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Sentiment and Irony: Weller's Stereoscopic Treasures
F. G. Weller’s “Stereoscopic Treasures” were lauded in their day as “composition pictures from nature representing American life…produced by no other photographer in the country.”1 This high praise from a newspaper in Weller’s home town of Littleton, New Hampshire, might be chalked up to small town boosterism were it not a reasonably accurate assessment. In a period of a mere seven years from 1870 to 1876, Franklin George Weller created stereoscopic narratives with inventiveness and charm that would circulate for decades after his decease through a succession of publishers. Out of deference to his work, the publishers continued to attribute to him later printings of his negatives—a rather uncommon practice in commercial stereography, where stock was stock. Weller’s work would be imitated by many stereographers, adding to the repertoire of popular themes from which early cinema would also draw. Though his name is not well known outside of the history of stereography, F. G. Weller created American icons.
Weller has priority in the US for the quality and quantity of his stereoscopic genre scenes. For over a decade prior to 1870, English and French stereographers had produced genre scenes that were exported to the US.
A few years prior to Weller’s start in Littleton, Benjamin and Edward Kilburn also published a small number of scenes of children and leisure activities among their more typical tourist views. M. M. Griswold, of Washington D. C., began a modest production of genre views in 1871. It was Weller, though, who led American production of the genre scene in the 1870s with a volume of exceptional stereographs, and while “first” is a word historians of photography tend to avoid for good reason, a number of enduring subjects in stereo can be first attributed to him. He also photographed in other genres, beginning in 1868 with landscapes, in both stereo and large plate format, and adding stereographed statuary, still life, frost scenes, and his allegorical paintings through 1877. Above all, his "Stereoscopic Treasures" enjoyed the greatest success and remain his most influential work. They are the focus of this ebook.
While I prefer the term narrative stereograph for these story-telling scenes, other terms can be used interchangeably—genre scene, tableau vivant, or “comics and sentimentals.” Also equivalent are the terms stereograph, stereoview, view, and stereoscopic view or photograph. Efflorescing in America in the 1870s, the narrative stereoview captured living actors in a slightly dissimilar photographic pair that, when fused, simulated three-dimensional vision, or stereopsis. Their subjects were coded by concepts recognizable to people at the time, distilling a popularly understood story-line or icon through both conventional and novel plays on signs. Weller also worked in sequences of two to twelve images, introducing a method from print making that was not explored at that time by other US stereographers and infrequently in European view publishing. Narrative stereoviews were enjoyed through a stereoscope, which facilitated fusing the image pair into three-dimensions. ("How to See Stereoptically.") A parlor furnishing that no proper home would lack, the stereoscope formed a dominant vision for the nineteenth century, supplying people with sights, images of celebrity and fame, theatrical stories, and current events. Eventually becoming a mass corporate industry with millions of stereographs sold per year, the stereoscope and stereograph were emblematic of Victorian expectations for visual experience.
The transporting effect of 3D is particularly well realized in stereoviews of interiors, where depth cues are numerous. Weller exploited this in his narrative views of American small town and parlor life, close range scenes that place the viewer in medias res. The typical Weller view is tightly constructed, though the viewer may not be aware of this at first. We tend to hover in Weller's stories, caught in what seems a collective memory from an inherited life we might have lived, a sense of shared experience that is individually re-envisioned through the stereoscope. Such "memory," though, was conceived and thoroughly orchestrated by Weller. In the 167 narratives he created in seven years, among other endeavors, nothing is hurried. Seen stereoscopically (and I urge you to do this), his sculptural figures with their precise photographic detail inhabit a balanced, volumetric composition, at just the right distance from the lens. Many exhibit the detail, classical structure and theatrical suspense that we expect from genre paintings such as those by William Sydney Mount or Richard Caton Woodville. Weller attested to the care that he took:
It has always been and always will be, as long as I manufacture Views, my aim and desire to make them as near perfect as possible; not only in manipulation, but in artistic merit.
Weller was certainly aware that not all persons at the time accepted photography as an art, but in this statement from his catalog he claims such merit for it. Like the genre painters, Weller strove for the perfect moment when the group would reveal its character, and as with Mount, a Yankee sensibility emerges—clever, ironic, domestic, and democratic. Of his specialty, the stereoscopic treasures, he noted:
Under this title I publish a series of subject pictures representing American life, both sentimental and comic, taken from living subjects in appropriate costumes and positions to represent the natural scene, and tell the story in the most effective manner...
Weller's narratives succeed, because in them we recognize an American blend of charm, grace and wry pride found in places that still have local character, and, oh, there are characters in view. Weller has great fun with them, as he reminds the sovereign of small places to smile at his fellows and laugh at himself.
Weller's locality was not only a source of inspiration, it modeled enterprise. Befitting its name, Littleton is a small town nestled in the majestic White Mountains of New Hampshire, where at the end of the Civil War, “wide-awake” merchants built a cog railway to the top of Mt. Washington and a number of grand hotels at the base of scenic peaks. It was a destination for scenery even before this, but the leisure and escape that wealthy Northeasterners desired post-bellum, Littleton ably supplied, and a band of itinerant photographers morphed into an established industry. O. C. Bolton, who parked his ambrotype van in front of The White Mountain House (now Thayer’s Hotel) and created a portrait of F. G. Weller in 1859, would teach photography to Edward Kilburn, who in turn taught his brother, Benjamin. After Ben’s return from the war in 1865, the Kilburn Brothers set up shop in Littleton, struggling with their nascent business until they were able to build their first factory in 1867. Much is known about the stereo empire the Kilburns built, which lasted until 1910, and about the larger-than-life personality of Ben. Pertinent to Weller is not so much the Kilburns themselves or their specific views, as their example of industry success in Littleton. One can imagine their surprise in seeing a carriage maker enter the stereo business just down the street from their new factory less than a year after it was built.
The Weller family came to Littleton from Vermont, by way of Lydon, New Hampshire, at the request of carriage makers Daniel and Albert Quimby. Asa Weller worked as a trimmer, and his son, nineteen-year-old Franklin, as an ornamental carriage painter.7 In seven years, he would partner with Albert Quimby, and, after his decease, with Noah Ranlet. Franklin had many distinctions besides carriage work and photography. He was a musician, singer, fine artist, writer, silversmith, and family man. In 1861, he married Janette Eastman Gibson, who joined him in love of oil painting, singing, church and civic engagement. In 1867, their daughter, Fontinella, or Fontie, was born. When Weller wasn’t with his family, he was leading Littleton’s brass band and playing on cornet, serving as a treasurer for the Young Men’s Lecture Association and the Lyceum Lecture series, a secretary for the Musical Association, forming church choirs, or organizing the Liberal Christians (forerunners to the Unitarian Universalists).8 Otherwise, he could be found in his rooms at the Atwood and Brackett Building or photographing.9 Littleton is cozy, and the prominent families socialized, were civically committed, and intermarried. F. G. Weller was visible in every corner.
He was tutored in photography by Franklin White of Lancaster, New Hampshire, whose business he purchased in 1868 and brought to Littleton. Beginning with landscapes and architecture for the tourist trade, he published four albums under the Argus imprint, Views of the White Mnt.’s Region, which illustrate and narrate the visitor’s journey through scenic locations, but in 1870 his work took a turn.10 Perhaps it was related to the broken arm he received in December of 1869, courtesy of a non-obliging horse (we can only speculate), but he began to photograph narrative scenes with props, then painted backdrops. These types of scenes were at the time called "groups," but after photographing a couple, Weller hit upon the idea of calling his compositions "Stereoscopic Treasures" and conceiving of them in series, as well as single images, for which his family and friends obligingly posed. Asa is reported to have helped in the early years with the business, but there is no further record that he had any other photographic assistants.11 What has not received notice is the possibility that his wife, Janette, may have helped.
Janette Weller was a schoolteacher and professional tailor and seamstress before she married.12 In the same year that Weller acquired White’s painting and daguerreotype business, Janette received a premium for an oil painting at a county fair.13 She was also a member of the Littleton Village Library Corporation, the Women’s Temperance League, and a trustee for the Liberal Christian Society, to which her husband also belonged.14 She and Franklin headed the committee for decorations for the Centennial celebration, which was a blow-out affair in small towns across America.15 Janette sang in the choir and can be observed, as we will see, in stereographs enacting her part. Her letters and memoir reveal that Janette was highly literate, ethical, and committed; intelligence and care shine through her writing.16 These qualities, as with those of many Victorian women, were likely subsumed in marriage under her husband’s profession and the private life of the “true woman.” Janette would later receive renown, as the next chapter details. Given her diverse set of skills, it is safe to speculate that she took part in conceptualizing themes, painting sets, sewing costumes, or hand-coloring views, a task typically reserved for women. She was a resource close at hand, educated and with artistic and sartorial skills valuable to F. G.’s industry. Janette's sister, Emile Gibson, who lived with the Wellers, also possessed dressmaking skills which would have proved useful to the family business. Janette has been identified in several views, and possible identifications are offered for Emile.17
With family members and friends as models, Weller focused on quotidian life in America. What academic or artistic traditions influenced him seem minimal. A small number of views reflect European treatment or illustrate popular poems or songs; they are individually detailed on the Narrative Stereographs pages. Iconographical figures and scenes of Venice in backdrops make an infrequent appearance. He sold subsciptions to an artistic magazine, but the printed page may have provided his farthest horizon. With only a few records to indicate that he roamed further than New Hampshire and nearby Vermont, Weller's subjects were decidedly local in genesis but wide reaching in influence.
A Weller title (industry slang for subject) that would inspire imitation is Did you Ring, Sir? #547 of 1875. This “self-portrait” of F. G. places him in a compromised position--naked in the tub, though only from waist up. As a separate room for the bath was a new feature in middle class homes at this time, its novelty provided an opportunity for exposure gags based on the premise that maids had yet to grasp the etiquette of this private chamber. “Did you ring, Sir?,” the innocent maid asks, bursting in. This view is a new take upon the exposed bather subjects of fine art, a female nude, or comic prints, a skinny dipping male.18 Our print of Did you Ring, Sir? was republished by Weller’s successor, the Littleton View Company, and reissued by the Underwood and Underwood Company, which distributed Weller’s stock in the 1890s. The title will be copied by three other companies.19 Clearly, Weller's self-deprecating humor had staying power. In The Country Choir, #346, and A Muss in the Choir, #347A from 1872, Weller recreated the world of Littleton society.20 With a wry yet affectionate gaze, he captures his fellow musicians and singers—Asa, Janette, brother William, William J. Bellows (the father of William H. Bellows), and Luella Hodgman (mother of Eleanor Hodgman Porter, author of Pollyanna).21 His family and friends were good sports to stand with mouths agape, posing as over-eager choristers trying their best to compensate for limitations on size and skill. Anyone who has ever grown up in a country church knows exactly how this choir sounds! It may be lacking polish, but it does have warmth. Warmth, indeed, occurs in the sequential view, A Muss in the Choir, where our choristers and musicians have fallen into disagreement, no doubt about some all-important point, while the kids in the upper left hand corner seize the opportunity to flirt unnoticed. Weller understands how small organizations “get along.”Weller's favorite model was his daughter, Fontinella, or Fontie, as she was known. She appears in title after title, such as Our New Washerwoman #331, Little Bo Peep #332, The Trials of the Day are Over #349, and The Secret #377, which we have in a delicately hand-colored print that offers a rounded, stereoptical effect in the girl’s face, enhanced by the vignetting at the bottom. The Victorian taste for sentimental scenes of children was inexhaustible, and many stereographers produced for this market, which appealed to women and children. Especially endearing were youthful misunderstandings of the adult world, as in How Did Doctor Bring Baby in That? #500, where the child thinks that the doctor "brought" the baby in his valise. One of Weller’s popular childhood views, The Trials of the Day are Over, featured Fontie sleeping with a tabby cat in her arms, framed in lacey bed canopies that render a stereoptical effect. The tactility of the lace pillow next to Fontie’s round face would have a sensual appeal for Victorian women, who often projected these feelings onto childhood subjects.22 Underwood and Underwood issued this view through the 1890s. Victorians had a taste as well for scenes of naughty kids, believing children’s innocence outweighed their small misdemeanors. Weller explored this genre with Tricks at School #525 and In Disgrace at School #526 (1875). In Tricks, a tack placed on the seat of a boy makes him jump with a shout. We can see that the tack is conveniently attached to a string for immediate withdrawal by the guilty prankster. While the setting to us today may seem like that of an average school, it is important to note that compulsory schooling was not universal at the time, and the 1870s marked the first wave of state laws requiring school attendance. New England states made this a priority, and Littleton was proud of its well-furnished school, as an 1868 newspaper listing of expenses for the schoolhouse, including a payment to Weller, attests.23 A view like Tricks at School uses humor to suggest that the real trick may be getting every child into school, irrespective of seating discomforts.
Weller produced moralizing views about marrying for money and temperance themes. The latter may reflect Janette’s influence, as she was a member of the Women’s Temperance League. Some temperance themes are: Is Mr. Collins Stopping Here #510; The Swallows Homeward Fly #538, named for the popular song by Franz Abt; and Strike at the Real Cause, Doctor #370, the latter being the most successful of the group. Our print is delicately hand-colored and depicts a doctor doing as he is bid—striking and smashing the bottle that is the real cause of the patient’s gout.
Weller had a talent for shifting between classes of people without condescension. The American Centennial occurred during the years Weller was active, and populist spirit for the union was high. In keeping with the time, his vision can be called democratic, for he ladles comedy and sentiment equally between village life and bourgeois parlor. Emblematic of this spirit is the patriotic personification, Columbia #378 (1875), represented by a solemn Fontie with a far-off gaze, draped with the flag. The setting is austere and refers to no political or contemporary situation. Compared to the popular images of a sturdy, classically-draped Columbia in political cartoons and designs, Fontie, here, is slight and serious, reminding us to protect young liberty as we would a child.Signs of the recent Civil War appear in The Village Inn #521 (above), where F.G. poses in a frumpy uniform, a worn infantry hat, with a sword on the table. He is engaging fellow rustics over a beer (so much for temperance!). This could be a scene from David Teniers or any number of painters of peasants imbibing or soldiers guzzling but for the difference of our closeness to the subjects. These are no peasants at a remove from us, but townsmen, one with a fishing pole, the other with a pipe, and both are listening--perhaps to a war story. The barmaid, too, stops to listen. There is a place on the bench so close to the viewer that we may be inclined to take it. At the other end of town, by contrast, is the wealthy bachelor, with all the comforts of life except a companion, who appears to him as a double-exposed bride in Reveries of the Bachelor #304 (1873). She returns in another view as a ghost-printed figure of glory, crowning with a laurel wreath the exhausted artist in The Artist’s Dream #306 (1874). A double printing appears on the back wall of approving old masters. Such double and triple exposures were no small task in the days of wet collodion negatives and sun printing.
Though he photographed for less than a decade, Weller’s stereoviews were quite successful. In 1874, he moved from the basement to rent the first floor of the Atwater and Brackett building, establishing Weller’s Art Rooms.24 In addition to his own work, he sold oil paintings, color lithographs (“chromos”), stereoscopes, graphoscopes, spectacles, picture frames, cards, old coins, and art supplies.25 Sales were also by mail order through a catalog or through canvassers.26 The White Mountain Republic reported on Weller with frequency, extolling upon his art and large orders, and twice publishing his name in a set of individuals with higher income tax payments.27
Weller exhibited stereographs at the Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, where Carleton Emmons Watkins also showed.28 Weller stock would eventually be sold worldwide in the global marketing that began in the late 1880s. In Underwood and Underwood’s imprint of Weller’s The Trials of the Day are Over, we can see the title on verso in six languages; such multi-lingual labeling was typical for large companies at the time. Another indication of the audience may be found in stereoviews that bear inscriptions on verso. Only stereoviews with light-colored mounts may be inscribed, and among those probably less than 10% have them. Weller views are among those more frequently inscribed in this time, indicating that many held a personal identification with their scenes. Individual inscribers of stereoviews are starting to be identified, allowing us a glimpse into the lives of Victorian collectors.29
Weller's production of narrative views ceased in 1876, when he produced only a few scenes and concentrated his attention on stereographs of statuary, frost, and his allegorical paintings. In 1877, he produced the first twelve-view series, based on his paintings illustrating John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.30 On December 8th of that year he died of tuberculosis and was survived by Janette and Fontie. He is buried at Glenwood Cemetery in Littleton. In 1879, Janette sold his stock to Littletonian, George H. Aldrich, who continued to issue Weller’s titles with attribution. In 1883, Aldrich sold the stereo business to George and William Henry Bellows, who founded the Littleton View Company. The Bellows brothers were sons of F. G.’s friend, William J. Bellows, who established the family store in partnership with his son, William Henry. The Littleton View Company was faithful to Weller’s attribution, but when the stereo titles began to be distributed by the Underwood and Underwood Company of Kansas in the 1890s, the Weller name was at times omitted. For over 30 years after his decease, Weller’s “Stereoscopic Treasures” spoke for American lives and interests. They are icons of culture in the United States from the conclusion of the Civil War to the beginning of the twentieth century and have inspired both stereoscopic photographers and collectors. Few stereographers have had such a lasting influence.
© Melody Davis, 2019