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  • by Ann Bennett

Captured Images of the Past

Stenographs Provide Insights of Local History -- It is difficult to envision, in this age dominated by television, the impact created by early photographs and their offspring, stenographs.

Also know as stereograms and simply as a stereo view, the stereograph is a double photograph mounted in such a manner that when viewed with a stereoscope, it appeared as a three dimensional image. The concept was conceived in the infant years of photography, popularized in the mid-1800s, and evolved as a form of parlor entertainment.

In the years before video cassettes, Dolby sound or Darth Vader, and even before the process had been discovered to print photographs in newsprint, stereographs offered a revolutionary view of the world.

The development of stereographs is linked directly to the growth of photography, an art which dates from the discoveries of Daquerre and Talbot in the 1820s. Two very different processes evolved -- Daquerre's method of recording a photographic image on a sensitized silver-plated sheet copper, and Talbot's use of sensitized paper. By 1851, a third process was added, involving the use of sensitized glass. Early stenographs were made from all three, and though just one form of photography, stereo views were the first visual mass medium.

Vital to their success, however, was an instrument with which to view the images. Sir William Brewster developed the lenticular stereoscope, and Charles Wheatstone devised a reflecting model in 1838. Both had their advocates as well as severe limitations, and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harvard professor, poet and essayist, is credited with the invention of the familiar handheld stereoscope.

In 1859, his friend and fellow Bostonian, Joseph Bates, constructed several instruments and improved their design. The device met with immediate success and remained unchallenged for 80 years. Holmes did not apply for a patent, however, and within several months, the stereoscopes were being produced across the United States.

Almost from the beginning, stereography was a publishing business, with lierally thousands of photographers in Europe, Canada and the United States creating viewcards. To estimate the number of separate views is hypothetical reckoning it ranged in the millions, from simple landscapes to comedy and political views.

By the middle of the 19th century, the White Mountains of New Hampshire had already attracted a corps of talented photographers, many of them innovators of the day. The pristine landscape may be what inspired their work, but studio portraits and other marketable prints paid the bills, and stereographs developed as a livelihood for many of these pioneers of early photography. In their heyday, stereographs were turned out by several dozen accomplished White Mountain photographers.

"Without stereo views, a great deal of the region's history would have been lost," noted Dick Hamilton, director of White Mountain Attractions and an avid collector of White Mountain memorabilia. "The late 1800s in the White Mountains are as well documented as any area in the world, and it's as a direct result of the photographers sho capitalized on stereo views.

"The quality of the photography on many of the viewcards was incredible," he added, explaining that if carefully produced and preserved, the stereographs remain in prime condition today. Indicative of this quality are in the views that decorate the exterior of Yesterdays Restaurant in Jackson Village, which were reproduced from Hamilton's collection.

Hamilton numbers his collection of White Mountain viewcards at more than 2000. "Most collectors tend to specialize in something," he noted, "whether railroads, boats, disasters, comic views of presidents." Subject matter is one of several factors that dictate the cards' value. "Originally sets sold for a dollar, and views for five to 10 cents," Hamilton related. "That was a lot of money in those days." The same sets go for $20 to $300 today, and views from $1 to $20, according to condition, subject and the photographer.

Early White Mountain photographers One of the earliest White Mountain photographers was John Soule, whose work Hamilton characterizes as "some of the best." Other noted artists-turned-stereographers were North Conway's Nathan Weston Pease, who later earned acclaim for his postcards of the region, and the Bierstadt brothers.

Also among them was H.S. Fifield, whose business acumen equalled his photographic expertise. From 1868-1883, Fifield operated a summer studio at Lincoln, N.H., capitalizing on the tide of tourists attracted to the Flume. With a single background -- the poised boulder in the Flume -- he photographed tourists who wished to have a momento of their visit. Fifield averaged more than 1000 negatives a season for 15 years.

But headlining the era was Benjamin W. Kilburn, who, with his brother Edward, established a legacy as the most prolific and enduring stereographers in the world. From modest beginnings in 1865 making views by hand in a Littlefield, N.H., photo studio, to their four-story factory, which at one time was the largest employer in town, the Kilburns' efforts spanned 45 years. With more than 100,000 negatives in their files by 1905, the brothers surpassed a succession of producers during the premier years of stereography.

Ironically, both brothers were trained machinists, working with their father in the Littleton firm of Josiah Kilburn and Son beginning in 1847. Photography was strictly a second profession, which Edward learned by apprenticing himself to the village's only practitioner, O.C. Bolton. He apparently proved an adept student, and in the early 1850s bought out Bolton and set up business under his own name. Though occupied primarily with portraits of local residents, Edward published a collection of quality White Mountain views in the 1850s and '60s.

His older brother, Benjamin, in the meantime, continued to work in the family foundry. In time, he, too, was captivated by the magic of photography, and after service in the Civil War, the brothers formed a partnership in 1865. By the end of 1866, the pair had published several hundred views and were launched on the road to success.

Initially, the Kilburns roamed the White Mountains, restricting their subject matter to local scenes. Their views were extensively circulated by wholesalers in several major cities, however, and by 1867, the volume of business necessitated the construction of a new facility on Main Street in Littleton.

The three-story frame structure was designed specifically for the mass production of stereographs. On the first floor was a silvering room for sensitizing the paper on which the cards were printed, as well as a room for toning prints and a wash room fed by a flowing mountain stream. The second floor housed a sales room, dark room and storage, and on the third, views were cut, mounted and tinted. On each floor, the southern rooms were used for printing, with views produced by natural sunlight. Each printer used multiple frames, placing the sensitized paper beneath a negative and glass in a device resembling a wooden picture frame.

1873 proved a pivotal year for the Kilburn enterprise. Edward retired and Benjamin moved the company into a new and larger factory across the Ammonoosuc River on Cottage Street. Benjamin also broadened his interests, shifting the emphasis from White Mountain scenery to world-wide subjects and a fully diversified trade list, including comic and sentimental views of appeal to both adults and children. Kilburn recognized the difference in education, culture and social status of his growing clientele, and at the same time an expanding interest in world affairs.

Kilburn's real innovation, however, was in merchandising. In 1879, he experimented with salesmen, sending them to a handful of New England towns to demonstrate a variety of views, take orders and a week later, deliver the views and collect money. By the 1880s, the ranks of traveling salesmen had grown to several hundred and an agency had been set up in the Midwest to stock viewcards and better control distribution.

By the turn of the century, the popularity of stereographs was on the wane, in part because of the introduction of postcards, which were less expensive and, therefore, accessible to more people. Kilburn's health, in the meantime, was deteriorating and the business entered a corresponding period of decline.

The entire Kilburn collection was purchased by the Keystone View Company in 1909, the year of Benjamin's death. One of the largest publishers in the country, Keystone was primarily interested in Kilburn's negatives, while much of the stock of finished views were left in the Littleton factory. The winter following the sale, the building's furnace was fueled by viewcards, and when the facility was shut down, stereo views were hauled to the dump by the truckload.

A strong representative of Kilburn's efforts remain intact, however. Many of the finest, fittinly enough, are the early White Mountain views on which the Kilburn reputation was built. "Among his favorite subjects were the Cog Railroad and Mt. Washington," said Dick Hamilton. "During his 50 years working in the region, Benjamin Kilburn created a living testament to the past, and to the incredible change that occurred here. And he chronicled it better than anyone else."

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