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Collecting Theatrical Photographs 1865-1917

Collecting Theatrical Photographs 1865-1917

 David S. Shields

 The public sale of celebrity photographs began in the 1850s with Jeremiah Gurney and Mathew Brady. People purchased items for personal enjoyment, treating the daguerreotypes, and particularly the cartes de vistes, as consumer items to be displayed in frames on mantles or in albums kept on library tables in the household.  A few individuals, however, sought images desiring to possess pictures chronicling the theatrical world of the period.  The glamour of the stage inspired a rare few to a devotion that expressed itself in a collecting passion. Some collectors were performers memorializing a world in which they participated. Others were devotees who sought to secure some material manifestation of stage magic.  This essay recalls the most avid of the devotees and sketches the collections they assembled in the era from the Civil War to the First World War.  A companion piece on the consumption of theatrical photographs will supply the more normal practices of purchasing and keeping performer portraits and stage pictures. 

In the early 19th century, one man shaped the ideal of collecting portraits of stage luminaries, the English comedian Charles Mathews.  In 1833 he displayed his collection to the London public, an event heralded in the gazettes as a matter of cultural import because the paintings recalled the master spirits of a former golden age of English theater.  Those old enough to have “wept over the heart-rending scenes embodied by Kemble, Young, Siddons, and O’Neill, will view these portraits with pleasure, and recall many of the delicious hours that have been wiled away by the enchantments of their acting.”[1] The paintings also showed the origin and development of scenic design. Mathews’s son prepared a catalogue. It would memorialize the collection when Mathews died in 1835. Sotheby’s put the paintings and prints on sale within a year, profiting from lively bidding, particularly for the Garrick relics.[2]  Several bidders intended to reconstitute the collection in the rooms of The Garrick Club (founded 1831) in London.  Most of the important paintings were secured for the Club, and since that time it remained the resonant assemblage of performer images in the memory of the English-speaking theatrical world, collected by a player, celebrating players, and communicating the glamour of stage life.

 Throughout the  1830s and 1840s, publishers released for general consumption illustrated collections of performers portraits. These range from inexpensive pamphlets, such as 1834’s A Peep Behind  behind the Curtains at the Bowery Theatre, a collection of biographical sketches “embellished with engravings” to upscale and celebratory series such as “A set of celebrated Actresses, in eight colored Plates” offered at American stationary shops in 1832.  The attractions of this type of offering was ornamental and gestured at the owner’s interest in the bon ton. Few collected engravings and portraits with a documentary fervor, and those that did tended to be in the theatrical profession.

When theatrical photography became, in the late 1860s, a distinct genre, it had the effect of eclipsing one segment of the early corpus of theatrical images—engraved portraits of the stars of the 1790s to 1820s went a-begging. In 1869 auctioneers Bangs, Merwin, & Company put up for sale a collection of portrait prints—mezzotints and steel engravings--of “eminent dramatic characters.” The collection belonged to the estate of Humphrey Bland and had originally been assembled by the Canadian comedian William Rufus Blake. Images went for a pittance. A doleful reporter recited the lots and the prices: “Mrs Siddons as the tragic muse, stipple, by Francis Howards, after Sir Joshua Reynolds $8.50;” Kemble, as Richard the Third, by Bartolozzi, after W. Hamilton, $8; Kemble, as Hamlet—“alas! Poor Yorick!”—mezzo by S. W. Reynolds, after Sir C. Lawrence, $22.50.”[3]  The commentator opined that given the valuable nature of the collection  one would have supposed a full attendance of members of the theatrical world. “But such was not the case, as but few persons attended the sale, but one or two having any connection whatever with the stage, and the prices obtained were by no means good.” If the images had been paintings, the players probably would have come.  But for reproducible images—prints—the performers had embraced the new medium.  Photographs were the more faithful, more evocative memorial of a performer’s visage.   

The primacy of the photograph was attested in a series of rare publishing ventures that attempted to encompass the verisimilitude of the photograph within the handicraft of the engraving.  In 1863, for instance, Henry A Brown’s London Printing Company (487 Broadway, New York) advertised Eminent Shakespeareans, and other Actors and Actresses of our own times, &c., exquisitely engraved on steel from original photographs. The Artist’s proof bound in morocco sold for $100. Other volumes went for $11 each. 

What did the members of the acting profession collect during the 1860s to memorialize their colleagues and mentors?  If we judge by the practices of American comedian William H. Crane, photographs. An 1890 reporter wrote, “A quarter of a century ago, when Mr. Crane was a beginner in the profession in which he has since become a recognized leader, he had a mania not only for being photographed himself, but also for collecting the portraits of his professional friends and co-laborers.”[4] In his flat off Central Park, Crane resided in rooms lined with bookcases “filled with rare and curious volumes” of which the greatest prize was a “dingy looking plainly bound, oblong folio of great thickness, when set on a small table in the parlor.” It contained carte de visites representing his entire generation of performers in America, with a particular concentration of images of the Holman familyD whose operatic company first employed Crane.   The album also contained many characters from the Dion Boucicault dramas of the immediate post-Civil War era.  Another section documented the famous Duprez and Benedict minstrel show.

The hallmark of the thespian collector was extensiveness.  A performer collected most thoroughly images of  persons with whom he or she performed and the institutions that employed him or her. Every significant performer had some sort of collection. When reportorial visits to great performers’ homes became a magazine feature in the final decades of the 19th century, an almost invariable feature of the décor of the sitting room was an array of portraits of professional colleagues.  Whether Helen Modjeska in her California estate or William Kendall in his New York townhouse, photographs abounded in domestic space. During the period, a number of important performer collections came into existence.  Perhaps the greatest of these belonged to Augustin Daly, playwright, actor, and revered manager of the 5th Avenue Theatre in New York. An ardent bibliophile and collector, he gathered images of every performer he had professional dealings with. This enormous “collection of portraits of eminent men and women of the stage” was sold at auction by Anderson Galleries on November 27, 1917. It included engravings of the London stage luminaries of the golden age, and photographic images of Daly’s colleagues, a compass spanning over a century of imagery.  Also included in the sale were his portfolio of playbills extending back to David Garrick’s heyday at the Drury Lane in the 1750s.[5]

Augustin Daly built a collection that intermingled genres. The finest actor collections tended to take this form, intermingling paintings, engravings, and photographs.  Comedian John S. Clark had amassed one such in the 1880s that included a Sir Joshua Reynolds of David Garrick, a Gainsborough portrait of Robert Palmer, and a copy of the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare. His collection included American stars as well as English, in several media. Clark’s collection eventually came into the hands of his brother-in-law, Edwin Booth.[6] Booth’s eminence as a tragedian make him the beneficiary of other collections, for instance that of John E. Owens.  So that before his death, Booth owned one of the best diversified collectors of performer images in the United States.

Booth’s collection eventually became part of his endowment to the Player’s Club.  After Booth’s death a much more extensive collection of photographs, relics, and autographs assembled by Rev. John Campbell of Buffalo, New York, was given to the Club to fill gaps in its coverage of the profession.[7]  The Player’s Club in 2013 retains the collection in New York City.

Actor-managers or actress managers frequently built troves of images of themselves and those they played with.  That of Minnie Maddern Fiske in the Library of Congress conveys the scope of such collections, and also the familiarity that governed the gathering of images, since pictures of numbers of the performers lack names or indications of roles.  T. Edward Hambleton, manager of the Chicago Opera Company, assembled a body of images beginning in 1870 and extending into the 1910s. This collection eventually came into the hands of the Maryland Historical Society.[8] John E. Owens, who at various times presided over the Baltimore Museum and the Charleston Academy of music, had a singularly varied life as a performer from 1840 to 1886.  He surrounded himself with paintings and photographs of his fellow performers and was celebrated for having procured by ruse a painting of the most iconophobic of great actors, Edmund Kean.  Inviting Kean to a banquet and also the painter Neagle, Owens plied the actor with champagne, and when merry, persuaded him to don his costume for “Richard III” that was kept conveniently at hand.  Neagle whipped out his paints and a canvas while the tipsy Kean roared out his lines.[9] This collection went to Booth and therefore to the Players Club. 

The hallmark of the professional collection was personal exchange.  A player gave an image to a colleague and received one in return.  Often inscriptions appeared on the images.  When performers grew old or retired, if they had children who were not theatrical, they tended to gift their photographs to one of the theatrical clubs that provided sociability for the profession.  In Chicago, for instance, the Strollers Club at 14 North Dearborn, received a substantial body of material until it claimed on the eve of World War 1 to possess “the greatest collection of theatrical photographs, programs, posters and souvenirs in the world.”  It was distinctive for being a club where theater managers mingled with performers, and so received collections of theater publicity, such as the Louis P. Lafontaine collection, a gathering of Chicago posters for 1890 to 1915 secured when he managed the Coliseum. 

The vaudevillian Albert Davis, a member of M. M. Thiese’s “Strolling Players Company,” and other small troupes that played the metropolitan variety houses, secured a vast assortment of posters, playbills, and photographs from the 1880s to the 1930s —now the nucleus of the important image collection at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin.  Davis attributed his fascination with the theatre to a chance meeting when fourteen years old with Edwin Booth. He gravitated toward vaudeville, sought out autographs, and while touring and playing frivolities such as “The Belle of Avenue A.” From his premises in Brooklyn he ran an image brokerage.  After the Wendell collection went to Harvard, Davis’s collection in the 1920s became the largest in private hands, numbering over 150,000 images and a wealth of ephemera.  After Davis’s death in 1942, it would be purchased by the Hoblitzelle Foundation of Dallas and deposited with the Ransom Center.

A second sort of collecting emerged among specialist stars—performers who won fame for one or two roles that they toured perpetually.  This kind of specialist might collect every image of any other significant performer of the role.  Shakespearean Thomas E. Shea, for instance, made “a collection of theatrical photographers of all actors who have appeared in ‘Othello,’ including the tenors like Campanini, Tamagno and Alvarez, who have sung the Verdi opera.”[10] A rationale of such a collection was to devise “makeup entirely different” from that ever used in personifying the Moor.  One could only differentiate oneself if one had evidence of what everyone else looked like. 

Theatre owners and managers became another group of early professional collectors, and the lobbies and hallways of the building became a hall of fame of those who had graced the boards of the house.  Given its infamous significance in history, the Ford Theatre collection assembled by John Thompson Ford, was surely among the first for an American theatre incorporating photographs.  It was donated to the Library of Congress in 1987.[11]  The interior of theaters may be said to have been saturated with imagery.  Fronting the public were displays of stills of the current performers and production.  Along the subsidiary halls were the historical images. Macauley’s Theatre in Louisville, opened in 1873, is one such collection that has remained intact, now largely digitalized by its curators in the University of Louisville Library’s special collections department.[12]  Portraits, rather than scene stills, the 1527 prints range from cabinet cards to life-sized panel busts.  The Boston Theatre, founded in 1854, maintained an archive of photographs, playbills, and programs dating from its founding. This collection included life-sized images of Edwin Forrest, Edwin Booth, J. B. Booth, John McCullough, James Murdock, Charlotte Cushman, Mary Anderson, Annie Russell, William Redmund, Lawrence Barrett, Joseph Jefferson, Denman Thompson, Maggie Mitchell, Edith Kingdon, James A. Herne and Lotta Crabtree.[13] These pictures were publically displayed periodically.  This collection now is incorporated in Boston theater holdings in the special collections department of the Boston Public Library.

The treasurer of the California Theatre in San Francisco, Charles A. Clasby, amassed photographs of performers who appeared at that west coast landmark during the 1870s and 1880s and transported the collection to Kansas City in the 1890s.  His collection included portraits of the greatest stars—Edwin Booth, Adelaide Nielsen, Thomas Keene, Fanny Davenport, Lawrence Barrett, Alice Harrison, Jennie Lee, and Bella Pateman.  The queens of tragedy were conspicuous—Clara Morris, Mrs. Scott0Siddons, Helen Modjeska.  As were the great characters—Frank Mayo as Davy Crockett, John T. Raymond as Col. Spilars.  In 1899 the Kansas City Star commissioned drawings done of certain of the costumed portraits to comment on the change in sartorial fashion in the theater over the century.[14]  The current whereabouts of the collection are unknown. 

The best collection of early theatrical photographs to remain in San Francisco into the twentieth century was assembled by T. Leahy, manager of the Tivoli Theatre.  It contained many of the figures found in Clasby’s collection with the addition of Emily Melville, James O’Neill, and Madam Janauschek.[15]  It was destroyed in the fire sparked by the San Francisco earthquake. 

Various theater collections dating from the late 19th century have survived to some extent.  Some, like the Heilig Theatre collection (1888-1929) housed in the Oregon Historical Society document the transition of a house from theater to silent motion pictures, and cover vaudeville performances, legitimate drama, and major release motion pictures showing in Portland, Oregon.[16]  The hallmark of these collections was their focus on personalities who performed in a given venue, or in a city.  The localized nature of these collections did not preclude broad coverage of the name performers who graced the American stage in the last half of the 19th century, for touring hit productions was a more sure source of revenue than floating a new play.  The great collection of Detroit’s theatre scene was assembled by Edward Sweeney who from 1870 to 1920. As a boy he “frequented the stages of Detroit theaters and acted as a ‘super’ in various productions when the chance offered.”[17] The collection included over three thousand portraits and five thousand programs.   Sweeney did not hand over the collection to any public institution. The whereabouts of this collection remains a mystery.

Sweeney began his collection as a local enthusiast connected to Detroit’s theaters. Upon adulthood he took other employment, regarded himself as a devotee, and began writing off to performers for images rather than collecting them in person.  There were other persons on the margins of the world of theater who performed similarly.  In Decatur, Il, Percy S. Ewing, who ran the regional office for Billboard Magazine in the first decade of the twentieth century, lined the walls of his office with images of “actors who haved played in Decatur since February, 1903.” His collection supplied occasional images published in the magazine and featured character portraits and scene stills.[18]

Another extraordinary collection made by one of these figures ancillary to the theatre was assembled by Thomas Connolly, plasterer of the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.  His collection began with the program for the opening night of that theatre in 1889, the opera “Romeo and Juliet.” This ignited a scholarly obsession with the theater the encompassed playbills dating into the 18th century, play scripts dating to 1631, a near comprehensive photographic record of nineteenth-century American performers and those of the first two decades of the twentieth century.  While the ephemera were more remarkable than the images, the Connolly collection was the finest to have been assembled in Chicago by any single individual.[19] 

Theatre publicity agents and critics as a matter of course had print and photographic materials concentrated in their hands.  The caricature of the publicist held that he (rarely a she) resorted to fabrication of stories and embellishment of truths in his campaign of ballyhoo. The fictional character of his creations inspired contempt, so that the notion of preserving a comprehensive archive of one’s representations seemed tantamount to maintaining a ledger of lies.  Publicists consigned failed campaigns to the flames, and recycled successful stories, so turned their backs on the past.  There were a very few exceptions.  In Seattle Washington, J. Willis Sayre, a publicist, began consolidating the pictures, blurbs, and postersof performers who appeared in the American northwest.  Commencing his collection in the 1890s, he maintained it religiously well into the 1920s, gathering materials dispatched from New York and Chicago in advance of a performer’s arrival, and commissioned pictures from local photographers for stars and supporting artists.[20]  In time he had amassed 24,000 images, mostly portraits and dispositional scenes (stage pictures without a background shot in a photo gallery). This collection forms the nucleus of the University of Washington’s rich holdings in turn of the twentieth century American theatre, particularly vaudeville. 

Invariably in the theater districts of provincial cities there were restaurants and taverns that became the favorite watering holes of performers.  As an attestation of the importance of these patrons, caterers and saloon keepers festooned the walls of the public rooms with images, often inscribed, of those who frequented the establishment.  The prototype of these resorts was Windust’s Restaurant at #5-11 Park Street in Manhattan.  Operating from 1824 to 1870 under the direction of English born Edward Windust, it welcomed literary luminaries Washington Irving, James Fennimore Cooper, and Fitz Greene Halleck in its earliest years, and in the 1830s became the preferred place of entertainment for theater people. Recalling the house in the 1870s John Brougham told of his initial impression in 1842.  “You descended a flight of stairs yourself in an ample saloon, on one side of which was a long bar, while the wall on the other side was decorated with all sorts of old dramatic and sporting pictures.  I remember particularly a fac-simile of Shakespeare’s tombstone . . . Further down was a very long table, round which actors of the Park Theatre and other congenial lovers of the drama were wont to congregate.”[21]  The pictures Brougham described were no doubt engravings and mezzo-tints. 

Another antebellum restaurant that served as the focus of a city’s theatrical life was Reilly’s in Baltimore, founded by Joseph Reilly on South Street in 1820 and continued by his son John Reilly on the corner of Holliday and Fayette Streets, near the Holliday Street Theatre, to the end of the nineteenth century, in boasted a mahogany “Shakespeare Table,” about which visiting troupers gathered. “The Walls of the restaurant . . . are covered with mementoes of the brilliant men who were accustomed to meet at the old house.  There are souvenirs of the Elder Booth and his sons, John Wilkes and Edwin.  Among them are three pictures of the Elder Booth as he appeared as “Brutus,” “Sir Giles Overreach” and “Richard III.”  There are also a small photograph of John Wilkes Booth with a lock of his hair . . . also a cabinet photograph of Edwin Booth.”[22] The younger Reilly draped the Edwin Booth photograph in mourning crepe when the actor died in 1893. 

Several such  collections became enormous and famous. In Boston, Frank A. Atwood’s chop house across from the Boston Museum on Tremont Street became a favorite haunt of the Boston Museum Company from its opening in 1876.  When Atwood died at the commencement of the twentieth century, the transfer of the paintings and photographs that “Atwood had gathered during his long acquaintance with actors, actresses, and other people” to his successor, Hubert A. Waldron, was a matter of importance.[23]  Certain of these images survive in the theatrical photographs section of the Boston Public Library.

The loss of some of these fabulous assemblies inspired public mourning. None more than that maintained by Charley Purvis in the Dizzy Saloon in Kansas City. Purvis cultivated connections with theatrical booking agencies. When he learned that a performer was coming to Kansas City, he would write ahead requesting an inscribed portrait to display on the wall greeting the performer when he or she dropped in for refreshment after the performances.  After having been thus honored, the picture was incorporated into omnibus displays. “Purvis collected about fifty frames, and each frame contained about seventy photographs.”[24]  Four of the best of these were retained by proprietor C. E. Russell when he secured the property after Purvis’s death.  In 1911 a reporter grieved that “stored away in a small room under the sidewalk in the basement of the Myers Building . . . is all that remains of a once famous collection of autograph photos of actors, circus performers, and champions of different lines of sport.”

Kansas City also boasted another remarkable saloon collection.  Maintained by a former minstrel show end man, Harry Gray, The Capitol opened its doors in 1894 and became the favorite resort of circus people in the United States.  “On the walls of his place and stowed away in boxes, Gray [had] one of the largest and most remarkable collections of circus photographs in the world.”[25] Numbering between 4,000 and 5,000 prints, the assemblage contained performer portraits, images of trained animal troupes, pictures of the tents and rings.  He had an extensive grouping of images connected with Barnum, including a rare image of the original Jumbo.

Cleveland, Ohio, probably boasted the greatest chop-house museum of theatrical celebrity.  Otto Moser’s restaurant hung “the best and most complete collection of theatrical people outside of the Lamb’s club in New York.  Actors and actresses from the time of the elder Sothern, Booth, Barrett, Mary Anderson and Fanny Davenport are hung on the walls, and with them are the most prominent stars of the present day.” Founded in 1891, Otto Moser’s covered the walls with colored lithographs, life-sized panel portraits, and multitudes of autographed cabinet cards and panels.  The disparities in costuming styles often struck visitors as novel, queer, fascinating: “Edwin Forrest, in a costume so grotesque that he would today be hailed as a wonderful comedian, should he appear in it publicly; Adelaide Ristori, still a young woman; the gifted family of Vokes, in the first days of their renown; Ione Burke in a man’s costume, probably as smart in its day as anything Vesta Tilley every brought out in London, now laughable; Leona Dare, slim and youthful; Adelina Patti, shrinkingly girlish; Harry Montague, in the height of his popularity as a matinee idol, he who enjoyed a vogue among women never repeated by any of his successors.”[26]  In 2013 Otto Moser’s Restaurant remains a fixture in the Cleveland dining scene and at least a portion of the original photographic collection adorns the walls of the new location at 1425 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland. 

In nearby Dayton Ohio, Robert Mallory kept a saloon and hotel at 314 South Ludlow Street, near Union Station.  He catered extensively to show people “and upon the walls of his well fitted saloon are to be seen the photographs of all the favorites.”[27]

In New York D. J. Tobin—“Tobey” to his Tamany Hall friends—presided over the saloon at 218 Post Street adorned with “a collection of photographs of well known theatrical people.”[28] The saloon would enjoy fame when its second owner Billy Lyons became involved in the gunplay that would inspire the blues ballad, “St James Infirmary.”

Thomas Cazneau, the San Francisco tavern keeper, opposed the proposed San Francisco ordinance that keepers of public rooms could not display semi-nude persons as art.  He was generally reckoned to possess “the best collection of theatrical photographs west of Chicago,” an aggregation worth $5,000 in 1895. This collection was destroyed by fire before the great earthquake. 

Aside from the photographers who took the images, retain image brokers gathered extraordinary inventories of portraits. Two mattered particularly for their omnivorous gathering of images and curios. Robert Fullerton of New York, proprietor of the Old Curiosity Shop, was one such collector.  Paintings, pistols, manuscripts, and piles of bric a brac filled Fullerton’s New York townhouse.  Upon his death in 1904, the New York Tribune observed that it “contained a unique collection of theatrical programmes, including nearly twelve thousand playbills of American and European theatres . . . . The programmes of English theatres, about three thousand in number, were collected by Dion Boucicault.  Frank Chanfrau collected the programmes of the Bowery theatres, special attention being given to those of the Old Bowery, night after night, from 1830 to 1840.  Scattered about the place might be seen many old theatrical portraits, letters of well known actors, some of them love letters.”[29] The greatest of the comprehensive collectors, Daly, Peter Gilsey, Everet Jansen Wendell, and Tefft had grazed on his holdings for years, and Wendell and Theft secured much of what remained at Fullerton’s death.  

Austrian born Charles L. Ritzmann (1852-19??), whose gallery occupied 943 Broadway, began collecting celebrity photographs, including theatrical portraits, in the mid-1870s. Originally a dealer in “Guns, Revolvers, Rifles, Fishing Tackle, and Sporting Goods,” he converted his store into a palace of photographic celebrity in 1882. His premises imitated the great galleries of Gurney and Brady during the first age of commercial photography in New York.  Yet since the creation of images was subordinate to the display and sale of every available image by every producer of imagery of every royal, politician, author, or performer of the age, the scope of Ritzmann’s collection far exceeded that of any other publically accessible. In 1887, for instance, it contained “350 different poses of Ellen Terry and more than 250 of Mrs. Langtry.”[30] In the following year he scored a singular coup, purchasing the surviving stock of Jose Maria Mora when that photographer went bankrupt. An observer remarked, “the unwary person who drops in to buy one picture remains a slave to many.”[31]  Ritzmann issued celebrity photographs under his own brand under the late 1880s.  He did not take these pictures himself; indeed some were rebranded images from other photographers whose stocks he cannibalized.  Others were taken by anonymous operators. His photographic sitting room operated at  a second premises 171 ½ Broadway. Ritzmann’s own fascinations in the 1890s tended toward New York real estate.  Eventually he moved his gallery to 228 Fifth Avenue where it resided during the first decade of the twentieth century. Jerome Banning supplied an illustrated narrative account of going through the collection in a piece entitled “New York’s Museum of Photography”[32]  He was generally reckoned the greatest retailer of celebrity photographs in New York City in the Gilded age and during the first decades of the twentieth century.  When the direct retail sale of portraits diminished with the rise of the illustrated magazines, Ritzmann altered his business model, becoming an image brokerage supplying those magazines. He retired shortly after 1920 and a substantial portion of his stock appears to have been absorbed into the Culver Service collection at that time. 

The greatest collections formed during the cabinet care era not formed by performers were gathered by devotees. These were men of business who became smitten with the glamour of the theater, and directed their organization genius to systematic gathering of images and ephemera.   The most celebrated image collections were gathered over decades. Four deserve particular notice: the Gilsey, Cone, Tefft, and Wendell collections.

Manhattan real estate millionaire Peter Gilsey became the most intensively possessive of the devotees.  Fascinated with the bohemian Ada Isaacs Menken, “an actress who once had at her feet the most noted men on two continents,” he scoured auction houses and theatres in Europe and America to gather every image of the actress/poetess/wit who died in 1868.  (Her importance in the popular mind can be gauged by the fact that Sarony built his initial business as a theatrical portraitist selling images of the recently deceased Menken he had taken in Birmingham in 1863.) Gilsey owned nearly everything, including unique items: a dual portrait of Menken with the young Algernon Charles Swinburne, an image which the poet regretted throughout his life.  Another dual image showed Alexandre Dumas with the actresses “curly head affectionately reposing on the great novelist’s shoulder.”   The Menken collection stood at the center of Gilsey’s library, but the collector ranged widely in his coverage of the American theater, Lincolniana, documents relative to the Civil War, and old New York.  At the time of its auction in 1903, a reporter observed of the theatrical images, “there are daguerreotypes and photographs without number.”[33] Many of these, including the Menken collection eventually were incorporated in the Harvard Theatre Collection.    The auction offered 1,520 theatrical photographic portraits in lots 708 to 784, besides the Menken collection and individual portrait lots that amounted to another thousand images.[34]  Gilsey also collected substantial numbers of lithographic, engraved, and mezzo-tint portraits and scenes.  These were dispersed through the collecting universe of 1903 when the materials were auctioned. 

Robert Buckland Cone (1865-19??), was a native of Hartford whose wit, sociability, and intelligence quickly elevated him from the rank of an insurance clerk to a investment executive with Lombard Investment Company and then the Kansas and Texas Trust Company in Kansas City.[35] His fascination with the life of the theatre began shortly after his graduation from Hartford High School in 1884.   A Clubman (Boston Algonquin, New York Calumet, Kansas City Club) often in the northeastern cities, he became an inveterate first nighter, and a devotee of theatrical stars.  “Autograph portraits naturally followed and then came the determination to make a collection that would be a collection and that each picture should not only bear the autograph, but a quotation from a play, and the date.”[36]  He secured the photograph first and sent it to the artist with a request for the quotation, name, and date.  Most complied immediately, but for the non-responders, Cone would send a second photographer and an ever more polite request. All would comply with the second request.  He dispatched photographs and requests to Europe, and was content when Salvini the elder returned the image with a long Italian inscription which he could not translate.  The challenge to respond with a thoughtful sentence apparently delighted the performers who often responded characteristically and well.  Cone collected opera singers as well as stars of the dramatic stage. The collection was maintained in small albums arranged by nationality and chronology. In 1899 the actress and belletrist Bertha Creighton announced her intention to compose a novel based on Cone’s collection.  It, alas, was never written. 

Dry goods merchant William Erastus Tefft (1841-1903) became a collector of theatrical memorabilia in 1870.  A New Yorker, he was a member of The Players Club, and consorted with the major actors of the age.  Unlike other devotees, he was not an avid first nighter.  But if he did not attend an opening or see a play in its run, however, short, he would secure a playbill, program, and photographs of the principals. Playbills inspired his greatest passion and he collected listings that registered every change in every cast of every notable play in London or New York from the Revolution to the Civil War.  He secured variety bills from the early 1850s, the infancy of vaudeville.  “The collector’s albums of theatrical photographs fill the side of a room and contain several prints of actors famous a generation ago that are exceedingly rare.”[37]  The total number of photographs many have numbered between 8,000 and 10,000.  The catalogues printed at the auction of Tefft’s collection did not adequately represent the depth of his collections.  Both the Player’s Club and his fellow club-member Evert Jansen Wendell secured items in the sale. 

Evert Jansen Wendell (1860-1917) stands at the head of those whose devotion to the theatre was expressed in its comprehensive memorialization in an archive of images and manuscripts. Son of a dry goods millionaire and a champion sprinter while an undergraduate at Harvard, Evert Wendell devoted his adult life to philanthropy, the promotion of amateur athletics, the enrichment of the life of his alma mater, club fellowship, and the celebration of the performing arts.  His brother Barrett was a professor at Harvard, his brother Jacob, an actor.  A performer in the Hasty Pudding theatricals as an undergraduate, he developed a life long love a the theater in all its dimension.  As a member of Booth’s club, “The Players,” in New York he witness first hand the assemblage of that private society’s great photographic archive of the theater, and formed the resolve to create his own collection.[38]  A life-long bachelor, the expenses of a household never inhibited his inclination to spend when he encountered images he liked.  He purchased quantities of images from Fullerton, Ritzmann, and Davis, was an active buyer in the auctions of the Augustin Daly, Teft and Gilsey collections, and in 1908 bought the backstock of images from Sarony Studio.  He had subscriptions to B. J. Falk, Elmer Chickering, and Jacob Schoss, buying every image published by the studios.  By the mid-1890s he photograph collection numbered 35,000 images.  His collection of props, costumes, and playbills was legendary, including Edwin Booth’s stage foils, the picture that hung over Lincoln’s bed where he expired, and the playbill for “Our American Cousin” on the fatal night at Ford’s Theatre.[39]  He had other items as well—minstrel man Dan Bryant’s tambourine. At the time of Wendell’s death in Paris from complications of Diabetes in August 1917, his theatrical collection number over 2,000,000 objects.  In 1919 it was  put up for auction at the American Art Galleries. Approximately ¼ of the offerings sold, and in accordance with his will, the remaining 3/4s  including the vast majority of the photographs were bequeathed to Harvard University, combining with the Robert Gould Shaw collection of Boston theatrical materials, to form one of premier archives of the material culture of the American stage ever assembled. 

[1] “Mr. Mathews’s Gallery of Theatrical Portraits,” National Gazette (June 24, 1833).

[2] “Mr. Charles Mathews’s Library, Pictures, &c.,” New York Evening Post (Oct. 23, 1835).

[3] Advertisement. “Eminent Shakespeareans,” Boston Evening Transcript (December 19, 1863), ads page, column 7.

[4] “The Stage in the Sixties, Comedian Crane’s Collection of Faces,” Arkansas Gazette (March 9, 1890).

[5] “Sell Daly Collection,” Trenton Evening Times (October 27, 1917).

[6] “Historical Portraits,” Sun (February 10, 1888).

[7] Campbell Gift to Player’s Club, San Antonio Daily Light (September 1, 1896).

[8] Chicago Opera Company Photographs. T. E. Hambleton Collection, Maryland Historical Society.

[9] “Edmund Kean’s Portrait,” Hopkinsville Kentuckian (April 24, 1894), a.

[10] Notice.  Boston Daily Globe (July 3, 1904).

[11] “Ford Theater gets Vital Memorabilia,”  Cleveland Plain Dealer (January 1, 1987).

[13] “66th Anniversary of the Boston Theatre,” Pawtucket Times (January 12, 1920).

[14] “Pictures of Yesterday,” Kansas City Star (February 26, 1899).

[15] “How Theatrical Folk Live,” San Francisco Call (July 7, 1901).

[16] Heilig Three Photographs Collection, Oregon Historical Society.

[17] “Has Big Collection of Stage Pictures,” New Orleans Times Picayune (October 8, 1921).

[18] “Percy Ewing’s Photos of Players,” Decatur Review (February 19, 1905), 13.

[19] “Stage Hand’s Curio Proves Valuable,” Springfield Republican (January 24, 1926).

[20] J. Willis Sayre Collection, University of Washington, special Collection.

[21] “Windust’s. Reminiscences of a Famous Old New York Restaurant,” New York Herald (March 19, 1877), 6.

[22] “Not Forgotten,” Sun (June 10, 1893), 7.

[23] “Atwood Restaurant Goes to H. A. Waldron,” Boston Journal (December 20, 1901), 9.J. Willis Sayre Photographers, Uniiijk

[24] “All Stars in His Gallery,” Kansas City Star (April 11, 1911).

[25] “Where Circus Men Loaf,” Kansas City Star (March 11, 1906), 13.

[26] “In the Chop House at Night,” Plain Dealer (February 21, 1904), 33.

[27] “Up to Date Daytonites,” Freeman 15, 10 (March 8, 1902), 2.

[28] “Nominated for New York Alderman,” San Francisco Call (October 10, 1901).

[29] “Old Curiosity Man Dead,” New York Tribune (April 10, 1904), 11.

[30] “The Photograph Craze,” New York Herald (March 13, 1887).

[31] “Can buy Her Picture,” The St. Paul Daily Globe (August 1, 1886), 13.

[32] Jerome Banning, “New York’s Museum of Photography,” The Hampton Magazine, 11, 51

[33] “Peter Gilsey’s Collection,” The New York Times (September 17, 1902).

[34] Catalogue of the Collection of the Late Peter Gilsey, Part 1. (New York: Douglas Taylor & Co. for John Anderson, 1903).

[35] William Whitney Cone, Some Account of the Cone Family in America (Topeka: Crane & Company, 1903), 232

[36] “’Bob’ Cone’s Photographs,” Boston Daily Advertiser (June 29, 1897).

[37] “History of Playbills,” Oregonian (April 11, 1904). 

[38] “Evert Wendell Dies in Paris,” Boston Herald (August 29, 1917), 2.

[39] “Plays and Players,” Omaha World Herald (November 22, 1896), 10. “Some Relics of Thespians,” New York Herald (December 25, 1898), 4.