Marking time on collecting
A Christmas postcard from North Reef
To mark the summer solstice, I would like to show you a special lighthouse postcard with a seasonal greeting.
The postcard shows the North Reef lighthouse that guides ships passing along the Great Barrier Reef, about 120 km from Gladstone. It is a remote spot.
The lighthouse was built in the 1870s on a little patch of sand on the planar reef. The tower stands on a concrete-filled iron caisson sunk down to a coral foundation. Under the effects of wind and tide the sandy island migrated away from the lighthouse, which was left surrounded by water; over the last 140 years the sand patch has continued to migrate, and the lighthouse now stands in the middle of the sand again. There are few photographs that record the sand’s comings and goings.
Over many years the civil engineer Dr Michael Gourlay of the University of Queensland has studied the reefs and cays of the Great Barrier Reef. He has recently published a paper that includes an account of North Reef.
A lantern slide of the Old Museum Building
I have recently acquired five nineteenth-century lantern slides of Queensland subjects published by the Scottish firm of George Washington Wilson and Co Ltd.
My favourite is this one, of the Exhibition Buildings in Brisbane. It is the earliest good-quality photograph of the building I know of. I have just started work on updating the conservation management plan for this building, so getting this photo is a treat.
Here we are at the last day of the month—a month in which I have written nothing here. I don’t like to leave empty spaces in the monthly archive so, to fill the gap, let me show you this precious item from the State Library of Queensland collection.
Contents of my library
Thanks to LibraryThing for revealing how my library stacks up against others of similar size. A new LibraryThing function can automatically classify my books using the Dewey Decimal System and produce a web infographic at the click of a mouse.
The results are interesting, but not surprising:
The colour of Pompeii
This is a sequel to those tourist pictures of local colour around the Bay of Naples. It’s a group of four cartes-de-visite of the wall decorations revealed when the ancient city of Pompeii was excavated. Once again these are hand-coloured, and the colour makes them appealing.
Here are two delightful travellers’ souvenirs in the form of carte-de-visite photos—reminders of a visit to Naples. I’m guessing a tourist bought them after visiting the excavations at Pompeii in the 1860s.
A Swiss alpine locomotive
Another piece has joined my collection of oddly pleasing carte-de-visite photographs. It shows a little steam locomotive whose boiler is shaped like a claret bottle. The boiler is tipped forward about ten degrees, suggesting that this engine was built for hill climbing.
I put on my anorak, did some research, and found that the engine in the photo was built for the Vitznau–Rigi Bahn, the first mountain rack railway in Europe. The line opened in 1871 and this is the earliest type of engine used on it. The carte-de-visite is not marked with a date or the photographer’s name, but there is a good chance it was taken by Adolphe Braun in the early 1870s.
This happy find has sent me on a search for more alpine travellers’ ephemera.
The quality of tags
The State Library of Queensland is asking people to tag photos in Flickr Commons—Pitch in! Become a digital volunteer.
Yes, I’m willing.
Tags are descriptive terms chosen by anybody and applied to a photo. Let’s take the example of a photo filed under headings like koala, or Phascolarctos cinereus, which zoologists would recognise as correct names. Zoologists would also allow descriptive terms like marsupial, or herbivore. But what about tags like bear, or cute, or cuddly?
Tagging is a good way to collect a range of understandings from many people with different points of view and different knowledge. Tagging can produce a useful and sometimes surprising range of descriptive terms. The librarians appear to be encouraging people to enrich the Flickr Commons by tagging. But I wonder if their heart is in it.
On the Pitch in! web page is a black and white photo of four young women working in a garden, with a headline Tag SLQ’s photos in Flickr Commons. Three coloured labels have been applied, apparently to show how tags can add value to photos.
Sending those Parthenon marbles home
British newspapers are reporting that a group of MPs will introduce a bill—The Parthenon Sculptures (Return to Greece) Bill—on the 200th anniversary of the removal of the so-called Elgin marbles from the Parthenon in Athens.
Christopher Hume Moore, photographer
Back in the year two thousand and two, when I started to take a more serious interest in the few old photographs I owned, I uploaded a web gallery of cartes-de-visite by Queensland photographers. By early 2003 there were 18 photographs on display there, representing the work of ten studios.
I have added a photograph of the RMS Normanby to my little stash of steamship carte-de-visite photos with accommodation plans on the back. The photo of the Normanby joins the ones of Hibernian and Denmark which I have already mentioned here.
The Normanby has a special interest for me because of its connection with Queensland, and the colonial government’s efforts to develop the northern shipping route that linked the colony to Asia and Europe through the Torres Strait. Before this route was opened, most ships from overseas arrived in Queensland only after calling at the southern colonies. The government built port facilities, dredged rivers, erected lighthouses, and offered profitable contracts to shipping companies to carry mail along this route.
The first of these contracts was awarded to the Eastern & Australian Mail Steam Co, a company formed in 1873 to operate a four-weekly mail and passenger service from Sydney to Brisbane, Batavia (now Jakarta), Singapore and Hong Kong. One of the first ships in the company’s fleet was the RMS Normanby, built in Glasgow and launched in 1874. The prefix RMS stood for Royal Mail Ship, a mark of quality and reliability.
Hints for visitors
Taking off your shoes, before you go into a room, can change your frame of mind. That simple ritual can concentrate your attention on the space you are entering.
Visitors to Mission House at Kerikeri in New Zealand are greeted by a sign that says These are New Zealand’s oldest floors. They will last longer if you take off your shoes. I was happy to comply with that polite request, and to save the floor from unnecessary wear. At the same time, my feet were sensitive to the texture of the floor, which prompted a discussion with the museum guide about the English and Māori workers who had pitsawn those boards in the early 1820s.
Recalling the view across St Mark’s Square
I’ve been reading Carrying off the palaces: John Ruskin’s lost Daguerreotypes, a book by Ken and Jenny Jacobson about Ruskin’s use of photography for observing and analysing the architecture of Venice.
The book reveals the deep scholarship the Jacobsons have applied to a box of 188 Daguerreotypes they bought at an auction sale in 2006. This box contained a significant set of photographs collected, commissioned or taken by John Ruskin in the 1840s and ’50s. I’m making slow and pleasant progress through the text, the photographs, and the copious footnotes.
Marks of use
It’s an ordinary woodworker’s smoothing plane, a tool used by joiners, cabinetmakers, shipwrights and carpenters. Its job is to remove thin shavings of wood to produce a finished smooth surface. It might look crude, but is actually a highly evolved and capable tool, composed of a wooden body, a wooden wedge, and a steel blade.
Benjamin Disraeli, flipped
I have often admired some portrait photographs of Benjamin Disraeli, the British politician, wearing a natty velvet jacket. The pictures were taken in 1868 by William and Daniel Downey and published in various formats and by various processes.
I was pleased to add one of these to my collection. It’s a fine Woodburytype carte-de-visite, published by John Murdoch with proper acknowledgement of, and probably payment to, the original photographers. I mention these niceties because pirate copying of celebrity portraits was rife in the Victorian period.
On not collecting
Museum people are acquisitive, mostly. They thrive on adding things to their collections, and so ensuring the survival and display of those things.
But some things are better left where they are—like the remains of the aircraft in this photo. The site is on the Cox Peninsular, west of Darwin, where a B-24 Liberator bomber crashed in January 1945, killing the six American crewmen. Components of the plane now lie scattered across the site, among trees that have grown up in the seventy years since the crash.
Significant places and related objects
The Queensland Maritime Museum in Brisbane has a wonderful gallery of lighthouse equipment that displays the development of lighthouse technology since the nineteenth century.
The centrepiece of the gallery is a third-order rotating lens made by Chance Brothers & Co Limited of Birmingham in 1915, complete with its mercury-float pedestal, hand-wound clockwork, and kerosene pressure-lamp. The lens was built for the lighthouse at Cape Don on the Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory.
I recently inspected the buildings collected in the Pioneer Village at Pittsworth on the Darling Downs, with my historian colleague Dr Thom Blake. One of the buildings is a one-teacher school from Broxburn near Pittsworth.
The school was built by the local community and opened as a provisional school in 1898. Provisional schools were set up in places where there were few pupils, and were usually temporary structures. This building was a cut above the norm. It became a State School in 1909, and closed in 1959.
As Thom pointed out, provisional schools were ephemeral, and this is a rare and highly significant survivor. I’d be interested to hear of any others.
What Alex Symons did next
I have kept searching for information about Alex Symons, the purser of the steam yacht Merrie England. Two accounts have turned up, both written by men who worked with him in British New Guinea in the 1890s.
The first is the diary of Henry Mitchell, a crew member on the Merrie England in 1893–1895, now in the John Oxley Library.
An atlas of photographic processes
The Getty Conservation Institute has released a terrific resource for collectors and custodians of historic photographs.
The Atlas of Analytical Signatures of Photographic Processes is intended for practicing photograph conservators, curators, art historians, archivists, library professionals, and anyone responsible for the care of photograph collections. Its purpose is to aid in the formulation of analytical questions related to a particular photograph and to assist scientists unfamiliar with analysis of photographs when interpreting analytical data. The Atlas contains interpretation guides with identification of overlaps of spectral peaks and warnings of potential misidentification or misinterpretation of analytical results.
It’s published as a set of free pdf documents—an Introduction, plus separate chapters on the Albumen, Carbon, Collodion on paper, Collotype, Cyanotype, Halftone, Photogravure, Platinotype, Salt print, Silver gelatin, and Woodburytype processes—with the promise of more to come. Each of these chapters has an historical account of the development and use of the process, and a guide to identifying photographs made by that process. The identification methods include looking at the print with the naked eye (which I can do), low-magnification microscopy (which I can manage, sort of, with hand lens and scanning), and using XRF and ATR-FTIR spectometry (not possible for me, but interesting to read about).
More about the heliograph
For the record, I have identified the heliograph my father is using in the photo I showed here the other day.
It is a British Mance type heliograph, mark V. On the web are pictures, more pictures, a copy of the 1905 handbook, and the memoirs of a Second World War British army signaller—who remembers the special excitement of using the heliograph during a training session on the golf links overlooking the Firth of Forth in the early 1940s, when with the aid of a bright moon the heliograph worked well and the signals could be read clearly.
Best of all, here is a set of cigarette cards published in 1911 that explain the whole business—something we will not see again, in this new era of plain packaging…
The purser of the steam yacht ‘Merrie England’
Since Papua New Guinea is in the news, I’ll mention a cabinet photograph I recently bought from a dealer in England. It’s a portrait of a handsome young man wearing a naval officer’s cap and coat. It suggested a few lines of inquiry.
A severe blow
A while ago in Dunedin I visited the Otago Settlers Museum, an institution founded in 1898, the 50th anniversary of the first Scottish settlement of Otago. In the beginning the museum focused on the earliest European arrivals—from 1848 until 1861 when the gold rush started. The focus gradually widened to acknowledge more recent arrivals and, eventually, the Māori people who had been there all along. In 2012 the museum was renamed Toitū Otago Settlers Museum. Toitū is the Māori name of a stream that once flowed near the site, and the word carries other connotations, as the museum website explains.
In the museum is an ‘early colonists’ gallery, purpose-built in the early 1900s. In this large square room, lit by lantern windows at the top of the hipped ceiling, there are hundreds of framed photographs stacked six rows high. It’s very impressive, and gives the impression that anybody who can’t point to an ancestor on the wall is a newcomer.
Olga Nethersole woodburytype zoomified
Let me decode that headline:
Olga Nethersole (1867-1951) was an actress and a celebrity in England and America. She is a perfect subject to demonstrate the woodburytype.
Woodburytype was a process for printing high quality black and white photographs, used from the late 1860s until about 1900. This Woodburytype print of Olga makes a fine test for zoomify
Zoomify is software for zooming and panning website images.
In September 1868 Princess Alexandra was photographed with her baby daughter Louise riding piggyback. The picture makes the princesses look like ordinary people. Perhaps because of its charming informality this photograph, published as a carte-de-visite, was a best seller. Loyal subjects, in their hundreds of thousands, bought copies to put in their albums. One of these has found its way into my collection.»more»
A well-executed likeness
I just added to my little collection a carte-de-visite portrait of Colonel Samuel Wensley Blackall (1809-1871). Blackall was appointed Governor of Queensland in 1868, and died in office. In the photograph he sits in an arm chair with a sword between his legs and a feather hat on his knee. The setting is plain—there are no drapes, no columns, no furniture apart from the chair. The only decoration is the patterned linoleum on the studio floor.
It’s odd that he was photographed sitting down, rather than standing upright in a formal military pose as I would have expected for a governor’s portrait. Perhaps he was suffering from the illness from which he died. I don’t know what ailment caused his death, but I have read a suggestion it was something he caught in the tropics—he had been governor of colonies in West Africa and the West Indies.»more»
After the flood
When I was a child in primary school an old man gave me a stack of photographs—a couple of dozen whole-plate contact prints with scenes of the 1893 Brisbane River flood and its aftermath. At the time, I thought those pictures were wonderful, and I still do. They started my interest in the history of photography, and they were the beginning of my own little collection.»more»
Daniel Marquis in Scotland
Four more cartes-de-visite have joined my little collection of the work of the photographer Daniel Marquis (1829-1879). These give us a glimpse of the work he did in Scotland, before he emigrated to Australia.»more»
Carte-de-visite or visiting card?
I have just bought a little photograph on ebay. It’s not from Queensland, so it doesn’t fit my collection, but it took my fancy.
On the front is an albumen print, rather faded, of a pretty Italianate villa, with stone arcades, polychrome brickwork, cast iron filigree cresting, and a conservatory. The house sits in a picturesque garden, with strolling paths and flower beds. I think it’s a copy of a watercolour picture of the scene, not a photograph from life. It looks like the house of somebody who had done well in Melbourne, perhaps as a merchant or a speculator in mining stock.»more»
Object of obsession: the lead pencil
Bob Truby is the author of the website Brand name pencils, of which he says: This site has been designed to visually introduce to you the incredibly diverse world of brand name pencils. I trust that you will be amazed at the sheer number of pencil brands once produced in the USA and abroad. Sadly those days are over and the craftsmanship, skill and pride once put into the ordinary pencil is but a thing of the past.»more»
Another Daniel Marquis photo
I have just acquired another carte-de-visite photo from the studio of Daniel Marquis. It’s a scruffy specimen but I am glad to have it. I’ve added it to my online museum. On the back is some writing in a language-other-than-English. Would anybody care to identify the language, and tell me what it says, please?»more»
Where is this?
I’m intrigued to know the identity of the Queensland bush township in this old lantern slide.»more»
At last, a Daniel Marquis photograph
I am now the owner of an original carte-de-visite photograph by my distant relative Daniel Marquis, proprietor of a photographic studio in George Street, Brisbane. He established the studio in 1866, not long after arriving from Scotland. He died in 1879.»more»
The Stonehill Industrial Heritage Center at Stonehill College, Massachusetts, holds a vast archive of documents and objects about the shovel-making enterprises of the Ames family in the 19th and 20th centuries. The collection includes 755 shovels—something Eric Olthwaite could only dream of.»more»
Enjoy the fabulous collection of historic circus ephemera at circusmuseum.nl. There are thousands of colour lithographic posters from the Hamburg printing firm of Adolph Friedländer, each one catalogued, digitised, and available on the web. The website nicely explains, in Dutch and in English, the provenance of the collection.»more»
Radioactive tools of trade
The Oak Ridge Associated Universities’ Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Museum aims to chronicle the scientific and commercial history of radioactivity and radiation. The collection includes a shoe-fitting fluoroscope.
Fruit crate labels»more»
Materialism: the drawing cure
Danny Gregory’s everyday matters blog is one of my daily diversions. He is a compulsive sketcher who makes drawings that examine the way he is living. In today’s post he feels a surfeit of objects around him: I feel like I own too much and appreciate it too little. Having diagnosed his own condition, Danny prescribes a cure for himself:
I like the idea of a journal diet. Draw everything you own. Everything. Every single book, every stick of butter and shoelace. Now that would be a humbling experience. Or just draw everything you eat for a week. You’ll be thinner, calmer and happier.»more»
Collecting Airstream caravans
In this month’s special places piece about the Farnsworth house I mentioned Lord Palumbo, owner of the house from 1968 until a few days ago. A little googling today turned up another mention of him.»more»
Last year, my sister Fiona commented here: Our local dog-friendly park provides doggy-do bag waterproof receptacles. This is a refreshing alternative to sharps containers… Each doggy-do bag contains a handy rectangle of cardboard for use as a scraper. Whether you want it or not, I will send you one. An unused one, be assured.»more»
Cabinets of curiosities
I’m grateful to Caterina for pointing out the website Cabinets de curiosités. If you understand French you can read about weird collections of objects from the time before museums became public institutions. If French is a foreign language to you, just look at the pictures or use google to translate.
Guitar and banjo museum
As vintage instruments come into his workshop for repair, Frank Ford photographs them for his museum. He explains his motivations like this:»more»
Denis O’Donovan’s library
In 1874 Denis O’Donovan became Queensland Parliamentary Librarian. He was an unlikely arrival in the colonial frontier town of Brisbane — capital of the state of Queensland, separated from New South Wales 15 years before. O’Donovan was a cultivated man, educated in Ireland and France.»more»
I enjoy the messages I get from people who don’t know me, responding to things I write on this website—like one today from Suzanne Charlé, mentioning a story she wrote for the New York Times: Tiny treasures leave big void in looted Iraq:»more»
This is yet another website that consists of an ordered collection of related objects. Burners from discarded gas appliances are collected here, and sorted into piles: from stoves [subdivided into stovetop, broiler, hot plate], from heaters [space, hanger, hot water], and from commercial kitchen equipment. Lined up for inspection, these burners invite us to enjoy and compare their physiognomies.»more»
A Lewis Hine scandal
The Atlantic Monthly website has an article by Richard B Woodward, Too much of a good thing: photography, forgery, and the Lewis Hine scandal. Here’s the blurb:
The theoretical physicist who ignited the biggest firestorm in the history of the American photography market was simply trying to figure out if his vintage photos were genuine. By the time he learned the answer, two of the country’s best-known photography scholars had come under a cloud of suspicion.»more»
Tool patents online
Some of my cheerful companions on the OldTools mailing list have helped to build the Directory of American Tool and Machinery Patents. This is a searchable database that opens the historical records of the US Patents Office. Here you’ll find patent specifications for great leaps in American tool design (like Justus Traut’s 1888 plane iron lateral adjuster, used ever since by the Stanley company), and for thousands of smaller steps forward.»more»
Another toaster museum
Here is another web collection of toasters to add to the one I pointed out last year.»more»
Collecting saw handles
As a harmless distraction from war and mayhem, consider the aesthetic merits of saw handles. Like this one — the beech handle of a nineteenth century dovetail saw made by Thos Turner & Co, of Sheffield.»more»
A collection of cartes-de-visite
Instead of sitting in a rustic chair in the company of birds I have spent a little time scanning Queensland carte-de-visite photographs so you can see them here.»more»
The wooden library
The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences maintains the Alnarp Library, which specialises in horticulture and landscape planning. Its collection includes a wooden library. I’ll quote from the library’s website:»more»
I spent today at a photographic preservation workshop, looking closely at daguerreotypes, tintypes, ambrotypes and other early photographs, and learning how to care for them. Thanks to Lydia Egunnike, conservator at the State Library of Queensland, for an excellent session. My little collection is in for some tender loving care.»more»
Japanese manhole covers
Thanks to the Museum of Online Museums for pointing out this collection of Japanese manhole covers. The text is in Japanese (which I can’t read) but the colourful covers speak for themselves. I have previously mentioned manhole covers in Chandigarh and other places.»more»
German web designer Jens Veerbeck indulges himself with a toaster museum attached to his business site. Like the letterpress museum this is a collection that can be filtered various ways — in this case, by country of origin, by features, and by manufacturer. Our host writes:
Briarpress.org has a delicious online museum. Dozens of virtual printing presses are here, richly linked and organised, displayed with other tools of the trade. And there is an illustrated glossary of letterpress terms—handy if you don’t know your frisket from your tympan. I admire the clarity of words, pictures and navigation. My congratulations to Eric Nevin and the other authors.»more»
Collecting bread tags
Here’s another one for the ratbag file. Someone known as Transactoid has an online collection of bread tags, with illustrated notes about tag types and terminology for collectors. Compared with this, even banana stickers or vomit bags sound engaging.»more»
The Russian avant-garde book 1910-34
Thanks to Andy Crewdson for pointing out the website of this exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.»more»
Musee Mechanique reprieved
Musee Mechanique to close
Read about community upset over closure of San Francisco’s Musee Mechanique. The National Park Service plans to refurbish the historic building where the collection is housed.»more»
Museum of Jurassic technology»more»
National Quilt Register
This is a note of appreciation for the National Quilt Register, a web-accessible database of historic quilts in Australia. Details and pictures of more than 1000 quilts from around the country are already available. Some are in museums, some privately kept but, as the blurb on the website says, the quilts stay where they are and the stories are shared.»more»
More manhole covers
German photographer Roland Mühler’s website includes a gallery of fine photographs of street manhole covers. Remember my snapshot of the one in Chandigarh? Roland’s are much nicer (and there are 45 of them).»more»
Ratbag of note: Erik von Sneidern
Erik runs the Disstonian Institute, a website full of arcane information about Disston saws. Henry Disston started making saws in 1840 and for the next hundred years Disston saws were the best in America.»more»
The Fritz collection
In 1993 in a bric-a-brac store the Viennese artist Oliver Croy discovered somebody’s oeuvre packed away in rubbish bags: 387 model buildings and a collection of ca. 3,000 slides. He bought them all for about 500 Euro. The slides document the period from 1965 to 1975, often showing an obese man, a bald-headed person of regular habits, orderly dressed, wearing old fashioned glasses. The slides are also showing several travels together with his female collegue and his wife, on the trip with their VW beetle. The destinations were, with few exceptions, the Austrian Alps.
See the article at designboom.com.
If you pick up Stanley planes in junk shops and wonder how old they are, I have a suggestion. Print out this web page and carry it with you. It’s a dichotomous key: Answer a few yes/no questions about the tool to discover its date. You might find a Type 1 (1867-1869), worth a lot of money to an obsessed Stanley collector.»more»
Virtual museum: HistoryWired
New from the Smithsonian Institution is HistoryWired: a few of our favourite things, a showcase of objects and stories. You can navigate the collection of objects with a very clever map that shows thematic connections between them. The site design builds on the experimental Revealing things website I wrote about in the Ironic column.»more»
Object of obsession: the clutch pencil
Dennis B Smith runs a website he calls leadholder.com, subtitled the online drafting pencil museum. This seriously obsessive site catalogues all known makes and models of clutch pencils (which Americans call leadholders). The site is very nicely designed and written.»more»