American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936 contains 4,500 photographs that document the natural environment, ecology and plant communities in the United States between 1891 and 1936. A group of American botanists photographed dunes, bogs, forests, deserts, individual plants, and landscape features including the Grand Canyon, Lake Superior, and the Sierra Nevada. Their work provided an overview of important natural landscapes across the nation and influenced the development of modern ecological studies. Comparing early and later photographs in the collection reveals human-made and natural changes in the landscape.
You may go directly to the collection, American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936: Images from the University of Chicago Library, in American Memory.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.
- Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
- Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
Related Collections and Exhibits
- American Landscape and Architectural Design, 1850-1920
- Built in America: Historic Building and Engineering, 1933-Present
- Mapping the National Parks
- Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991
- Touring Turn-of-the-Century America, 1880-1920
Recommended additional sources of information.
There are currently no other resources for this collection
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
The images in American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936 complement the study of the development of the industrial United States from 1876 to 1915 and the emergence of modern America from 1890 to 1930. Users of the collection will learn about turn-of-the-century life, including the new discipline of ecology, increasing industrialization, and large-scale agriculture. In particular, one can discover the impacts of industrial society on the environment. The collection also depicts rural life and the settlement of the West and the history of Native Americans and women and education. Finally, the collection also reflects the development of the National Park system and the advent of leisure time.
A New Discipline: Ecology
The photographs in this collection were created by members of the Department of Botany at the University of Chicago from the 1890s to the 1930s. In 1897, Henry C. Cowles joined the department's faculty and brought its attention to the study of ecology. A word first used in 1886, "ecology" meant for Cowles that the composition of plant life in any setting must be understood as the result of constant change in relations within plant communities and among communities and their environs. Cowles thought that plants should not be studied in a vacuum, but as part of a system.
Nearly all of the pictures in this collection can be viewed as reflecting the University of Chicago botanists' study and understanding of ecology. Browse the Subject Index for an idea of the breadth of this collection and its exploration of ecology. Sample images indexed under some of these subject headings, including Ecological succession and Ecology-Research, for a sense of the meaning of ecology and how it was practiced.
- Overall, how do these photographs inform our knowledge of ecology, as opposed to botany alone?
- In what ways do these images reflect the definition of "ecology" as a system or community?
- What do these images indicate about how the University of Chicago botanists defined an ecological system? What kinds of systems or communities do you find documented in these photographs?
- An essay, "Henry C. Cowles and Ecological Succession", from the collection's Special Presentation, describes some of Cowles's ecological theories and interests. How are these reflected in the collection's images? Do the images corroborate Cowles's theories?
- What other approaches to botany are reflected in the collection?
- If you were a botanist, what would be the advantages and disadvantages of using photographs of plants in their natural settings and and using photographs of plants in isolation?
Industrialization and Conservation
At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States was evolving into an increasingly industrial nation. Increased manufacturing required enormous amounts of natural resources. The supply of raw materials seemed endless, and the negative effects of their use seemed negligible. However, as the photographs in this collection demonstrate, natural resources are finite. The negative impact on the environment and the ecology is visible.
Photographs of lumbering in western Maryland, Washington state, and California document the large-scale harvesting of natural resources and its impact on the landscape. Search on lumbering for images such as these, of Krug, Maryland. This series of photographs documents the logging process from the forest to the sawmill.
- What might these trees have been used for at the turn of the twentieth century?
- What are the short- and long-term impacts on the environment of the harvesting methods used?
- How might these men have harvested lumber with less impact on the natural ecology?
- What lumbering techniques are used today?
- Why would the effects of industrialization be of particular interest to ecologists?
Search the collection on mining, erosion, and environmental destruction to see additional images of the impact of the industrial age on the landscape. Learn about the ways ecology contributed to the attitudes and practices of conservation in America in the Special Presentation, "Ecology and the American Environment." For additional resources, browse the collection The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.
Large-scale Agricultural Production
Industrialization at the turn of the century also provided a means of making large-scale agricultural production possible. Photographs of farming operations in Hawaii in the 1930s chronicle the use of mechanized equipment, irrigation, and chemical fertilizers in the large-scale production of sugar, pineapples, and coffee for consumption on the mainland. Search on agriculture for pictures of large-scale farming in Hawaii.
There are also many images in the collection that illustrate the ecological impact of large-scale farming and ranching in the West. For example, "Overgrazing Often Brings About Blow-out Conditions" shows a Nebraska prairie reduced to a desert by grazing. Search on graze for additional images of overgrazing.
- Why is agriculture of interest to the ecologists who took these photographs?
- What are the impacts of a monoculture farm (one crop grown over a large area) on the environment?
- Why is the agricultural use of irrigation systems, chemicals, and fuel-powered machinery of interest to ecologists?
- How does agriculture change the landscape, as seen in the images of overgrazed land in Nebraska? Can agriculture benefit the landscape?
- Are the impacts of agriculture on the environment the same today as they were in the 1930s? What has changed?
The following collections are useful in further study of agriculture, industrialization, and the West:
- Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-1982
- The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920
- Voices from the Dust Bowl, 1940-41
Rural America & Settlement of The Great West
The Homestead Act, which provided 600,000 families with 160 acres of land each by 1900, encouraged people to move west. Several distinctive photographs in this collection supplement the study of rural life and the settling of the western United States in the late nineteenth century. Browse the Geographic Location Index for images of western states to get a sense of the region at that time. Or, search on homestead, wagon, cabin, dwelling, camp, and town for evidence of settlement in photographs of small towns and rural homes, such as "The Home of Homesteader C. M. Bourland Two Miles North of Blytheville, Arkansas."
- What kinds of building materials, architectural styles, forms, and functions do you see in these structures?
- What do these things indicate about the regions in which the dwellings were built? What do they indicate about the challenges of settlement and rural life?
- What are the similarities and differences between these dwellings and their regions?
- What do you think were the most important factors to consider in building a home at that time?
The plain construction and dirt road in Jardine, Montana is typical of many hastily built small towns in the sparsely settled West.
- Why were these towns built hastily?
- How do these images compare to those of cities of the same time period?
- Do you think these small towns still exist, why or why not?
Railroads and the Changing Landscape
The importance of the railroad in the continuing expansion of settlement and development into remote places in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is clearly evidenced in this collection. Search on railroad to retrieve images of trains barreling through the stark landscape of the West and across the straits of Florida to the Florida keys.
- With the expansion of railroads, who was able to access remote areas?
- How did this new accessibility impact these once remote areas and the people who arrived there in terms of economics and in terms of the environment?
- How did the railroad impact other industries?
- How did the construction of the railroad impact the environment?
- Were the costs and benefits of bringing rail lines into remote areas balanced, or did one outweigh the other?
- How do these images of railroads reflect the interests of the botanists who took the photographs?
- Do the photographs as a whole seem to reflect certain opinions?
- If the photographers had used these pictures to illustrate an academic paper on ecology, what topics and arguments might you expect to have found in such a paper?
For more material on the railroad, refer to the American Memory collection Railroad Maps, 1828-1900.
The rapid expansion of the railroad and of settlement across the nation took place at the expense of the native people of North America and of their cultures. Through long and damaging processes of forced relocation and through outright extermination, the population of Native Americans in North America dwindled from ten million to two hundred and fifty thousand in the United States by the beginning of the twentieth century.
Images of native peoples in this collection represent the survival of complex native cultures with rich artistic and religious traditions. Search on Indians in North America to find these images.
- Why might the university ecologists have been particularly interested in Native Americans?
- In what aspects of these people's lives do the photographs suggest the ecologists were most interested?
- Can you draw parallels between the treatment and use of land in the nineteenth century and the treatment of Native Americans?
Photographs of Native Americans in an industrialized Southwest reflect the rapid and dramatic change that took place as railroads made the region more accessible. In this image, women and children balance large clay pots on their heads as they make their way through a diverse group of people on a crowded platform. Another photograph, taken in 1929, shows a Pueblo Indian on horseback in front of an automobile.
Higher Education & The New Woman
One of the consequences of industrial expansion was a flowering of philanthropy, much of which was directed toward higher education. At the turn of the twentieth century, a spirit of inquiry and discovery fueled education, research, and scientific discovery in new graduate schools. Now women, too, were being included in these institutions.
Photographs of student field classes, sponsored by the University of Chicago's Department of Botany from the late 1890s to the 1930s, represent the first generations of men and women pursuing graduate education side by side. Search on student for images from these field trips.
As soon as the train pulled out the knapsacks would hold the skirts of the women of the class, which were shucked off to reveal riding breeches and high shoes, and were put on again before we got on the train at the end of the day.
Thielgaard Watts quoted in
"Ecology and the Preservation of the Indiana Dunes,"
from "Ecology and the American Environment."
- Based on the information in the quote, in what era do you think these women lived?
- Why would the female students have to change in and out of their skirts for train rides?
- Why do you think it was acceptable for women to wear pants in the field?
- When did it become acceptable for women to wear pants in public?
- How did changes in women's roles in higher education and in society influence each other?
- What other examples are there of cultural norms limiting a person's educational pursuits?
A Biographical Guide to Individuals lists faculty and graduate students in the University's Department of Botany between 1894 and 1935. It includes a few links to photographs of women faculty. See also "Botany Faculty and Students in Front of the Botany Building, Hull Biological." Taken in 1917, this group portrait is representative of the strides women were making in some university programs during the first decades of the twentieth century.
National Parks & Leisure in the 1920s
Students, explorers, photographers, and others educated the public about the devastating effects the industrial age was having on the environment. Through photographs and stories of the remaining untouched landscapes, these pioneers created a movement for conservation that developed into the National Park System. The combination of new wealth and time for leisure made tourism a popular pastime and the national parks, popular destinations.
Twice a year, Professors Coulter and Cowles held ecology classes in remote locations, often in wilderness areas recently set aside as national parks. The collection includes hundreds of photographs of national park lands across the country, from the Everglades in Florida to Mt. Rainier in the Pacific Northwest. Search on national parks to retrieve these images.
A 1927 photograph of an early trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park captures the spirit of anticipation and adventure that marked the opening of scenic wilderness areas. Two young women sporting bobbed hair and short dresses stand in front of a railroad car with a sign reading "Schantz Tours University of Chicago First Botanical Excursion to New Smoky Mountains National Park." See "A University of Chicago Department of Botany Field Ecology Class Trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee."
Photographs of lodges, mountain climbing, and camping reflect the growing popularity of outdoor leisure and organized tourism in the 1910s and 1920s. Search on trail national park, inn national park, and camp national park for images of the facilities constructed for tourists.
- What impact did tourism and the infrastructure built to support it have on the environment?
- Do the costs and benefits of tourism balance, or does one outweigh the other?
- What policies has the National Park Service created to accommodate tourists and minimize their impact on the environment?
For more resources, browse the collections The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920 and Mapping the National Parks.
The thinking skills essential to understanding history can be sharpened by analyzing the images from American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936 in a variety of ways. Information left out of photographs and their captions provide the starting point for understanding chronological relationships and for conducting question-driven research. The Special Presentation section "Ecology and the Preservation of the Indiana Dunes" affords an opportunity to understand the destruction and preservation of the landscape. Other photographs can be used to practice analyzing and interpreting both images and real-life issues.
Using images from the collection, one can practice identifying a primary source's date of origin, understanding the chronological relation of events, and organizing information chronologically. The Special Presentation "Ecology and the American Environment" and the collection's "Chronology of Field Trip Courses" are starting points from which one may search the collection to create illustrated timelines. For example, noting the sites of class field trips in the chronology, search on the included place names or the years of the field trips to retrieve images that were created on those trips.
If the bibliographic information provided does not indicate the year the photograph was created, how does one determine where the image fits within the chronology?
- Are there people in the image wearing clothing of a certain time period? Are they doing things specific to an era?
- Are there technology or materials in the image that were only available after a certain point in history? For example, is there a car, a train, or certain tool?
- If an exact year cannot be determined through study of the image, can one at least determine whether it was taken before or after another image?
Alternatively, one can try to identify images within the collection that illustrate an ecological process taking place over time. Find references to ecological processes in the Special Presentation. Write an explanation of how each photograph relates to the process.
"Ecology and the Preservation of the Indiana Dunes" from the Special Presentation presents the story of how this "great ecological phenomenon" was finally preserved through the creation of the Dunes State Park and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Images from the collection illustrate the combination of forces impacting the landscape at the turn of the twentieth century. They will also clarify the issues and challenges involved in efforts toward conservation. Identify likely search terms in the narrative for finding images, such as sand, dunes, Indiana, growth of cities, Gary, and state park. Also refer to pertinent headings in the Subject Index such as, United States of America--Illinois--Cook County--Chicago.
These images depict the development of rail lines, roads, housing, and industry that threatened the dunes. After reading "Ecology and the Preservation of the Indiana Dunes" and inspecting these images, consider the following questions:
- What posed the greatest threat to the Indiana Dunes?
- What steps were taken to preserve the dunes?
- Whose support helped to preserve the dunes and how?
- What finally motivated the decision to protect the dunes? How long did it take?
- If you had been living in Chicago or Gary at the time of these events, do you think you would have considered the impact of urbanization on the dunes?
- Would that consideration have impacted your activities, such as the use of railroads?
- Would you have visited the dunes? How might this experience have affected you?
- Do the forces of development and tourism threaten natural resources today? Are there efforts being made currently to protect certain sites?
- What steps could or should be taken to protect the landscape?
To locate more images that illustrate city growth, browse the collection Touring Turn-of-the-Century America, 1880-1920 for more than five-hundred photographs of cityscapes from this period. The collection also includes photographs of leisure pursuits such as camping and beach-going, activities that threatened the fragile ecosystems documented in Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936.
Historical Analysis and Interpretation
A photograph is a wonderful tool for understanding what it was like to live in another time in history. However, one must remember that the image is the creation of an individual with his or her own perspectives, motives, and opinions. When looking at a picture, we see what the photographer saw. More importantly, we see what the photographer wanted us to see.
Keeping this in mind, one can view the images of this collection with an eye toward discerning the photographers' motives and viewpoints and examining how they are expressed in the image. Given that the photographers of this collection were ecologists, what perspectives or opinions might you expect to find expressed in these images? Do they glorify the beauty of the landscape? Browse the Subject Index for headings such as Alpine regions, Coasts, Meadows, and Mountains. Perhaps they highlight how industry destroys the environment. Browse headings such as Erosion, Floods and Lumbering to see images depicting the threats to these landscapes. Can you identify other ideas that might be reasonably attributed to the photographers as students of ecology?
- Viewing these images, do you get a sense of the quality of the landscape being under threat of destruction? Do you get a sense of its magnificence or its grandness?
- Do you gain an understanding of the impact industry had on the environment?
- How has the photographer manipulated the viewer into seeing these things and having this perspective? Look at the lighting, the angle at which the image was taken, the time of day, and the caption.
- If you had lived at the time these photographs were created, what reaction might you have had to them? Do you think you would have taken action in response to these images? What action might you have taken?
Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making
The collection's Special Presentation offers a definition of ecology as the study of "'the manifold and complex relations subsisting between the plants and animals that form one community.'" Under this definition, humans may be considered animals, not life forms separate from natural systems, but part of a larger ecological community. And everything humans do needs to be considered as part of that ecology. Because humans are a type of animal, what humans do is natural. So, anything resulting from human action - erosion, deforestation, etc.- is natural. Or is it? Use the collection to explore this question, central to activities of industrialization and conservation. Search on bridge, railroad, canal, dam, and agriculture for images of human-built structures that have altered the environment and consider the questions below.
Both of these images depict dams. One was built by humans, the other by beavers. Each changes the environment by flooding the area behind the dam and causing a change in the vegetation and habitat in the surrounding areas.
- What is the impact of the structure?
- Does it disrupt nature?
- Does it fulfill "human progress"?
- When should "human progress" take precedence over maintaining a natural state?
- Are the results of human action natural? What does it mean to be "natural"?
- Is "human progress" necessarily at odds with nature?
- How would you define "human progress"?
- What definition of progress has had the greatest influence on the shaping of American history and culture?
Historical Research Capabilities
Historical research is often stimulated by a lack of information or by questions about an issue, event, or item. American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936 contains many photographs that tell an incomplete story to those unfamiliar with the subject matter. For example, photographs depicting industries such as timber or mining at the turn of the twentieth century can provoke questions to stimulate and guide research into these fields.
Search on timber and lumber for images depicting the process and effects of harvesting wood. What questions do these photographs raise? Do outside research to learn about the processes of lumbering at the turn of the century. Then, create detailed descriptions of what these images depict. How did the lumbering industry operate and what was its impact on the environment?
- What is taking place in the photograph?
- Who are the people? What were their roles in the process? What was their socio-economic status likely to have been? Are they likely to have been immigrants? Where are they likely to have been from?
- Is there anything pictured that associates the image with a certain time in history such as a technique being used that was developed after 1910 or a tool or technology that only existed after a certain date?
For additional images to research, browse the Subject Index to find photographs with unfamiliar subject matter such as, "An Ungrazed and Overgrazed Andropogon Furcatus Prairie in July with Ptilimnium Nuttallii, Muskogee County, Oklahoma." This image clearly shows two distinct types of vegetation on adjacent fields. The caption states that one side is overgrazed and one is undergrazed. However, it is not readily apparent which side is which. What questions does this picture raise? What do you need to find out in order to understand it? Use your reasoning and research skills to determine which field is overgrazed.
Taking on the role of ecologists pictured in the images of American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936, one can work on projects that will support creative writing and public speaking skills. Photographs of ecologists can also be used to develop visual literacy and writing skills in a project on portraiture and biography, while images of landscapes lend themselves to research and expository writing. Finally, examining the various meanings of "ecology" throughout the collection, one may gain insight into the nature of language and its evolution.
Research and Expository Writing
The images in this collection provide the impetus for learning more about the ecology of familiar features of the landscape. One may search on the names of places one enjoys visiting, such as beach, mountain, lake, canyon, and dune, or browse the Subject Index for images of particular interest. Examine the photograph and its bibliographical information and do research in a local library or on the Web to construct an ecological overview in a brief essay.
For example, in writing about a sand dune, an essay might include the definition of a dune, an account of where dunes exist in the world, and information about the specific dunes in the photograph. One might also research the ecological community, the kinds of animals and plants that live among the dunes. In addition, the essay could include an assessment of the human impact on the landscape.
- What happens when structures are built on dunes?
- Was the dune in question built upon?
- Was the area preserved as a park?
- What are the impacts of these decisions?
Photographs provide an engaging starting point for a variety of creative writing projects. Reference the "Chronology of Field Trip Courses" for names of the places where field trips took place. Take on the role of a student in an ecology field class held in one of these locales, such as the Everglades or Mt. Rainier. Search on the site name to find images of the location. Then, search on student to see pictures of the people on these trips. Write a journal of experiences one might have had as a student on this field trip, or write a letter to a friend or relative at home. Alternatively, write about the people and places in these photographs from a third-person perspective in a short story.
- How old is the student on the field trip?
- What does he or she plan to do after leaving the University?
- Has the person ever been on an adventure like this before?
- What unexpected events occur on the trip?
- Is the student prepared for the trip? Did he or she forget to bring something important?
- Are friends along on the trip? Is there someone the student dislikes in the group?
A section of the Special Presentation describes the "International Phytogeographic Excursion of 1913," during which European botanists and American ecologists toured the various landscapes of America. In a summary of the excursion, English botanist and ecologist Arthur Tansley wrote of his impressions of the American landscapes, of the field of ecology in America, and finally, about preservation:
Future generations will be slow to forgive us for the wholesale and often wanton destruction that goes on at present almost unchecked by any general feeling that it is an antisocial crime, and quick to applaud the actions and to reverence the memories of those who have done something to preserve their heritage of natural beauty . . . [H]ere and there tracts of original untouched nature can and should be preserved for the enjoyment and use of our successors, without in any way checking general and inevitable economic development. This is work which ought to be undertaken by the community, and indeed the great national and the smaller state "parks" of the west - three of which were visited by the international party - are a sign that America is awake to her responsibilities to the future in this matter.
Imagine that you were one of the participants in the International Phytogeographic Excursion and write a speech about your experience. Read about the itinerary and participants of the Excursion in the Special Presentation. Search on International Phytogeographic Excursion of 1913 for images from this trip.
Imagine you had gone on this trip:
- What impressions would the scenery have made on you?
- What would you want to convey in your speech about America?'
- What would you want to tell Americans about their own land? How would you convince them?
- How would you use your observations of America to convince your fellow countrymen of the importance of protecting your own nation's environment?
- What arguments did Arthur Tansley make in his report?
- How did he seek to reach his audience?
- How would your speech differ from Tansley's report?
- How would a live audience impact the content and style of your speech?
- How do good speakers convince their audience of something? What facts do they and don't they include? What benefits and costs are there of being honest?
- How long is an effective speech? Does a speaker need to simplify his or her message to appeal to a broad audience? How does one do this?
Portraiture and Biography
This collection includes a "Biographical Guide to Individuals in the Department of Botany, University of Chicago". This guide provides names and links to images of these individuals, including several portraits. What does a portrait suggest about the individual depicted? What does the pose of the person suggest about him or her? What kind of clothing is he or she wearing? What does this tell you about the person? Where is the person? What does the setting suggest? Who or what else is in the photograph and how does that reflect upon the subject? What can you learn about the people and their lives from the photographs that are not portraits?
Use the information in the biographical guide and the questions below to conduct outside research to find out more about one or more of these individuals. Do the findings confirm or contradict your impressions or information based on the collection's photographs? Try writing a short biography of an individual, illustrating it with images from the collection. Search on the individual's name and places they studied to retrieve pertinent images.
- Where was the person born? What was her economic and social standing in society?
- Was she the first member of her family to pursue a higher degree?
- What did he do after he left the University of Chicago?
- What was the impact of his studies at the university on the rest of his life?
- Did the individual publish articles and books?
- What do we know of the person's character?
The Evolution of Language
In the Special Presentation "Ecology and the American Environment" we learn that the definition of "ecology" changed and evolved with the growing understanding of this field of study. Read the various definitions of "ecology" found throughout the Special Presentation, such as Danish botanist Eugenius Warming's definition in the section, "The Origins of Ecology", and the concept of bioecology in "Cowles's Contemporaries and Students." Henry Cowles' definition of "ecology," or "Ecological Succession" as he referred to it, can be further illuminated by browsing the Subject Index for images that reflect this definition. Search on succession for specific examples of this usage.
- What are the differences and similarities between the various definitions. What makes each distinct?
- What brought about the changes in the definition and understanding of the word "ecology"?
- If words communicate ideas, how important is it that we all share the same definitions?
- Have you encountered people using a word you know, but with a different definition? Perhaps you have had the experience of using a slang word with a person who misunderstood what you meant. What was the result? How did you clarify the misunderstanding? What words did you have in common?
- Can one ever be certain that others are hearing your words as intended?