on a sheet of lacquered iron. Tintypes were inexpensive to produce and purchase and were generally found in photo albums or paper window mats and were popular from about 1860-1890. Carte de visite photographs or visiting cards are albumen positives that are mounted on card and measure 4.75 x 2.5 inches. The carte de visite was also an inexpensive photograph to produce and purchase and were popular from about 1860-1880.

View of how the album pages had become detached from the spine. The covers of this album have separated from the spine and the lining is exposed. The pages are very acidic and brittle. The original binding had become brittle resulting in the pages separating from the spine. Notice also how the tintype has become loose from the window mat. If left in this state, the tintypes would have become further damaged.

Copyright RIHS 2011

Copyright RIHS 2011

A decision was made by the Graphics Project Archivist to first assign an artificial page numbering system for the album. The pages numbers are indicated as such [x].

Copyright RIHS 2011

This ensures that the original order of the images is retained. The endangered tintypes were placed in four flap enclosures with the page number and a brief description of the image on the front. Four flap enclosures allow a researcher to easily view an image without causing further damage. The enclosed tintype was then placed in a 4 x 5 inch Mylar sleeve for easy access.

Tintypes housed in four flap enclosures and Mylar sleeve

Copyright RIHS 2011

All original pages have been retained as some of them have identifying information on them. The pages have been placed in acid free folders in groups of 10. When a page was intact with no loose tintypes, the entire page was placed in a 5 x 7 inch four flap enclosure and then into a 5 x 7 inch thumb cut envelope.

This is an example of two pages that were still bound together although very poorly. The photographs have remained in the window mats. The pages were individually placed in acid free 5 x 7 inch four flap enclosures.

Copyright RIHS 2011

[a] AIC Definitions of Conservation Terminology. (accessed 2011_05_03)

[b] Lesson 1: What is paper preservation? (accessed 2011_05_03)

Recommended reading:

    Preserving Your Collection of Film-Based Photographic Negatives

    National Park Service – Museum Management Program

    AIC Definitions of Conservation Terminology

    Van Der Reyden, Dianne. “The Science-Based Fight Against Inherent Vice.” International Preservation News 50 (2010): 5-10. International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) Core Activity on Preservation and Conservation (PAC). Web. (accessed 2011_05_03) (

A labor of love, part 2


By Jim DaMico
Graphics Project Archivist

April 21, 2011

Picking up from the last post here, I have finished processing the [Washburn-Fessenden-Wood-Abbott-Woods Family – Photographs]. From start to finish, the survey, arrangement and description, tabulation, weeding and re-housing took approximately 17 days.

Today, a researcher came in and is now using this collection. The time and effort has certainly paid off. If this researcher came in two months ago there would be nothing to look at. Now there is draft finding aid that includes a box and folder list giving the researcher a basic jumping off point.

Initially, my impression of the collection was that it has negligible research value as most of the views and some of the people are unidentified and that this collection is yet another example of the aristocratic class, their fashion and leisure time in the United States and abroad. Some of the families represented here lived in Italy, and visited Europe just as many in the upper class had done during the time period of circa 1900-1930.

In addition, the overwhelming number of copy photographs and copy negatives of paintings, daguerreotypes and sometimes ephemera made by one of the family members’ appear to have little to no value other than documenting an obsession to make multiple copies of the same image over and over again.

In this collection I did discover two examples of the Hess-Ives Corporation HICHROGRAPHY color photographic process. The Hichrome is are an early color photographic process that was invented by Frederick E. Ives around 1910. The images that are in this collection are dated 1917 and 1918 and appear to be copy photographs of a painting and some china. The Hichromes are in presentation folders with the Hess-Ives Corporation logo and list of patents.

Here are some examples of what the collection looked like before processing:

Copyright RIHS 2011

In the above image, notice the corrugated board. This was how the glass plate negatives were originally housed. All of the glass plate negatives were re-housed using acid free four flap enclosures.

Copyright RIHS 2011

The next photo shows the beginning of the sort process that I went through with the material. This step allowed me to start to differentiate between the original photographs and the copy photographs.

Sorting photographs

Copyright RIHS 2011

Copyright RIHS 2011

These last images are the “after” pictures and show the result of a fully processed collection:

Copyright RIHS 2011

Photo albums

Copyright RIHS 2011

To find out more about this collection and others, please contact the RIHS Reference Services.

A labor of love


Written by Jim DaMico, Graphics Project Archivist

I am in the middle of processing a very large (6 records storage boxes) collection of family photographs. To say the least, it has been quite a challenge. The collection came in 1982 and became part of the processing backlog that I am now tackling.

I found that a large percentage, approximately 70%, of the images are copy photographs and negatives of other photographs, daguerreotypes and paintings. Of course these copy photographs were intermingled with original photographs that include snapshots, cabinet card portraits and tintypes.  The majority of these copy photographs were made between 1916-1922 and were created by the Louis K. Liggett Company, a pharmacy/photo processing lab located on Westminster and Eddy Streets, Providence, Rhode Island.

For the most part, the nitrate negatives and accompanying contact prints were found in the original acidic envelope from the photo lab. Due to the acidic nature of the envelopes, some of the negatives and prints have become brittle. Placing them in acid free, buffered envelopes and folders will slow the deterioration of the material.

Additionally, a single sheet of type written instructions was generally found in each of the envelopes. For the most part the instructions would state how many prints from what negatives the customer wanted, if the prints were to be mounted and if so, how they should be trimmed etc. Sometimes the note would be a reprimand for previous shoddy work. I can only imagine what the lab technicians thought of their customer.

Here are a couple of examples:

After figuring out what I was dealing with, I embarked on photocopying the envelopes and typescript notes onto acid free paper. Each envelope would then be placed in an individual folder and labeled with subject, work order number from the envelope and date. The date information is typically what is found on the typewritten note.

The photographs are being organized into two broad categories: Copy photographs and Original photographs. The collection is also being weeded to make the collection more accessible, nitrate negatives are being housed in buffered envelopes and glass plate negatives are being placed in four flap enclosures.

More to come….

Polka Time!


By James DaMico, Graphics Project Archivist

Usually in this blog we talk about the Graphics Inventory Project. Today, I would like to share an example of the diverse material the RIHS receives as gifts.

That’s right, Polka music is alive and well in the Rhode Island Historical Society’s musical recordings collection which contain a variety of LP’s (Long Play), 45RPM, Cassette and reel to reel recordings of folk, jazz and rock music created by Rhode Island based bands and orchestras.

A recent gift of the Wesoly Bolek record, Wild Wild Polkas, had the staff dancing to the irresistible beat of the Polka. This record was recorded at AAA Recording Studios, Boston, Massachusetts for the ALBO Record Company of Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

William “Wesoly Bolek” Borek (1941-2006), was known as Rhode Island’s Polka Clown and was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island on July 19, 1941 to Joseph and Stella (Socha) Borek. Growing up, Borek and his brother Edward worked in their father’s Polonia Bakery. In 1962, William graduated from Rhode Island College making him the first family member to go to college. He furthered his education by attaining two masters degrees from the University of Connecticut in 1964 and the University of Rhode Island in 1968. [a.]

At the age of 17, Borek formed the Wesoly Bolek Band and over a length of about five decades they toured the United States, Canada and Poland and recorded ten albums for the Rex, Dala and ALBO record labels. In addition to being an accomplished musician, William Borek was a high school history teacher and after retiring from teaching became an insurance salesman and then a district manager of the Combined Insurance Company of America. [b.]

Polish culture and the Polka were intertwined in Borek’s life as he promoted Polka music through his work as a disc jockey and organizing trips, picnics and evening Polka dances with bands from around the United States. Borek was inducted into The International Polka Association’s Hall of Fame in 2008. [c.]

[a.] International Polka Association. “William “Wesoly Bolek” Borek”. (accessed 2011_03_25)
[b.] Ibid
[c.] Ibid

Rhode Island Historical Society Silent Film Series


From the collections of the Rhode Island Historical Society

Series Summary

Before Hollywood there was Providence. Rhode Island film companies ruled movie screens during the 1910s. Come see classic Rhode Island Historical Society Silent Film Series made right here in RI from 1915-1929. Most are being shown for the first time in over 90 years. Live piano accompaniment by Peter Freisinger.


Saturday, January 22, 2011, 7pm-8:30pm
Saturday, February 19, 2011, 7pm-8:30pm
Saturday, March 12, 2011, 7pm-8:30pm


Rhode Island Historical Society

110 Benevolent St, Providence , RI 02906


Tickets available at the door.
$8 for RIHS members
$10 for non-members


Lee Teverow
email:  LibPrograms_at_RIHS.ORG (replace the _at_ with @)
phone: (401) 273-8107, x10

Film Series flyer 2011

Advertising cards to shopping bags…


By James DaMico, Graphics Project Archivist

Ephemera. What exactly are they?

According to the Ephemera Society of America, ephemera are “…everyday documents intended for one time or short term use.”[a.] In addition, the Library of Congress’ Thesaurus for Graphic Materials (TGM) defines ephemera as “Transient everyday items, usually printed and on paper that are manufactured for a specific limited use then often discarded. Includes everyday items that are meant to be saved, at least for a while, such as keepsakes and stock certificates.”[b.] The Society of American Archivists definition is closely tied to the TGM: “Materials, usually printed documents, created for a specific, limited purpose, and generally designed to be discarded after use.” [c.]

The Encyclopedia of Ephemera [d.] lists over 500 categories of ephemera that have been created over the years. Ephemera have always been a challenge to archivists and librarians not only in how items are cataloged but how they are stored. Often, the research value is not fully seen in items that were produced to be thrown away once their usefulness was attained. An example of this can be seen in something as basic as a restaurant menu. While the informational value, such as pricing and options to choose from, in a menu is designed for the here and now, the long term research value can be seen as demonstrating how many Thai or Italian restaurants were in business during a certain time period and what types of food are offered for sale. The RIHS has cataloged a portion of its Menu Collection and it can be found in our online catalog, NETOP. For example, in Providence, one can see how many Japanese restaurants were serving delicious food in the early 20th century.

Ephemera such as advertising cards, document the growth of the city and the explosion of technology such as telephones, streetcars and appliances. Likewise, the farm was shown during the transition from manual to mechanized labor. Everything from fashion to shoe and stove polish is documented in often brilliant chromolithographic prints to appeal to consumers and to convince them to buy a particular company’s product. An example of this appeal is The Kendall Manufacturing Company’s Soapine line of French Laundry Soap advertising cards which is well documented in the RIHS Ephemera Collection.

Examples of ephemera abound in society today also as in the past. That ticket in your pocket from last nights movie would be considered ephemera as well as the political sign that was placed on your front lawn during the last election cycle.

The Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS) has a substantial number of ephemera consisting of individual items to entire collections of advertising cards and Civil War envelopes compiled by individuals. The Society’s collection contains over 200 greeting cards; 1,000 advertising cards; and 100 calendars. We also have political paraphernalia such as bumper stickers and invitations from Rhode Island politicians. Retail shops and industry are represented on bill heads, menus and a host of other ephemera used to advertise their services. Postcards, valentines, Christmas and birthday cards are also represented in abundance.

Recently, the collection was reorganized as part of the Graphics Inventory Collection Survey. Inventories were compiled in order to provide access to researchers that may be interested in the collection. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact our reference librarian by email, reference at, or by phone, 401-273-8107x 10.

Some examples from our Ephemera Collection follow:

RHi X17 516

Chromolithograph souvenir advertisement from Fraser Bros. Company, importers of teas, coffees and baking powder. Located at 297-299 Weybosset Street, Providence, R.I., [ca. 1900]

RHi X17 508

Advertising card for Vilen S.W. Parkhurst’s Bookstore, 47 Westminster Street, Providence, R.I. [ca. 1855]

RHi X17 509

Chromolithograph advertising card for Columbia Bicycles – Ordinary [ca. 1878] Typical cost for a 60 inch Ordinary/Hi-Wheeler, $125.00. In 2010 dollars that same bicycle would cost $3,731.98. [e.]

RHi X17 514

Compliments of J.H. Gregory, 247 Main Street, Pawtucket, R.I. “The Dude Uncle”, ca. 1890-1892.[f.] (front) Hand colored lithograph advertising card for J.H. Gregory’s mens clothing store. Illustration of a man wearing a monocle and holding two crying babies.

RHi X17 515

Compliments of J.H. Gregory, 247 Main Street, Pawtucket, R.I. “The Dude Uncle”, ca. 1890-1892.[f.] (verso) Text only. Best $2.00 Hat in the City.

A little Providence baseball history…

Batter up! The Providence Base Ball Club’s Official Scorecard from a game played on May 31, 1892 at Adelaide Park in the Elmwood section of Providence shows a game between the Brown University varsity baseball team and the Providence Clamdiggers (Grays), an Eastern (International) League Club in which the Clamdiggers (Grays) won the contest 4-0 [g.] . Frank Joseph Sexton, captain and pitcher and Frank Tenney, left fielder of the May 31 game are notable Brown players that went on to play with the Boston Nationals [h.]. Based on this Providence team roster which includes Pat Friel (Patrick Henry Friel) and according to Baseball[i.], this team is the Providence Grays.

RHi X17 520

Official Score Card – Providence Baseball Club May 31, 1892 (front)

RHi X17 521

Official Score Card – Providence Baseball Club May 31, 1892 (inside)

To continue with the baseball theme, here is an example of a cigarette card for chewing tobacco…

RHi X17 512

“Smoke and Chew Little Rhody Cut Plug”. (front) Chromolithograph advertising card for Little Rhody Plug chewing tobacco. Illustration of a woman catching a baseball bare-handed, ca. 1880.

RHi X17 513

“Smoke and Chew Little Rhody Cut Plug”, ca. 1880 (verso) Text only. Baseball schedule for Sept. 1-30.

RHi X17 510

Chromolithograph advertising card for Hoyt’s German Cologne, ca. 1890. Illustration of a frog sitting on a mushroom pouring Hoyt’s German Cologne on a bouquet of flowers. (front)

RHi X17 511

Chromolithograph advertising card for Hoyt’s German Cologne, ca. 1890. Text only. Sold by H.L. Hough & Co., 1029 High St., Olneyville, R.I. (verso)

RHi X17 517

Advertising souvenir with an animated cartoon strip for the Hotel Blackstone, 317 Westminster St., Providence, R.I., [ca. 1915-1935?]. Made by G. Felsenthal & Sons, Chicago, IL.

RHi X17 518

Printed envelope from C.S. Bush Co., photographic processing, printing and enlargement firm, ca. 1919. (front)

RHi X17 519

Printed envelope from C.S. Bush Co., photographic processing, printing and enlargement firm, ca. 1919. List of “Failures in Photography” and ways to avoid them by making correct exposures. (verso)

a. The Ephemera Society of America. (accessed 2010_12_28)
b. Ephemera. (accessed 2010_12_29)
c. Pearce-Moses, Richard. SAA: Glossary of Archival Terminology. (accessed 2011_01_04)
d. The Ephemera Society of America. (accessed 2011_01_05)
e. Tom’s Inflation Calculator. (accessed 2011_01_05)
f. Hurd, Beth. RootsWeb: RIGENWEB-L [RIGENWEB] J. H. GREGORY, Pawtucket, RI. 2001. (accessed 2011_01_05)
g. Harris, Rick. 2006. Rhode Island’s Baseball Legacy : the data base book (1827-1960) [Cranston, R.I.: The Author]. Database V, pg. 29-30.
h. Mitchell, Martha. Encyclopedia Brunoniana Baseball. 1993. (accessed 2011_01_04)
i. 1892 Providence Grays Statistics — Minor Leagues – (accessed 2011_01_04)

Graphics Inventory Project Update


By Jim DaMico, Graphics Project Archivist

The Graphics Inventory Project has surpassed the creation of 7,000 basic catalog records and has surveyed 207,526 individual items. Seventy five percent of the total number of items inventoried thus far is photographic material ranging from glass plate negatives to Polaroid photographs. The portion of the Rhode Island Historical Society’s Graphics Collection that has been surveyed is approximately 739 linear feet or put another way, approximately 2.5 football fields long.

Counting the number of items held in the Graphics Collection isn’t the only task that the Archivist is undertaking. A thorough preservation assessment is being conducted in order to determine whether or not an item or collection is stable enough to be handled by researchers. We are also collecting data on the quantity of archival supplies needed to properly re-house collection items. Thus far we need 3,425 new folders, 106,984 polyester sleeves, 723 archival boxes, and 22,647 specialized storage containers. For example, glass plate negatives, for optimal protection, require suspension boxes and four flap enclosures. The cost to properly house (50) 8” x 10” glass plate negatives is $50 per suspension box and $67 for (50) four flap enclosures. As one can see, just the material cost alone to preserve Rhode Island history is an expensive yet worthwhile endeavor.

There is also a need to stabilize, through professional conservation techniques, rolled maps and architectural drawings.

© Rhode Island Historical Society

Over 10,000 architectural drawings have been discovered during the Survey and include pencil on linen, pen on linen, blueprints, Photostats and pen on tracing paper. Conservation techniques such as the use of a humidification chamber to relax rolled drawings is one of many tools that are needed in order to make the wonderful collection of architectural drawings that have been found during this Survey available to researchers.

Media Migration
The Graphics Collection also holds over 300 2” Quadruplex videotape reels that document local businesses and political campaign commercials. Two inch Quadruplex video, the first commercially available videotape format was first introduced in 1956 and was used in television studios across America until the 1980’s[a]. This is one of the most endangered video formats due to obsolescence of playback equipment, chemical and physical decay and the shrinking number of experts that know how to properly transferthe media.

© Rhode Island Historical Society

Organizations such as Texas Commission on the Arts recommend in their Video Conservation Guide “Immediate re-mastering through a vendor with proven experience with this format.”[b]

If you would like to learn how to help the Rhode Island Historical Society preserve and stabilize it’s important collection of 19th and 20th century graphics material such as architectural drawings, maps, photographs and audiovisual material, please contact Karen Eberhart, Special Collections Curator at

[a.] Quad Videotape Group-Quad History-Page Index (accessed 2010_09_09)
[b.] Texas Commission on the Arts: Video Conservation Guide (accessed 2010_09_09)

Luminous Grains: the Autochrome


by Jim DaMico

The autochrome is the rarest, the most fragile and, to a great many eyes, the most  beautiful of photographic processes. It represents not just the birth of color photography but color as luminous as the camera ever caught it[a].

One of the most unique items I have come across so far in my inventory project of the graphics collection here at the RIHS is that of an Autochrome which measures 4”W x 6”H. It is a ¾ length portrait of an unidentified woman taken around 1910-1920 by an unidentified photographer. This process, much like the daguerreotype, is a one of a kind photograph except that this is an example of the first commercially viable color photographic process.

Unidentified woman

Housed in the original, leather covered Diascope viewer which has stamped on the brass sides “B.J. Diascope Pat. Sept. 1, 1908. Mfd by L.A. Dubernet”, some of the hallmarks of Autochrome portraits of the time are present. The view includes a vase of white flowers on a table and trees bordering the sitter and looks like it was taken outside. Unfortunately the glass has a crack in it and there is deterioration, possibly delamination, caused by moisture, of the image layer in the shape of the woman. The B.J. Diascope was the most expensive viewer offered to customers indicating the image may have been taken by a professional photographer such as George Henry Seeley, a native of Massachusetts and a member of Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession group[b] or Henry Havelock Pierce, who spent time following his “…Gilded Age clientle from Boston to New York to Newport[c]. The Diascope was patented by New York portrait photographer, Mr. B.J. Falk and manufactured by L. A. Dubernet, 44 East Eighth Street, New York[d].

Diascope Viewer

Diascope viewer closed


The Autochrome, invented by Louis and Auguste Lumière and patented in 1904 is an additive color screen plate process and was the first commercially viable color photographic process.  The Lumières introduced the Autochrome process to the world on June 10, 1907[e] and it became popular amongst amateur and professional photographers from 1907-1930’s. The Lumières built upon years of experimentation starting with James Clerk Maxwell’s 1861 additive color synthesis process. Maxwell’s process involved using three separate lantern glass slides, individual red, green and blue filters to both take the image with and project through and three separate yet superimposed lantern slide projectors to produce a color image[f].The Autochrome, as we will see, simplified the process of color photography.

Alfred Stieglitz, founder of the Photo-Secession, was at the Photo Club de Paris[g] introduction of the Autochrome process given by Auguste and Louis Lumiere  and  introduced the process to America. On November 15, 1907 the Autochrome process became available to amateur and professional photographers in America. [h] By 1913, the Lumière factory was producing 6,000 Autochrome plates a day and kept manufacturing them until 1932.[i]

According to a 1916 Photo-era magazine[j], R.J. Fitzsimons was the sole American agent based in New York City for the Lumière’s Autochrome process.

It was the amateur photographers however that fully embraced the Autochrome. This was reflected in the numerous articles written about individuals’ experiences with this new color photography in the pages of such magazines and photo journals as American photography, The Photogram, Photo-Era, Practical color photography, and The American Annual of Photography.

The popularity of the Autochrome was exhibited in the pages of National Geographic beginning in 1914 and continued until the advent of Kodachrome slide film in 1935. Between 1914 and 1935 National Geographic photographers took an estimated 12,000 Autochromes.[k] In addition, French banker and philanthropist, Albert Kahn, sent a group of photographers to Autochrome the world, documenting among other things, World War 1 and the collapse of the Ottoman empires. Kahn’s endeavor resulted in 72,000 Autochromes, most of which have not been published and are housed at the Albert Kahn Museum in Paris.[l]


In order to give some context to the affordability to amateur photographers using the Autochrome process I looked at the 1930 publication, Color Photography with Autochrome Plate[m]. A box of four 4 x 5 inch Autochrome plates cost $2.28., cover glass per dozen costs $.50, a Diascope viewer, $5.25 for a total of $8.03. In 2010 dollars these materials would cost $100.66. These costs do not include any chemicals or other processing supplies the photographer would need. The average yearly family income for American workers in 1930 was approximately $1,524 with expenditures of $1,512.[n] Average family income of 1930 translates to approximately $19,104.69 in 2010 dollars and in 1935 the average hourly wage in manufacturing was $.58. This translates to $9.27 per hour in 2010. In 2010 dollars, a photographer’s $100 investment into basic Autochrome material would be equal to $1,253.58 today. As one can see, making Autochromes was expensive and out of the reach of most workers.


The Autochrome manufacturing process was quite elaborate. At the factory in Lyon, France, the first step involved running transparent potato starch grains through numerous sieves in order to sort out those that had a diameter between ten and fifteen millimeters.[o] A slightly concave piece of glass was coated with a mixture of crude pine sap and beeswax and, a “…mosaic of microscopic grains of potato starch” is laid on the glass plate with the space between the grains filled in by spreading the plate with charcoal powder. Lastly a panchromatic silver halide emulsion is applied. As mentioned above the potato starch grains are dyed red, green and blue-violet and act as the color filters. To get a sense of the size of the grain, it took approximately four million grains to coat one square inch of the plate. In order to improve the quality of the final image, a roller with a pressure of 5 tons per square centimeter was used to flatten and evenly spread the grains out.


After careful composition, the photographer placed a yellow-orange screen on the lens; loaded the Autochrome plate into the camera with the glass side toward the lens. By placing the plate in this manner, light is filtered through the filter screen which is comprised of all those dyed potato starches, to the panchromatic emulsion. Due to the slowness of the Autochrome emulsion, the photographer needed a tripod and was restricted to shooting out of doors on sunny days. Flash powder was also used by photographers to shorten their exposure times but this, like much of the Autochrome taking process took some experimenting. Once exposed, the photographer processed the plate as a slide. This complex, multi-step process involves first developing the plate to a negative image and then back to a positive image. Once the Autochrome is fully processed, the photographer could place the plate in a Diascope viewer which would allow transmitted light to reveal the image and to also protect the image from extended periods of time exposed to the light. Otherwise, the only other ways to view the image was by holding it up to the light or projecting it.

The result of the photographer’s endeavor was a luminous, dream like quality that had not been seen before in photography prior to the advent of the Autochrome.


a. Wood, John. 1993. The art of the autochrome: the birth of color photography. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. p. XIII.

b. Getty Museum. George Henry Seeley (Getty Museum). (accessed 2010_07_16)

c..Autochrome Still-Life by Henry Havelock Pierce – American Museum of Photography (accessed 2010_07_19).

d. The Photogram. Autochrome Notes. The Photographic Monthly. Vol. XV, No. 153, July 1908. p. 219. Found in: (accessed 2010_07_12)

e. Autochromes : the dawn of colour photography. (accessed 2009_08_18)

f. Autochromes : the dawn of colour photography. (accessed 2009_08_18)

g. (accessed 2009_08_18)

h. Chambers, Frank V. 1907. The camera : an illustrated magazine devoted to the advancement of photography. Philadelphia: The Camera Publishing Company. P. 432

i. Wood, John. 1993. The art of the autochrome: the birth of color photography. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. P. 29.

j. Photo-era magazine, the American journal of photography; an illustrated monthly of photography and allied arts. Volume XXXVII, No. 1. July 1916. p. 97

k. National Geographic. First Published Natural-Color Photo. (accessed 2010_07_19)

l. The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn. (accessed 2010_07_19)

m. R.J. Fitzsimons Corp. Color Photography with Autochrome Plates, New York: R.J. Fitzsimons Corp., 1930.

n. United States. 2006. 100 years of U.S. consumer spending: data for the nation, New York City, and Boston. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (accessed 2010_07_16)

o. National Media Museum. Dawn of Color. (accessed 2009_08_18)

a. Wood, John. 1993. The art of the autochrome: the birth of color photography. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. p. XIII.

b. Getty Museum. George Henry Seeley (Getty Museum). (accessed 2010_07_16)

c..Autochrome Still-Life by Henry Havelock Pierce - American Museum of Photography (accessed 2010_07_19).

d.  The Photogram. Autochrome Notes. The Photographic Monthly. Vol. XV, No. 153, July 1908. p. 219. Found in: (accessed 2010_07_12)

e. Autochromes : the dawn of colour photography. (accessed 2009_08_18)

f. Autochromes : the dawn of colour photography. (accessed 2009_08_18)

g. (accessed 2009_08_18)

h. Chambers, Frank V. 1907. The camera : an illustrated magazine devoted to the advancement of photography. Philadelphia: The Camera Publishing Company. P. 432

i. Wood, John. 1993. The art of the autochrome: the birth of color photography. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. P. 29.

j. Photo-era magazine, the American journal of photography; an illustrated monthly of photography and allied arts. Volume XXXVII, No. 1. July 1916. p. 97

k. National Geographic. First Published Natural-Color Photo. (accessed 2010_07_19) 
l. The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn. (accessed 2010_07_19)

m. R.J. Fitzsimons Corp. Color Photography with Autochrome Plates, New York: R.J. Fitzsimons Corp., 1930.

n.  United States. 2006. 100 years of U.S. consumer spending: data for the nation, New York City, and Boston. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  (accessed 2010_07_16)

[1].  Ibid.

o. Autochrome encyclopedia topics. (accessed 2009_08_18)

Help Identify Narragansett Electric Lighting Company Portraits


A call for help!

Recently, during the inventory process, a large collection of gelatin dry plate glass negatives, ca. 1900-1940, were discovered. At first, the images of formal portraits of men dressed in suits were a mystery. I believe that these men may have been part of the management team. The majority of the envelopes that the negatives were found in had the acronym N.E.L.Co. After some investigating I found one envelope that had this spelled out: Narragansett Electric Lighting Company. Unfortunately, the photographer is not identified but fortunately most of the portraits are identified.

Upon checking our holdings I did not discover any N.E.L.Co. publications that had portraits of any of the men listed.

If you know of anyone that may have worked for Narragansett Electric Lighting Company or any other information regarding these portraits please leave a comment.

Thank you for your assistance.

%d bloggers like this: