Recently – while doing a spot of (digital) “spring cleaning” in our image database – I stumbled across this wonderful little gem: an extraordinary series of photos that literally made me crow with delight!
Popular albumen prints
It is a collection of 120 previously unindexed albumen prints, mounted on card and measuring 19.5 by 24.5 centimetres. Developed in 1850, albumen paper was one of the most popular types of copy paper until 1900. It produces highly detailed and more affordable photographs than the methods previously used, such as calotype, ambrotype and daguerreotype. Not even modern copy paper can achieve the same wealth of detail. A key component is egg white (albumen), which gives the pictures a special, warm, usually yellowish or brownish tinge. As the paper only consists of one layer, it is very thin, which is why it is usually mounted. By contrast, more recent types of paper, such as baryta, are made up of two layers.
Architecture in the USA
Back to our lucky find: the photos depict architecture – at first glance, from the Anglo-Saxon world; at second, the USA. We see inner-city houses, scenes with people and carriages, but no cars, interiors or lone houses out in the country. We have even managed to identify the first picture! Washington D.C. with Capitol Hill. Therefore, it seems safe to say that the entire series comes from the USA. Perhaps the majority even from Washington D. C.?
None of the originals is labelled; no place indications, no trace of a photographer. We estimate that the photographs were taken in the 1880s. Some of them have already faded somewhat. The zoom function is bound to help here.
So now I invite you to join me in succumbing to the charm of these bygone worlds that have all but disappeared.
Here is the only photo we have managed to identify: Capitol Hill in Washington D. C.
Long exposure times create blurred people and carriages.
The same photo: shopfront and the “traffic” outside (detail):
Even more carriages and wagons, people standing around, and lettering on the houses.
Yet more people. Clothing is always a good clue for dating pictures.
Another very nice detail: the man in the window.
Now for the houses:
A man and two children posing in front of the house. Here, too, everything still looks new.
How can you get involved?
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Complete image information
Unknown: No title, approx. 1880-1890. Collection of 120 images (all digitised) (Ans_05423-01-025-FL, http://doi.org/10.3932/ethz-a-000097877)