Artfully composed still-life photographs from a rare 1871 album transform brushes, sponges, and stationery supplies into symbols of a proud, industrial society
Five years before the 1876 Centennial Exposition celebrated the nation’s confidence in its technological prowess with towering displays of manufactured goods, a group of Philadelphia photographers, lithographers, and printers produced an elegant, leather-bound album paying tribute to local industry. They called it Gallery of Arts and Manufacturers of Philadelphia , and they pasted in fifty-eight black-and-white photographs, each mounted in a lithographed frame on its own gilt-edged page. Merchants no doubt paid handsomely to be included in the album, and they probably displayed it in their stores and in hotel lobbies, a proud exemplar of the business directory—a form that began in the eighteenth century with simple printed lists of tradesmen. By the 1820s these lists had evolved into pocket-sized, sparsely illustrated books, replaced, twenty years later, by individual lithographed sheets enlivened with pictures of fashionable shoppers and horse-drawn carriages. By 1856 this form of advertising was well enough established for J. H. Colton & Company of New York to issue an atlas of Philadelphia businesses, illustrated with large, colorful prints of sugar refineries, chandelier manufacturers, and purveyors of whale oil. After the Civil War, however, society began to outgrow lithography. A photograph carried more impact, and a scene recorded by the camera seemed more realistic, more truthful.
When the Philadelphia firm of Wenderoth, Taylor, and Brown took the photographs for Gallery of Arts and Manufacturers , it apparently offered customers some latitude in how they presented themselves. Some merchants ordered views of their storefronts, which was particularly understandable in the case of the Chestnut Street furrier who had life-size carved-wood animals above the entryway of his shop. But most tradesmen chose still-life compositions of the items they offered for sale—brushes, sponges, boxes, even cast-iron stoves. These everyday artifacts were transformed into industrial icons, images as proud and hopeful as the age. Seventeen of these compositions were included in the album: a handful of the best appear here.