Monday, September 13, 2010

Solomon Butcher and Pioneer Photographs

Last week's blog about pioneer labors and gardens elicited some great questions about the people pictured in those old-time photographs history-lovers often see. Vince said that he'd label last week's "bleakness personified." He makes a good point.

Since I've spent literally h
undreds of hours looking over photographs like the one at the right, I thought I'd take a run at answering some questions about these kinds of photographs. At the conclusion of today's blog, I'll tell you how you, too, can time travel back into the photographic record of these lives.

Did the photographer have us in mind when he took the picture over a century ago? Why was the photo taken in the first place?

We may never know all the answers, but we do know that one thing that Solomon Butcher (the photographer) had in mind was feeding his young family. Butcher's own homesteading adventures had not been successful when he came up with the idea of producing a photographic history of Custer County (Nebraska). Butcher's father provided a wagon and a team on which Butcher could transport the equipment necessary to accomplish the project. (See the name on the wagon to the right?)

It sometimes took hours for Butcher to reach a home and family to take their photograph. He supported himself with subscriptions, donations, and the sale of photographs to his subject families. In seven years, he took over a thousand images. He also collected stories -- although not nearly enough to satisfy my curiosity. Still, the history of Custer County he wrote (Solomon D. Butcher's Pioneer History of Custer County: and Short Sketches of Early Days in Nebraska)

is fascinating.

Relatively few of Butcher's original prints remain, but the Nebraska State Historical Society is the repository of the glass plates. In recent years, some who know the collection best have wondered if the photographer was consciously recording the history represented in that era by posing people with their personal possession. Since the folks in the photographs weren't interviewed with modern-day historian's guidelines in mind, most stories about "why" are lost to history.

What happened a few minutes after the photo was taken?

Now, that is the stuff novels are made of! May I suggest Karyn's Memory Box and Nora's Ribbon of Memories by yours truly? They are out of print, but likely available through inter-library loan.

What did the people think?
Once in a while, Butcher did
note people's names or cryptic notes about their personal lives. For example, about the family in the photo on the left, Butcher wrote, " ... in a debate on women's suffrage one time he [Mr. York] said he did not believe in ladies voting. He thought the dear ladies should not bother their brain about pollitics (sic). But sit in their parlor in an easy chair and direct their house work. It is said he would bring his wife home from the neighbors at the end of a black snake whip and whip her home when she stayed longer than he thought proper."

We can only imagine what Mrs. York thought. Perhaps she was too busy sitting in her parlor in her easy chair to contemplate the complex issue of women's suffrage. (Ahem).

Did they get a copy of the photo?

Most likely, yes, since Butcher was selling subscriptions and prints to make a living. I have met many descendents of homesteading families in Nebraska who proudly display a recent reprint of their family originally photographed by Solomon Butcher.

Was there really anything special about this farm or was it chosen because it was so typical?

Historians have compared census records to Butcher's photographs and theorized that he may have photographed as many as two-thirds of the homesteaders living in Custer County. Perusing the collection shows some things that are "typical" and others that raise new questions.

As bleak as life was, wouldn't that farm look like heaven itself to those poor souls in the photos of the NYC slums?

Interesting observation. When John Carter wrote his wonderful book, Solomon D. Butcher, Photographing the American Dream, he actually included one of Jacob Riis's photographs taken in 1889. Riis, the photographer Nancy mentioned who used photography to raise public awareness of the plight of immigrants in New York, and Solomon Butcher way out in western Nebraska, were contemporaries.

To access the Solomon Butcher Collection, go to:

  • Once there, enter the name, Solomon Butcher. You will see results # 1-20 of 3,014. Meaning, you now have access to over three thousand Solomon Butcher photographs of 19th century life in Custer County, Nebraska.
  • Ask for the "Gallery View." This will give you thumbnails of the actual photographs.
  • Click on a photo. Now you have a page of information with a little version of the photograph.
  • Click on the photograph on this page. Now you have a page that has no textual background, but only the photograph.
  • Below the photograph, click on "larger reference image."Give it a moment to load.
  • With your mouse, hover over something you want to see better & click. Voila.
You'll see all kinds of fascinating things, from baseball bats lying on the ground beneath chairs to flowers blooming on windowsills and roofs to lace-edged aprons to china dolls and ... sometimes ... people standing just inside the front door who aren't in the picture. What's up with that?
Another of history's mysteries.

I am endlessly grateful to have access to Solomon Butcher's collection. In many ways, it began my journey into novel writing, when I heard John Carter speak about it at a Lincoln Quilt Guild meeting decades ago. The Butcher collection also fueled a book idea that will have its culmination in a non-fiction releasing next year. But that's another blog post.

Hug your automatic dishwasher today! Turn on the tap and thank God for the miracle of indoor plumbing! Thank God for your cracked plaster ... your walls aren't made of DIRT. And your husband probably doesn't even own a black snake whip.

Have a great week.
Stephanie G.


  1. Hi Stephanie:

    Wow! I never thought I would get answers to all those questions I asked. I did look at many of the Solomon Butcher photographs you gave the link for and they are very interesting. I particularly wanted to see Solomon’s camera. There was a picture of him with his camera. I used a view camera like his for a number of years (mine was a lot better but not really different) and I could feel what it would be like taking the pictures he took.

    I was also interested in the lack of an artistic sense: framing, the use of light and shadows, portraiture, texture and proportions. It seems he just wanted to get the exposure right. The light was bright so he could have the shortest exposure time and avoid blurring caused by movement. It didn’t seem to make any difference where people stood or looked. I guess just having a photo at all was a minor miracle. I bet Solomon would tell you that he was a craftsman and not an artist. He might even have thought of himself as a scientist.

    I’m reading “Masquerade” right now and I want to read one of your books next. Since I have not read any of your books yet, can you suggest which book I should read first? I’d like it to be available as an eBook so I can make the type larger.


  2. The photographic process from that era mystifies me. In a couple of Butcher's photos, you can see the shadow of his tripod and got my imagination going to see that. Your comments about his artistic sense is fascinating. You made me wonder if he was self taught. I believe he was, but I'm not certain. HHMMMM...

    The only 2 of my books that are eBooks that I know of are A Claim of Her Own about a woman in Deadwood, SD in 1876 and the new release Sixteen Brides. "Claim" is set in the gold rush era and my character is one of only a handful of women in town at the time. She does end up on a placer mine of her own. "Brides" is about single women homesteading in western Nebraska. Yes, the title is "brides" and it's about single women. But there's more romance in that book than "Claim."
    So.....hope that answers your questions.

    I appreciate your encouraging words, Vince. Hope you're having a great Saturday.