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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 the White Mountain Republic, 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 1877, 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 and would add 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.
While “first” is word historians of photography tend to avoid, Weller has priority in the US for the quality and quantity of his stereoscopic genre scenes. He was arguably the first American to produce a volume of them of exceptional quality.2 For over a decade prior to 1870, English and French stereographers had produced genre scenes, or tableaux vivants that were available for both domestic and export markets. Benjamin and Edward Kilburn, who began working in Littleton, New Hampshire, a few years before to Weller’s start there, also published a small number of scenes of children and leisure activities beginning in the late 1860s. Weller’s difference lies both in his quality and originality. He rarely imitated European tropes, and the few titles that correspond to prior treatments do so in subject matter more than composition. While the Kilburns’ genre scenes at this time have a casual appearance, Weller’s exhibit the careful composition and theatrical suspense that one expects from a genre painting by William Sydney Mount or Richard Caton Woodville. Weller claimed artistic status for his work, despite the uneven acceptance at the time of photography as art: "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." Like the genre painters, Weller strove for the perfect moment when the group would reveal its character, and as with Mount's scenes, it revealed a Yankee sensibility—clever, ironic, domestic, and democratic. Weller called these narrative views "stereoscopic treasures" and claimed them as his specialty:
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 they do, even today, reflect upon small town American, and we recognize the charm, grace and wry pride that lingers in every place that still has 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.
While I prefer the term narrative stereograph for these story-telling scenes, other terms can be used interchangeably—genre scene, tableau vivant, or among stereo collectors, “comics and sentimentals.” Also equivalent are the terms stereograph, stereoview, view, and stereoscopic photographs. Efflorescing in America in the 1870s, the narrative stereograph 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 six images, introducing a method from print making that was not explored at that time by other US stereographers and infrequently in Europe. Narrative stereoviews were enjoyed through a stereoscope, which facilitated fusing the image pair into three-dimensions. (Refer to the page "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. While Weller also photographed in other genres and in large plate format, his “stereoscopic treasures” enjoyed the greatest success and remain his most influential work. They are the focus of this ebook.
F. G. Weller was in a good place to develop as a stereographer, for Littleton, New Hampshire, was the epicenter of the industry in the US from the end of the Civil War to the conclusion of the nineteenth century. 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. Weller must have given the Kilburns a start when he opened his business just down the street from them less than a year after their first factory 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 painting.7 In seven years, F. G. would partner with Albert Quimby, and, after his decease, with Noah Ranlet. F. G. 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 F. G. 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. was visible in every corner.
He was taught photography by Franklin White of Lancaster, New Hampshire, whose business he purchased in 1868 and brought to Littleton. At first, he photographed landscapes and architecture, focusing on the tourist hotels and sights, in monoprints and stereo. He published four albums under the Argus imprint, Views of the White Mnt.’s Region, which illustrate and narrate the visitor’s journey through tourist 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 construct narrative stereographs with painted backdrops. Asa is reported to have helped in the early years with the business, and his family obligingly posed for stereographs, but there is no further record that F. G. 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 F. G. 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 F. G. 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 also posed for a number of stereoviews.17
Using family members and friends in Littleton as models, Weller crafted narrative subjects from quotidian life in small town America. It is difficult to find iconographic precedents for many, since he was responding not to academic or artistic traditions but to his own world. More research is needed in vernacular prints to understand Weller’s milieu, but in stereographs Weller’s clever interpretations of American subjects were unprecedented. 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 private nature therein. “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 it would be 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, F. G.’s self-deprecating humor had staying power.
Weller recreated the world of Littleton society, particularly in The Country Choir, #346, and A Muss in the Choir, #347A from 1872.20 With a wry yet affectionate gaze, he captures his fellow musicians and singers—Asa, Janette, brother William, William Bellows, a friend (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.”
F. G.’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 the baby was “brought” in the doctor’s 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 as late as 1889.
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 very young, slight, and serious, reminding us to protect 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 muse with a laurel wreath, crowning the exhausted artist in The Artist’s Dream #306 (1874). A double printing appears on the back wall of approving art connoisseurs. 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 full Atwater and Brackett building, establishing Weller’s Art Rooms on the first floor.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
F. G. Weller died on December 8, 1877, of tuberculosis, 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 H. Bellows, who founded the Littleton View Company. The Bellows brothers were sons of F. G.’s friend, William, who established the Bellows family store, which George and William Henry continued to run. 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