This essay by John Nicol, PhD, first appeared on July 12, 1878 in The British Journal of Photography.
Utica, intersected by the Erie and Hudson Canal, is really a beautiful place. Free from the geometric regularity of most of the American cities, its tree-lined streets impart to it the truly American sylvan character, while the size and elegance of its suburban residences show that its people are prosperous to a degree unknown in similar cities in the old country.
But their commercial prosperity is not the only, or even principal, quality on which the Uticans pride themselves, as they rank only second to Boston in their opinion of their culture and appreciation of science and art; and, so far as I have been able to judge, with quite as much, if not more, reason.
Amongst many things of which the Uticans are justly proud not the least remarkable is their cemetery, and especially the fine conservatory connected with it. It stands on a hill about two miles out of the city, from which there is tramway communication every half hour. The hill was originally covered by a primeval forest, and its principal beauty consists in the way in which considerable numbers of fine trees have been left to line the walks and overshadow the resting-places of the revered dead. The inclemency of the weather during some of the winter months renders the funeral ceremony always uncomfortable and sometimes impossible, and to obviate this inconvenience a beautiful conservatory has been erected near the entrance.
Although it is called a conservatory, “crystal palace” would be a more appropriate designation. It is a beautiful, circular roofed structure of iron and glass, both colourless and stained, fully stocked with the most choice exotics kept in perpetual bloom, and here and there song birds and birds of exquisite plumage disporting amongst the branches and sending forth their songs of gladness, imparting a life and vivacity to the scene that is charming. A large space in the centre is kept clear, in which the coffin, or “casket,” as it is more generally called, is placed, with the mourners around it; and there is a gallery at one end for the accommodation of a choir, by which appropriate music is usually sung as a portion of the service.
But probably the most interesting feature in this beautiful cemetery is what externally looks like a fine gothic chapel – the gift of one of the wealthy families of the city. The visitor is at first somewhat at a loss to know what purpose it is intended to serve, as although such buildings are to be found in most cemeteries they are always used for the services connected with funerals; but in this case these are amply and much more tastefully provided for in the conservatory.
The mystery was, however, solved when the obliging keeper of the cemetery was interrogated; and it turned out to be a receptacle for those who die during the winter months, when the ground is frozen to such a depth or the snow is as thick that graves cannot be opened. Access to the interior is gained by a massive door at the end of the building, and the “dim religious light” passing through the stained glass shows only an empty central aisle with a row of paneled doors on each side.
On opening one of these doors the recess is found to be divided by shelves into bins like a wine cellar, and each bin contains an oblong box of white pine, on the end of which is fastened a card bearing a name and date, and inside of which box is the coffined body of the deceased, awaiting a convenient time for proper interment. The chapel contains altogether four hundred and twenty such bins, and there were at the time of my visit over four hundred bodies awaiting burial, all of which, according to cemetery regulations, must be buried before the first day of June.
Here, as in places nearer home, there seem to be difficulties in the way of insuring negatives and photographic material against fire and I was surprised to learn that as much as from three to five per cent was frequently asked by insurance agents. Of course, rather than pay such heavy premiums many do not insure at all, while some only do it for a “quarter,” or from three months to three months. Such a method involves frequent omissions, and as a natural consequence, when a fire does occur, it not unfrequently happens just while the stock is uninsured.
Why such high premiums should be charged where the arrangements for extinguishing fires are proverbially so perfect I cannot understand, and I am sure that some of our English or Scotch companies might do worse than established branches here and in other large towns, as, if they would grant policies on anything like the rates charged at home they would command a large amount of business.
I am not much acquainted with fire-brigade arrangements in the old country, but probably a brief description of what I saw in Utica, Flint [Michigan], and several other places, and what I know to be general in almost all such towns in the States, may interest the readers of the Journal. The town is divided into districts, in each of which there is a suite of buildings, including a comfortable mess-room for a number of firemen, who live on the premises, and dormitories, with beds, by the side of each of which the fireman’s dress is placed ready to be jumped into at any moment.
A steam fire-engine is always at hand, with water at the boiling point, and with firewood and coal laid ready for ignition; there is also a stable with a pair of highly-trained horses prepared to draw the engine to any place where its services may be required. Each station is in electrical communication with signal boxes all over the city, and by the breaking of a pane of glass and the pressing a button at any one of them information is instantly flashed to each of the watchmen on duty.
Equally simple and prompt is the result of the action taken by each of such watchmen on the receipt of the electric signals. He pulls a cord which hangs convenient to his hand, and the single pull strikes a powerful gong, the noise of which at once awakens the sleeping firemen and warns the horses that the time for action has come. It at the same time liberates the springs by which the door of the stable is kept shut, and also unhitches the horses.
In short, a single application to the bell-pull awakens the men, opens the stable doors, and liberates the horses; and so well trained are both men and animals that within a few seconds after the signal of a fire has been received each is at his assigned post, and although the fire may ho only in the next street steam at a pressure high enough for effective work is available by the time the engine reaches it.
I regret to say that photography in Utica is not in the position that from the taste and culture of the Uticans we might expect it to be. There are no lack of photographers, but, so far as I could see, there was only one who really did good work, and he certainly had more than a fair share of what was going.
His studio was one with the ordinary large top light, and his arrangements generally would not in Europe be considered conducive to the production of high-class results; but by the liberal use of hand and other screens he simply and rapidly produced negatives that would do credit to the best artist in any country. Unlike Americans generally, he evidently prefers warm colours, and was toning silver prints a warm brown.
He was the only licensee of M. Lambert that I had met in the United States who seemed determined to thoroughly work the process to its entire extent, and his walls bore ample evidence of much patient perseverance, although he had not sufficiently mastered the details to warrant him in abandoning silver printing entirely, though he said that the hoped in a short time to send out nothing but carbon prints.
In common with many of his brethren in the profession, he assured me also that he envied photographers in Britain, who could always find reliable collodion and other materials as articles of commerce, while much of his time was consumed in making them; but I strongly suspect that there is a good deal of prejudice in connection with this matter, as since then I have again and again had satisfactory evidence that thoroughly good and perfectly reliable collodion is as easily obtained in the American as in the English market. Far be it from me to do anything that would injure the business of one from whom I received much kindness, yet I cannot avoid saying that I think there is in Utica a good opening for any able photographer who would go in for high class photographic work.
From Utica to Saratoga is a long distance, but after leaving the former the latter was our next resting-place; and probably no two places in this great country are more unlike each other, or, perhaps, it would be more correct to say that Saratoga is unlike any other place in the Union.
It is a city of huge hotels, big churches, and a number of shops out of all proportion to the number of its stationary inhabitants, the result being that for at least eight months of the year the principal hotels and most of the shops are shut, while the churches are much more than half empty. Saratoga during the season is, perhaps, one of the gayest towns in the world, and possesses some features that are altogether unique.
It owes its origin to its possessing several mineral springs that are neither better nor worse than hundreds of others to be found in this as well as other countries; but a visit to Saratoga has become the fashion, and as Americans do everything on a gigantic scale, this their favorite watering-place is no exception to the rule. How gigantic the scale is may be inferred from the fact that at least two of the hotels – the “United States” and the “Union” – can each accommodate something like three thousand guests; and not only are they generally full, but they frequently have to call into requisition private lodging houses to accommodate their surplus guests.
If it be borne in mind that the average charge for board is a guinea a day, it will be seen that these two hotels alone must take considerably over £500,000 during the season. It would be difficult to form anything like a correct estimate of the actual sum expended in Saratoga by the wealthy Americans who year by year spend a portion of their time there; but observation leads me to the belief that these two monster hotels cannot represent more than a fifth of the boarding-house power in the place, and if that be nearly correct a sum of not less than two millions and a-half sterling is spent in Saratoga alone on seeing and being seen.
This is certainly a large sum, but the proprietors in Saratoga make the most of what they have to show in everything except the town itself. The streets are badly paved, or not paved at all, and the buildings, the large hotels excepted are very deficient in architectural beauty; but this is amply made up for, or supposed to be, by the care lavished on the park, in which the principal springs are situated.
Good taste, however, does not always go hand in hand with lavish decorations expenditure. In this case the effect is most wretched, the gaudy decorations in glaring primary colours an impression that it is part of a gigantic circus, or other show, and that [P.T.] Barnum who, by-the-by, is a frequent visitor – had been employed to exercise his genius in making it what it is. Outside the town the roads are kept in first-rate order; and as every American who can afford, and a good many who cannot, drives his span or pair of horses, care has been taken to make the most of what is to be seen within the radius of a driving distance.
Of course, as my time was limited, I could not do much in that way, but certainly no one should go to Saratoga without visiting the geyser springs and the very beautiful lake. These really wonderful springs are about two and a half miles to the south of Saratoga. They are each covered by a neat building, and play continually, each a perpetual fountain of highly-charged mineral and aerated water, which has already become famous all over the United States, and is sent off in thousands of dozens in clear, green glass quart bottles at the rate of about twelve shillings per dozen. It would probably be more correct to say that the jets might play continuously, as in consequence of the great demand for the bottled water the stream is made to flow into the bottling apparatus, and the jet only turned on when visitors arrive.
But probably the most charming and attractive object around Saratoga is the lake [Saratoga Lake], which lies in a basin, about four miles to the east of the town. It is about nine miles long and a mile and a half broad, and is reached by terraced walks and drives. Two steamers ply on its surface, and afford to the tourist or visitor an opportunity of enjoying a combination of the beauties of Loch Katrine and Windermere [in Scotland and England, respectively].
High up on the banks, but level with the road, there is a fine hotel, from the piazza of which a fine view of the lake is obtained, and here during the season may at any time be seen hundreds of visitors absorbed in contemplating its beauties and eating Saratoga potatoes. It is strange how some places obtain a reputation for particular articles.
I have said in a former communication that the American tourist does not drink, at least in public. Under such circumstances, in the old country, few guests would be found without the accompaniment of bitter beer or the more potent whisky; but here there is nothing – at least visible stronger than iced water, but, instead, everyone seems under the impression that the beauties of the scene can only be fully enjoyed of while which munching the dainty already mentioned, and for the preparation of which this hotel is famous.
The “Saratoga potato” is prepared by cutting the root into extremely thin slices or ribbons by a suitable supplied machine, and then frying in lard or other fatty matter. They are supplied to visitors in beautifully white paper, twisted into the form of a cone or cornucopia; and so delicately is the process carried on, and so thoroughly is the surplus sebaceous matter removed, that the paper cone is not even soiled, and the ribbons may be picked out one by one with the moat daintily-gloved hand without the glove being stained.
Of course, where so many idle people, or people bent only on the pursuit of pleasure are found, photography is likely to come in for a fair share of patronage. Such photography, however, as is to be found at the average watering-places here, as well as is in as Britain would not be tolerated.
Visitors to Saratoga, as a rule, have long purses, and equally as a rule the purse is not without its influence. Although there may be, and undoubtedly is, an absence of a high appreciation of true art, the artist, if he wish to secure a large clientele, must surround himself as much as possible with what is grand and imposing.
Of the several establishments I visited the same may be said of each; that is, there is plenty of furniture of the richest description, fine specimens in attractive show-cases outside, and very indifferent work within. The idea conveyed by an examination of the whole seemed to be that the people went to be photographed more as a joke than with any idea of getting pictures for permanent use; or that sitting was more a result of the caprice of the hour, and the portraits intended to be simply amusing reminiscences of temporary acquaintanceships, to be forgotten within a brief period after returning to the sober realities of life. Under such circumstances one could hardly expect to find much striving after high-class work, and if he had he would have been woefully disappointed.
Albany, the picturesque capital of the State of New York, was our next halting-place. It is beautifully situated on the Hudson about a hundred fifty miles from the city which gives the state its name, and being built on the face of a hill or rising ground, the streets seem to rise in terraces one above another, with the recently rebuilt capitol as its crown. It is a thriving place as regards business, with a high opinion also of itself and everything to it, and consequently also of its photographers – so far as the latter are concerned not without good reason.
It must be true that fashion largely influences photography, otherwise how could we account for the fact that in some cities there is hardly a specimen of landscape or architectural photography to be seen, while in others such specimens are more numerous than portraits in the show-cases of the professional photographer?
In Albany the latter is especially the case, and most of the specimens were of a high order of merit. Mr. [William] Notman, of Montreal, who has a branch establishment here, showed a view of the new capitol as perfect in every respect as it is possible for an architectural photograph to be, and a group of the senators hardly less perfect. In the reception room of Mr. Horton there were also some splendid portraits, from carte size up to at least 18 x 24, which in delicate detail and modeling with out retouching, were equal to anything I had previously seen.
No doubt there were one or two places where the ordinary inferior pictures were turned out, but, on the whole, the observations made regarding photography in Detroit are quite as applicable to that in Albany, and the result, as might be expected, is similar; each artist has as much to do as he can manage, while the prices are far above the average in towns of similar size.
John Nicol was born in Scotland in 1828 and graduated from Edinburgh University in 1852. After several years as a pharmacist in Edinburgh he took an active interest in chemical science and focused on photography, becoming a founding member of the Edinburgh Photographic Society in 1861. There he gave more than 40 lectures and the Society founded The British Journal of Photography.
In 1885 he emigrated to Chicago and became connected with The Photographic Beacon, a photographic journal, and served as a judge in several photography competitions. In 1889 he was named president of the Chicago Camera Club but moved to Tioga County, NY in 1890. At the time of his death, he was the editor of The Beacon, American Amateur Photographer, and American Photography.
Illustrations, from above: Johnson Park in Utica (ca. 1870s); a fire at Robert Fraser’s Department Store in Utica on May 10, 1905; Saratoga Springs hotel life in 1874 (photo by Record and Epler); portrait of George Crum creator of the Saratoga potato chip (courtesy Saratoga County History Center); Forest Hill Cemetery’s Conservatory, built in 1875 and demolished in 1926; and a portrait of John Nicol from the cover of American Photography (published in May, 1910, shortly after his death).
Leave a Reply