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[Detail] U.S.S. Alert. Photographer - W H Jackson, 1901 or 1902

Collection Overview

The 25,000 commercial photographs in Detroit Publishing Company, served as the basis for picture postcards of the time. Prominent subjects include buildings and views in towns and cities, colleges and universities, battleships and yachts, resorts, natural landmarks, and industry.

Special Features

There are currently no Special Features for this collection.

Historical Eras

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

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection

Searching by place or topic will be more successful than searching by date. Often, this collection's photographs are undated or include approximate dates.

Searches will yield more hits for locations east of the Mississippi River. This collection contains fewer photographs of sites in the western United States.

For help with place searches, go to the List of Locations represented in the collection.

For more help with search words, go to Touring Turn-of-the-Century America Subject Index.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.


Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company 1880-1920, documents a number of historic events such as the Spanish-American War and the 1906 California earthquake. Other pieces in this collection chronicle the development of U.S. enterprises such as the railroad, telegraph, and telephone industries. Many works also represent the efforts of the renowned photographer William Henry Jackson.

1) William Henry Jackson

William Henry Jackson set out for the uncharted territory of the western United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. His various expeditions led to a remarkable career that demonstrated both his personal skill and the inherent value of documentary photography.

Jackson was a Civil War veteran working in a Vermont photo gallery when he headed west in 1866. He soon found himself sketching landmarks along the Oregon Trail, photographing the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad, and joining geologist Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden for an expedition into the Yellowstone Lake area.

Expeditions were important in documenting uncharted areas within the United States. The federal government sponsored these diverse groups of artists, scientists, and soldiers to explore an area and to report on its resources. Hayden's expedition included illustrators, a mineralogist, and a topographer. The natural beauty depicted by the artists, including Jackson's many photographs, helped to convince Congress to establish the area as a national park in 1872.

Jackson later worked on several other geologic surveys and headed expeditions of his own. His early achievements included being the first U.S. photographer to document prehistoric Native-American dwellings in Mesa Verde, Colorado and working as a principal photographer of the nation's railroad system.

In 1894, Jackson began a two-year world tour for the World's Transportation Commission. (Many of the photographs from this tour are available in the American Memory collection, Around the World in the 1890s.) Jackson joined the Detroit Publishing Company four years later and added his extensive body of work to the company's collection of negatives.

The collection's timeline chronicles key events in Jackson's career as well as key events in the history of photography. Meanwhile, a search on William Henry Jackson photographer produces thousands of examples of his work.

  • How do you think that Jackson's career paralleled national growth throughout the nineteenth century?
  • How do you think that Jackson's career relates to the history and development of photography?
  • Why do you think that Jackson might have joined and led so many expeditions?
  • How might these expeditions have contributed to the development of photography?
  • Are there any differences among Jackson's photographs that correlate with the differences among his projects?
  • Are there any consistent subjects throughout Jackson's extensive body of work?
  • Do you think that Jackson had a distinctive photographic style? If so, how would you describe it?

2) The Telegraph and Telephone Industries

On May 24, 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse sent the first telegraph message approximately forty miles from the Supreme Court chamber in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland's Mount Clare Railroad Station. Morse's collaborator, Alfred Vail, translated the question, "What hath God wrought?" in the station and sent it back to Morse on an electrical current that sparked the nineteenth-century communications revolution.

Electromagnetic telegraphs provided a fast, reliable means of communication for an expanding nation. The Western Union Telegraph Company was formed in 1856. Five years later, telegraph lines stretched across the continent and connected more than 2,200 offices. The telegraph machines transmitted personal and national news as well as military orders throughout the Civil War. They also reduced railroad accidents by determining the position of trains on the tracks.

In 1872, Alexander Graham Bell began experimenting with multiple telegraphs that could simultaneously send and receive several messages. After he failed to earn a patent for his work, he turned his attention to using telegraph lines to transmit the sound of human speech. Bell and his assistant, Thomas Watson, successfully constructed a telephone on March 10, 1876. Bell spent subsequent years competing with Western Union over the right to market his machine. Searches on the terms telegraph and telephone produce images of telegraph offices such as the "Richmond & Backus Company Office," of early telephones (including a model of Bell's original phone), of a telecommunications cable, and of telephone operators.

Meanwhile, the Special Presentation, "The Telephone and the Multiple Telegraph," in the American Memory collection The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, details Bell's experimental efforts.

  • How do you think that these machines altered both the landscape and the business world?
  • Why do you think that Western Union competed fiercely with Bell to provide telephone services?
  • How did the design of the telephone change over time? Why do you think that the design changed?
  • How did photographers depict telephone workers and their products?

3) The Pullman Strike

In September 1859, cabinet-maker George Pullman introduced the first railroad sleeping car. It became an overnight sensation as railroads offered nightly service to various destinations. The Pullman Palace Car Company soon opened near Chicago, Illinois with a factory and a company town for its workers.

Pullman, Illinois was the site of a vicious labor strike beginning in May 1894. Over the previous nine months, the Pullman factory had reduced its workers' wages but did not lower the cost of living in its houses. Pullman workers joined Eugene Debs's American Railroad Union (ARU) in the spring of 1894 and shut down the factory with a strike on May 11.

Management refused to deal with the ARU and the union prompted a nationwide boycott of Pullman cars on June 21. Other groups within the ARU started sympathy strikes on behalf of the Pullman workers in an attempt to paralyze the nation's railroad industry. The U.S. Army was called into the dispute on July 3 and the arrival of the soldiers sparked widespread violence and looting in Pullman and Chicago, Illinois.

The strike unofficially ended four days later when Eugene Debs and other union leaders were jailed. The Pullman factory reopened in August and denied local union leaders an opportunity to return to their jobs. A search on the term Pullman produces an image of the interior of a Pullman car and images of the company town, including exteriors of "Workmen's Houses" and "The Pullman Residence."

  • How would you describe the differences between the workers' homes and George Pullman's personal residence?
  • How do you think that the Pullman Strike reflected the class distinctions between the company's management and its laborers?
  • Do you think that living in a company town might exacerbate class tensions? What would be the benefits of living in a company town? How would having a company town benefit the company?
  • Why do you think that the Pullman company refused to negotiate with the American Railroad Union and refused to let union representatives return to work?

4) The Spanish-American War

Two hundred sixty United States sailors died off of the coast of Cuba on February 15, 1898, when the Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor. Relations between the U.S. and Spain were already tense over the debate of Spanish rule in Cuba. Despite the fact that the cause of the explosion could not be determined, many people in the U.S. held the Spanish government responsible. In April 1898, the U.S. proclaimed Cuba free from Spanish colonial rule and declared war on Spain.

The expansion of the U.S. Navy and public interest in the Spanish-American war prompted the Detroit Publishing Company to dedicate vast resources to documenting the conflict. A search on the phrase Spanish-American War produces images such as "The Wreck of the Maine" and scenes from the 1898 Battle of Guantanamo Bay in which the U.S. gained control of the area but lost numerous Marines. (The Marines' efforts are represented in images such as "Hoisting the Flag . . .," and "Graves of Marines killed in battle. . .") Other images document the end of the war in January 1899, with photographs such as "Spanish Troops Evacuating Havana." Additional information on the events surrounding the war is available in the Library of Congress presentation, The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War, while films relating to the conflict (including documentaries and recreations) are available in the American Memory collection, The Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures.

  • What aspects of the war have the photographers chosen to depict? What other subjects could have been included in a documentation of this war?
  • How do photographs of the Spanish-American War compare to images from Selected Civil War Photographs? What might account for the differences in these photographs?
  • How do you think that the public might have responded to these photographs of the Spanish-American War?
  • How do these photographs compare to the motion pictures documenting the conflict?

5) The 1906 California Earthquake

Shortly after 5:00 a.m. on April 18, 1906, a violent earthquake rumbled through the San Francisco Bay area with shocks lasting up to one minute at a time. Tremors occurred over approximately 375,000 square miles from Oregon to Los Angeles and inland to central Nevada. The earthquake destroyed buildings and trees, sparked a fire that burned for four days, leveled San Francisco's Chinatown neighborhood, and killed more than 3,000 people. Another consequence of the tragedy, however, was the establishment of new processes to predict earthquakes and minimize the risk of future events. Additional information and films regarding the tragedy are available in the American Memory collection, Before and After the Great Earthquake and Fire: Early Films of San Francisco, 1897-1916.

A search on the term, earthquake, produces images of earthquake damage including photographs of Market Street, "Ruins of City Hall," and "The Heart of Chinatown." Chinatown's general population consisted of immigrants who maintained their native dress, language, and customs--attributes that often led to misunderstanding and discrimination.

Beginning in the late-nineteenth century, Chinese immigrants were targets of restrictive laws and community ordinances that prohibited them from working for federal, state, and local governments and from educating their children in public schools. Many birth, death, and marriage certificates were lost in the earthquake and ensuing fire. When residents were asked to complete new documents, some Chinese immigrants claimed to have more children than they really did. This fraud allowed family members, neighbors, and total strangers to enter the U.S. from China as "paper sons."

  • Why do you think that people documented the destruction caused by this earthquake and fire?
  • How do you think that the government and the general public might have responded to the destruction of Chinatown?
  • How do these materials compare to contemporary documents of a natural disaster?

6) Amusement Parks

Amusement parks appeared across the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. The parks served the needs of both a growing middle class and a developing transportation industry. Trolley companies were often required to pay a flat fee for electricity, regardless of the fact that they used more units during the work week. To keep up their usage throughout the weekends, trolley companies built amusement parks and other recreation areas at the end of their lines.

These recreation centers provided opportunities to swim, picnic, and see a variety of entertainers. A search on the phrase, amusement park, produces images of parks from Montana to Massachusetts with an emphasis on photographs from one of the nation's most famous parks--New York's Coney Island.

Coney Island established itself as a popular recreation area with horse racing, and, in 1884, the nation's first roller coaster. Numerous amusement parks were added to Coney Island over the years. Paul Boynton introduced his Water Chutes Park to the resort in 1895. This was the first place on Coney Island to charge admission and to attract visitors with rides.

There were over 1,500 amusement parks in the U.S. by 1919, but only 400 of these parks survived the Great Depression less than two decades later.

  • What types of amusements were available at these parks?
  • What types of people do you think attended these recreation centers?
  • Why do you think that people were willing to pay admission to enter an amusement park?
  • Were there any differences in parks across the country?


Critical Thinking

Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company 1880-1920, provides numerous opportunities to develop critical thinking skills. The images in this collection can be used to create an illustrated timeline depicting monuments to historic events. Special "photochrom" plates provide an opportunity to discuss the merits of coloring black-and-white photographs as well as mass producing contemporary artwork. Other photographs in this collection provide an opportunity to assess race relations in the late-nineteenth century and to further investigate the role of the railroad system in the industrial development of the nation.

Chronological Thinking Skills

A search on the term, monument, produces hundreds of images of statues and memorials from across the United States. Some familiar structures such as the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. appear along with lesser-known works. The collection contains monuments commemorating events and individuals from the colonial period, such as New York's Henry Hudson Memorial and Virginia's Monument to Captain John Smith. Memorials reflecting a divided nation include Confederate monuments constructed in Kentucky and Maryland. These various images provide an opportunity to create illustrated timelines and maps that demonstrate how the nation remembers its history.

  • What historical events are represented in these monuments?
  • Considering that it often takes years to plan, fund, and construct a monument, why do you think that these events were chosen for memorials?
  • How does the scale of a monument and its design reflect the event or person that it commemorates?
  • How do the monuments represented in this collection compare to contemporary memorials such as Washington, D.C.'s Vietnam War Memorial in terms of design and meaning?
  • What might account for changes in the way memorials are designed?
  • How do you think that the construction of contemporary national monuments in Washington, D.C., has influenced the construction of monuments in cities throughout the United States?

Historical Comprehension: Nature and Industry in the United States

Artists such as William Henry Jackson joined expeditions to the western frontier and returned with beautiful and inspiring images. These efforts to document the nation's natural landscape often generated initiatives to both preserve it and to see it in person. The collection's Subject Index reflects a nation in transition, as photographers documented both the natural landscape and the industrial development that altered it. These images can be used in conjunction with other American Memory collections such as Railroad Maps: 1828-1900 and The Evolution of the Conservation Movement to examine the relationship between environmentalism and industrial growth.

Steam engines driving the late-eighteenth century Industrial Revolution propelled new forms of mass transportation in the nineteenth century. Locomotives were ideal for traveling across the dry and mountainous terrains stretching from the middle of the continent to the Pacific Ocean. Federal funding and land grants fueled the railroad industry, resulting in more than 200,000 miles of tracks, including five transcontinental routes, by the end of the century. A search on the term railroad produces over 1,000 images of locomotives, tracks, stations, tunnels, and bridges in a variety of environments across the U.S.

Meanwhile, searches on terms such as forest and park yield images of the natural world both in isolation and impacted by civilization.

  • What do you think was the environmental impact of the railroad industry?
  • In March 1872, over two million acres in Yellowstone became the world's first national park for "the benefit and enjoyment of the people." What do you think is the value of creating a national park?
  • Why do you think that people visit national parks?
  • Railroad lines and automobiles reached Yellowstone in the early-twentieth century and increased park attendance. Do you think that the arrival of locomotives and automobiles altered the potential "benefit and enjoyment" of the park?
  • Do you think that it is possible to maintain a balance between the demands of conservation and business? Preservation and tourism?

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Chinese Americans

Chinese immigrants living in the United States in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries often maintained traditional customs and dress while living in distinct neighborhoods known as Chinatowns. These immigrants were also targeted by many strict immigration laws. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers under penalty of imprisonment and deportation. Subsequent bills such as the Anti-Chinese Scott Act of 1888 and the Geary Act of 1892 added new restrictions to the entry and re-entry of Chinese immigrants.

A search on the phrase, Chinese Americans, yields images of adults and children dressed in traditional Chinese garments. With the exception of two photographsm, "Chinese Americans in an Opium Den" and a scene from New York's Chinatown, the subjects in these photographs are anonymous but identifiable because of their distinctive clothing.

  • What types of activities and poses are featured in these photographs?
  • How do these photographs and captions portray Chinese Americans? Do they reflect the status of Chinese Americans in U.S. society at the time?
  • What motives, attitudes, and interests do you think that the photographer might have had? What evidence is there to support your conclusion?
  • Do these photographs voice any opinion about the status of Chinese Americans in the U.S.? Do they seem sympathetic, critical, or objective? What evidence is there for such interpretations?
  • How do you think that audiences were likely to have reacted to these images?
  • Search on the phrase, African Americans. How do the photographs of Chinese immigrants compare to images of African Americans in terms of subject matter, composition, dress, pose, and captions?

Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making

Businessman and publisher William A. Livingstone, Jr. and photographer and photo-publisher Edwin H. Husher formed the Detroit Photographic Company in the late 1890s. They soon obtained the rights to "photochrom," a Swiss process for converting black-and-white photographs into color images and for mass producing color postcards, prints, and albums. Many of the images in this collection are reproductions of paintings created through the "photochrom" process.

A search on the phrase, autochrome color, yields over 100 color reproductions of paintings, including works by artists such as John Singer Sargent , William Sergeant Kendall, and Gari Melchers. To reproduce these images, a black-and-white photograph of the painting is colored to match the original.

  • How do you think that the quality of reproductions compare to the quality of original works?
  • Why do you think that people purchase reproductions such as these?
  • Do you think that such reproductions increase or decrease the value of the original work?
  • Do you think that reproductions affect the meaning of the original work?
  • How do you think that artists feel about the reproduction of their work?
  • Do you think that there are differences between reproducing visual works of art such as photographs or paintings and reproducing works in other media such as film or audio recordings?
  • Do you think that the ease, quality, and availability of digital reproductions has changed the debate? If so, how?

Historical Research Capabilities: The Detroit Photographic Company's "photochrom Process"

This collection's Subject Index, features 313 color photochrom prints. These mass-produced images of cities (e.g., Denver, Colorado), university buildings (e.g., Harvard House), and natural landscapes (e.g., Grand Canyon) can be used as the basis for examining how popular prints reflected and influenced cultural trends in the United States.

  • What types of images were mass-produced in color?
  • Why do you think that a person would purchase these prints? Where do you think that these images were displayed?
  • What do you think that these images imply about popular subjects and artists during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries?
  • How do the subjects of these prints relate to events such as the growing environmental movement or industrialization?
  • Why do you think that color renditions of black-and-white photographs were so popular?
  • Are there contemporary products that use a similar process?

Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company 1880-1920 can be used for a variety of arts-related projects. Historic photographs provide an opportunity to discuss the importance of composition while reproductions of paintings facilitate art criticism. Many images can also be the basis for creative projects such as writing a newspaper or creating a drawing around a photograph.


Arts & Humanities

Photographic Choices and Composition

Photographers make a conscious effort to compose an image using their camera. Select a series of images of a single subject (and, if possible, from a single photographer) to study the composition of a photograph and the photographer’s decisions. Use the following questions as the basis for both a critique and for creating a portfolio of photographs on a subject of your choice.

  • What are the similarities and differences among the photographs?
  • What aspect of the subject does each photograph emphasize?
  • How does viewing multiple images of the same subject help you to understand the choices that the photographer made in creating each image? What were some of these choices?
  • What did the photographer leave out of the image?
  • How else might the photographer have presented the subject?
  • How does the photographer compose his or her image to highlight the subject matter? Does the photographer use the composition to say something about the subject matter or to emphasize some aspect of the subject matter?
  • How does the composition create relationships between the subject matter and any other people or objects in the photograph? What do these relationships suggest about the subject?

Drawing Outside the Frame

A photographer is usually very deliberate in setting up an image. The borders of a picture can isolate a subject from its surroundings or emphasize its relationship to other items within the camera’s view. No matter how an image appears in a photograph, however, there is a complete world that exists just beyond the frame.

Select a detailed photograph from the collection and print it onto a sheet of paper. Cut and paste this image onto a large sheet of paper and draw what you imagine would surround this scene by drawing around the edges of the photograph. Keep the following questions in mind:

  • What was the photographer trying to emphasize in the photograph?
  • Are there any items within the photograph that need to be extended onto the rest of the page?
  • How does your drawing alter the style and meaning of the image?

Art Criticism

A search on the term painting produces over 1,000 black-and-white reproductions of both famous and anonymous paintings. Although these images lack the colors of the originals, they can still be used to practice image-analysis and to examine an artist's style and technique. Examine and compare works by artists such as John Singer Sargent and William Sergeant Kendall and answer the following questions:

  • Is a specific style visible throughout an artist's work? How would you describe the style?
  • Are there any common themes or ideas throughout an artist's work?
  • What is your opinion of the artist's work? Do you think that the imagery, composition, and style are appealing? Why or why not? Do you find the subject matter compelling? Why or why not?
  • What makes one painting better than another?
  • Imagine that you are curating a museum exhibition of an artist's work. Write a description of the artist's paintings for a guide.
  • Write a critical review of the artist's work.

Creative Writing: Journalism and Postcard Making

The photographs in this collection can serve as a catalyst for various creative-writing projects:

Imagine that you are a reporter for a nineteenth-century newspaper. Browse the collection and select a topic such as the Spanish-American War or the 1906 California earthquake. Research the general history of the topic and, if possible, the context of a specific image in the collection. Write an article using historical fact and imagined interviews with either the subjects in the photograph or nearby witnesses. A series of articles can be written from different perspectives to cover various aspects of a single event.

Or, choose a series of scenic images from the collection to document an imaginary journey across the late-nineteenth century U.S. Download and print out the images on recycled file folders to make postcards for the trip. Write messages on the back of the postcards to document your journey from the perspective of a traveler. Keep the following questions in mind.

  • Who are you writing to?
  • Where did you come from and where are you going?
  • What is the purpose of your trip?
  • What type of transportation did you use (horse and carriage, steamboat, locomotive, etc.)?
  • What sites did you see on your trip?
  • How did you feel when you saw these people and places?
  • Are you looking forward to going home?