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C. M. Bell Studio Collection

Prints and Photographs Division

Collection digitized? Yes--most of the collection is digitized. [View the images in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog]

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Overview of the Collection

The C. M. Bell Studio Collection consists of more than 30,000 glass negatives spanning the period 1873 to 1916 that were produced by the C. M. Bell Studio and its successors.

Charles Milton Bell (1848-1893) was one of Washington's leading portrait photographers during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The studio became known for its large collection of portraits of Washington notables, including politicians, leading businessmen and educators, embassy officials and distinguished visitors from other countries, church leaders, athletes and entertainers, and members of Washington's black middle class.

Portrait of Bishop Arnett. Bishop Arnett. Photo by C. M. Bell Studio, between 1873 and 1890.
Washington baseball player (Charles S. Abbey?).
Abbey [i.e., Charles S. Abbey(?) Washington baseball player]. Photo by C. M. Bell Studio, between 1894 and 1901.

From his first year in business onwards, Bell regularly photographed Indian visitors to the capital, prompted by Ferdinand V. Hayden, director of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories. Bell also made photographs of Indians for the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of American Ethnology, as well as for his own purposes.

Bell enjoyed a congenial business relationship with the Grover Cleveland administration and made many portaits of Cleveland's bride, Frances Folsom Cleveland, after their marriage, as well as portraits at the second Cleveland inauguration.

Portrait of Standing on the Prairies Standing on the Prairie. Photo by C. M. Bell Studio, between 1894 and 1901.
Portrait of Frances Folsom Cleveland
Cleveland, Mrs. [Grover] (Frances Folsom Cleveland). Photo by C. M. Bell Studio, between 1873 and 1890.

In addition to studio portraiture, Bell captured some street scenes and public events, such as openings of Congress, treaty signings, and parades. He also provided photographic copies of documents and works of art, and he produced architectural photographs, including major public buildings, residences, schools, and churches. Also included in the collection are scenic photographs along the Piedmont route of the Richmond and Danbury Railroad--photographs that were shown at the New Orleans Exposition in 1884-85.

Background Information

Portrait of C. M. Bell
Portrait of C. M. Bell. Photo by C. M. Bell Studio, ca. 1890.

C. M. Bell was the youngest member of a family of photographers who operated a studio in the capital from about 1860 to 1874. He became a photographer at the studio of Bell and Brother in 1867, at the age of nineteen. In 1873 he left that studio and opened his own business nearby on Pennsylvania Avenue. Eventually, C.M. Bell's studio eclipsed that of his father and brothers, who closed Bell and Brother about a year later.

Bell expanded his studio until it occupied four street numbers between 459 and 465 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, with an additional "West End Branch" at 701 Fifteenth Street NW, near the White House. The Pennsyvlania Avenue studio was very elegant, and the operating room was equipped with two skylights of clear French plate glass. After 1876, it also boasted a camera that had been specially made by E. and H. T. Anthony for exhibition at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, a camera that some claimed was the finest in the country.

Bell died on May 12, 1893. His wife, Annie E. Colley Bell, a native Washingtonian, took over the day-to-day operation of the studio, at times assisted by her sons. Struggling to keep the large operation running, she closed the West End Branch and eventually reduced the size of the Pennsylvania Avenue studio. Around 1900, the business was sold to Atha and Cunningham, who operated the studio under Bell's name. They moved the studio to 1321 G Street, NW, in 1907, but closed the studio in 1909.

In 1916, the C. M. Bell Studio negatives were sold to another Washington photographer, I. M. Boyce. Boyce pulled many of the Indian negatives out of the collection, and these were ultimately sold in the 1950s to the Bureau of American Ethnology. Boyce sold most of the remaining collection to Alexander Graham Bell (no relation to C. M. Bell), who was interested in the study of human heredity and saw the photographs not only as important documentation of Washington's social and political history but as a great source for examining multiple generations of the same family. The negatives were eventually donated to the American Genetic Association. The Library of Congress acquired the collection in 1975 from the American Genetic Association.

Access and Description

The largest portion of the negatives in the collection--more than 25,800 5x7 glass negatives--were scanned between 2013 and 2015 and are available online. The remaining larger format negatives can be viewed on microfilm in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room.

The negatives were held in a variety of storage locations and conditions before arriving at the Library of Congress, including a succession of basements and some farm buildings. Some of the negatives show deterioration and blemishes.

Several studio logbooks and alphabetical client registers were found among the crates of C. M. Bell negatives when they were received. Where this information could be matched to a negative, it has been included in the description for the items that are online. Names found in the registers sometimes name the person pictured but sometimes record the name of the client (e.g., the parent of children who were photographed).

In general, the negative numbers were assigned by the studio and are roughly chronological. Unfortunately, no logbooks were found for the early part of the studio's history, so negatives with numbers below 35,838 do not have logbook information. Negatives with numbers above 58,572 were apparently added after the studio closed, presumably by I. M. Boyce.

Rights Information

There are no known restrictions on publication of C. M. Bell Studio Collection photographs. For more information, see C. M. Studio Collection: Rights and Restrictions Information.

Related Resources

  • The division holds photographic prints from Bell and Brother, the predecessor studio in which C. M. Bell worked. [view descriptions]

  • The C. M. Bell Studio deposited some photographs for copyright, and some photographic prints entered the Prints and Photographs Division from that source. [view descriptions]

  • Washingtoniana Photographs: Collections in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress (Washington: Library of Congress, 1989), 14-22. Available online [view C. M. Bell Studio entry external link in Washingtoniana Photographs via]

  • The entry in Washingtoniana Photographs notes that much information was supplied by James Glenn, deputy director and archivist, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Insitution, Washington, D.C. C. M. Bell is listed among the correspondents in the Guide to the Collections of the National Anthropological Archives:

Compiled by: P&P staff, excerpted from Washingtoniana Photographs: Collections in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress (Washington: Library of Congress, 1989), 14-22. Last revised: September 2016.

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  October 18, 2016
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