The first narrative biography of the Civil War's chief visual historian, Mathew Brady.
“[A] fascinating account of how the business of photography worked in the mid-19th century.” The Washington Post
“Compact, straightforward, unblinking . . . a flinty chunk of Americana.” Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“[A] thorough and polished narrative . . . [Wilson] skillfully summons up a sense of time and place.” USA Today
“Wilson's book is a welcome and overdue tribute to a man whose achievements are often noted but rarely plumbed. It's one that's likely to last.” History News Network
“[A] patient and painstaking new biography of the portraitist and Civil War photographer.” New York Times Book Review
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Portraits of a Nation
By ROBERT WILSON
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2013 Robert Wilson
All rights reserved.
"A Craving for Light"
Mathew Brady was born around 1823 to an Irish immigrant named Andrew Brady and his wife, Julia, in Warren County, New York. According to the 1830 census, Andrew and Julia and their six children lived in the county in the town of Johnsburg, west of Lake George, and local history has it that the stone foundations of a log house near the town, at a point where Glen Creek flows into the Hudson River, may have been the Brady homesite. But two brothers who went to work for Brady's studio in the 1850s had grown up in the 1830s on a farm said to abut the Brady family farm, near Dresden, which is east of the lake. It's possible that Brady's family moved from one location to the other, but in truth, no solid evidence exists that they lived in either place. Brady himself was never much help on his origins, saying only that his family had lived "in the woods about Lake George."
At the time Mathew was born, Warren County was largely rural and agricultural, with about ten thousand inhabitants, with its largest concentration in the village of Glens Falls. The Native American population had long since been driven away in a series of wars, but the woods still held bears and panthers, and wolves were so plentiful and such a threat to livestock that for fifty years Glens Falls offered a bounty of between five and twenty dollars per head to eradicate them. Rattlesnakes were also ubiquitous—one account reports that "the rocks and ledges along the river were once a continuous den of rattlesnakes," but unfenced foraging hogs eventually brought them under control. Since lumber was the county's chief product, the Bradys might well have sold off the first growth of timber on their acreage, and farmers in this time often made potash out of the ashes from burned hardwood trees or stumps, a rare source of cash. Potash was used to make soap, glass, and gunpowder, and in the 1820s, New York State was the center of potash exports to Great Britain, where it was used in large quantities by the textile industry. Farmers could also earn cash by selling shingles they made from spruce trees in their woods. Families such as the Bradys grew crops of wheat, corn, and cotton, and raised chickens, hogs, sheep, and cattle; they also hunted the plentiful wild game in the nearby woods and fished in the creeks, the river, and the lake. Crops and grain would have fed their families, with a portion used for barter or for sale.
Several tanneries had been in business in the county since long before Mathew was born, and one opened in the late 1830s on Glen Creek, close to a possible site for the Brady farm. The Glen Tannery, which employed many Irish immigrants, got hides from New York City and, after tanning them, sent them back to the city, mostly as soles for shoes and boots. This local connection to the tanning industry could explain why the first business Brady would start in New York City was in leather goods.
Rural school houses dotted the county, but no record exists of Mathew's schooling. He was certainly able to write, however, which suggests he had some formal education. The Irish immigrants who settled in the county at about the time that Andrew Brady did tended to be Methodists. Congregations met in the school houses or in private homes until proper churches were erected in the 1830s.
Sawmills, gristmills, and potash asheries were scattered throughout the county, but Glens Falls, about ten miles due south of Lake George, was the closest place to go for store-bought necessities or professional ser vices. A local newspaper reported in 1831 that the village, with a population of about one thousand people, had four lawyers and three doctors, and that among the merchants were nine mercantile stores, two drugstores, three inns, a printer, a watchmaker, and a bookstore. Other shops included tailors, hatters, shoemakers, harness makers, a baker, and a watchmaker. Among the tradesmen were blacksmiths, wagon makers, carpenters and cabinetmakers, a stonecutter, and a cooper. The village also featured mills, as its name suggests, a cotton factory, a marble factory, and even what was called a medical school.
On Saturdays, farm families crowded the stores and streets of Glens Falls, and Mathew undoubtedly went along with his family on shopping trips. Compared to life in the woods, this thriving village on the Hudson must have impressed him with its energy and excitement.
Young Mathew had per sis tent problems with his vision, and at one point he developed an "inflammation of the eyes" that made him nearly blind. He persuaded his parents to take him for treatment to Saratoga, farther south along the Hudson. There, Brady remembered, "I met a Dr. Hinckley, who restored my sight, though my eyes were never strong." Thinking back on that time in his life, he mused, "I felt a craving for light, and isn't it remarkable that the light which I craved as a boy should have had the greatest bearing on my future career?" We don't know for certain whether Brady went to the riverside town of Saratoga itself or to nearby Saratoga Springs, which had already become a spa attracting those who could afford its indulgences. Either place was twice as big as Glens Falls.
While having his eye treatments in Saratoga, Brady got his first exposure to a real artist, the portrait painter William Page. Page took an interest in the boy, offering to give him drawing lessons at his studio in Albany, still farther down the Hudson. Albany was not only the state capital but, thanks to the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, had a population of thirty thousand people, making it the ninth-biggest city in the nation.
Page had been born there in 1811, and his family had moved to New York City when he was nine. In the mid-1820s Page had begun to study art, first with a draftsman named James Herring and then with the established painter Samuel F. B. Morse, who is better known as the inventor of the telegraph. Page soon began to exhibit his work at the National Academy of Design, a New York drawing society that Morse had recently organized. In 1832, Page was living again in Albany, seeking portrait commissions.
Brady remembered that, as part of his training, Page "gave me a bundle of crayons"—meaning drawings in crayon—"to copy." Page's biographer describes the painter as handsome, with "a melodious voice, and fine manners," but like Brady, he had come from humble origins and had had only a limited amount of schooling. Unlike Brady, though, Page was a city person through and through. His relative urbanity, his success as an artist, and the attention he gave to Mathew could only have impressed the young farm boy. By 1836, Page had returned to Manhattan, where he opened a studio in the University Building facing the northeast edge of Washington Square. Morse himself, now a professor at New York University, also had rooms in one tower of the five-story gothic marble building. By the end of the decade, Mathew, like so many thousands of other young people of the era, left the farm for life in the city, following his mentor to Manhattan to find work. He would himself be a city person for the rest of his days.
Brady remembered that he made that first trip to his new life with a friend, traveling on one of the fancy steamboats—"perfect palaces," he called them—that connected Albany with Manhattan. As the two young men walked around the boat, wide-eyed not only at its luxury but also at the views of the landscape slipping past, they found themselves by the door to the dining room, looking in longingly. One of three well-dressed men seated together waved them over to their table, asking, "Have you had your supper, boys?" Brady and his friend, perhaps embarrassed at being noticed, hurried away, but the man told the waiter to "catch that boy—the one with the long hair." The waiter obliged, chasing them around the boat until he did catch Brady, and led him back to the gentlemen's table. They insisted that he join them, and, as Brady put it, "nothing was too good for me."
A few years later, Brady's story went, two of those men happened into his Broadway gallery and recognized him. It turned out that one of them was John Van Buren, an attorney in Albany, and son of the U.S. president Martin Van Buren. He was known as "Prince John" for having danced with Queen Victoria at her 1838 coronation. The other man was William J. Worth, who had fought in the War of 1812, serving as an aide to Gen. Winfield Scott, and would fight in the Mexican-American War, again under Scott, rising to the rank of major general. Worth's last army command was in Texas, where the city of Fort Worth is named for him. Brady photographed both men, and came to count them as friends. Together, he recalled, they often laughed about how they had first met. The two men were Brady's first connections to the presidents and generals who would become a staple of his photographic career.
When he arrived in New York, Brady's story goes, he went to look for William Page in the building on Washington Square, knocking on Professor Morse's door. Page himself opened it, and introduced his young protégé to his own mentor. Morse, who was nearly fifty at the time, was conducting experiments with daguerreotype, Brady recalled. (Brady's arrival must not have been before the fall of 1839, because Morse's experiments with the new photographic process did not begin until then.) After Morse showed him the first daguerreotype Brady had ever seen, Brady asked the professor if he would give him lessons in the process. Morse agreed, inviting him to join a class with several other boys, "but they all dropped out except one other and myself." The story seems a little too pat to be true, and there are no records that Brady was ever a student of Morse. But Morse did give instruction in daguerreotype, charging anywhere from twenty-five to fifty dollars, and gave public lectures on the process, so it's possible that Brady attended one or more of these.
But he did not go immediately into the photography business. Brady's first job in the city was likely working as a clerk for A. T. Stewart, an immigrant from Ireland born of Scottish parents. In 1823, Stewart had started his first business, specializing in Irish linens and other fabrics, in a tiny storefront on Broadway, just north of City Hall Park. By the time Brady was hired, Stewart had become more and more successful and had expanded his line of merchandise, moving to another space on Broadway that was five stories tall and two storefronts wide, where he offered an array of dry goods. In 1846, Stewart constructed his own building at 280 Broadway, known as the Marble Palace for its size, Italianate design, and marble façade. It was the world's first department store.
Stewart's success came in part from a strategy of appealing to women customers by offering no-haggle prices and deferential ser vice. He also ingratiated himself with them by hiring handsome young male clerks. Brady, with his thick jet-black hair and trim physique, certainly qualified in this regard, and his wire-rimmed glasses gave him a serious look to go with the good manners Stewart required.
Stewart was one of the few New York merchants to thrive during the financial Panic of 1837, which had led to the failure of hundreds of banks and businesses in the city, unemployment of more than 33 percent, and an interest rate above 20 percent. Perhaps Stewart's entrepreneurial gusto inspired Brady to start his own business in the early 1840s, even though the effects of the depression that followed that panic and a smaller one in 1839 lingered.
Brady began to manufacture leather cases, marketing them to customers in New York and as far away as Boston. Among the cases he produced were ones designed to protect and display miniature paintings and the mirror-like metal plates on which daguerreotype images were fixed. A city directory in 1843 described Brady's business as a "jewel case man[ufacturer]" at 164 Fulton Street, just off Broadway. The following year, he moved his business to 187 Broadway, on the second floor, above a tailor shop. He lived on John Street, and later on Barclay Street, always a short walk from where he worked.
One of the few surviving letters written in Brady's own hand comes from about this time, addressed to Albert Sands Southworth, a Boston daguerreotypist who had received instruction from Morse. Southworth was about to go into business with Josiah Hawes; their collaboration would last twenty years and produce some of the finest daguerreotype portraits ever made, including those of many New En gland intellectuals, from Louisa May Alcott to Emerson to Longfellow. Brady wrote:
New York, June 17, 1843
I beg leave of communicating these few lines soliciting your attention, I being informed by L. Champney [a student of Southworth] and several of your frends [sic] that you are one of the most successful prof. of daguerreotype and doing the most extensive business in Boston and invariably use a great number of miniature cases. I have been engaged some time past in manafucturing [sic] miniature cases for some of the principal operators in this city and recently in business for myself and anxious for engagements. I have got up a new style case with embossed top and extra fine diaframe [sic]. This style of case has been admired by all the principal artists in this city. If you feel desirous to see my style of cases if you will favor me with an answer I will send them by Horse Express. If my style of cases should suit you I can supply you on reasonable terms.
Yours, M B Brady
Champney himself wrote to Southworth a month or so later, saying he had purchased some cases from Brady, paying five dollars for a dozen, and had returned with them to Vermont, where he was then working. There he realized, he told Southworth, that the cases "would not be durable." Still, he added of his customers, "They will never know the difference in the country."
Brady experimented with making cases of pressed paper instead of leather, because the leather cases often cost more than the daguerreotypes themselves. Champney might well have bought this cheaper imitation. For what ever reason—perhaps his customers could tell the difference—Champney was soon out of the daguerreotype business.
Whether all or even many of the daguerreotypists in New York had admired Brady's cases or this was simply sales talk, it's clear that he had reason to be in contact with the quickly increasing number of cameramen in the city, many of whom were ranged along lower Broadway. By April of 1844, Brady had joined them, opening as a second business his own daguerreotype establishment at 205 Broadway, with an entrance next door to his original Fulton Street office. He called it the New-York Daguerreian Miniature Gallery.
The depression that had followed the panics of 1837 and 1839 lingered in the country at large until the year before Brady opened his gallery. But New York City, the country's financial and manufacturing center, suffered a longer, deeper depression, leading to downward mobility in all classes. Only when goods began flowing to California with the 1849 gold rush, and the discovered gold began flowing back to New York, did the city return to its former robustness. But you could hardly detect these hard times by walking along Broadway. A massive fire in December 1836 had destroyed or damaged much of lower Manhattan east of Broadway and south of Wall Street, pushing retail establishments farther up the boulevard and turning the area around City Hall Park into a bustling business district.
The writer of an 1837 guidebook to New York City warned tourists that to cross Broadway in this area, "you must look up street and down street, at the self-same moment, to see what carts and carriages are upon you, and then run for your life." Five years later, Charles Dickens commented on a visit to Broadway: "No stint of omnibuses here! Half a dozen have gone by within as many minutes. Plenty of hackney cabs and coaches, too; gigs, phaetons, large-wheeled tilburies, and private carriages." Dickens also noticed the brazen pigs that roamed the streets, feeding on garbage. Despite these hazards, the paving stones of Broadway were "polished with the tread of feet until they shine," Dickens noted.
Excerpted from Mathew Brady by ROBERT WILSON. Copyright © 2013 Robert Wilson. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Robert Wilson is the editor of The American Scholar and a former editor of Preservation. His articles, reviews, and op-eds have appeared in numerous publications, including The Atlantic, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, The Wilson Quarterly, and The Boston Globe. He is the author of The Explorer King and the editor of A Certain Somewhere: Writers on the Places They Remember. He lives in Manassas, Virginia.
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