What’s Not in This Picture?


Edwin Hills House, Plainville, Connecticut. Photograph by the Northern Survey Company, 1880s. The Connecticut Historical Society, 2000.191.224

For the past few weeks I’ve been working on a series of photographs taken during the 1880s by an unknown itinerant photographer, probably employed by the Northern Survey Company. The photographer traveled from town to town taking photographs of people’s houses, usually with the members of the family and their prized possessions arrayed on the front lawn. In addition to husbands, wives, children, servants and other employees, the photographs often include horses, oxen, dogs, cats, carriages, wagons, bicycles, baby carriages, and children’s toys. It’s very rare for one of these photographs to show nothing but the house. This made me wonder about the family who lived in this impressive mansion. Who were they and why are they absent from the picture? The house in the photograph belonged to Edwin Hills of Plainville, Connecticut and was built in 1872, shortly after his marriage to Emma Bullen. The couple had one son, Edwin Hiram Hills, born in 1883, and named for Edwin’s father. The Hills were among Plainville’s most prominent citizens, involved in manufacturing and banking. Mr. Hills also served on the State Legislature. I don’t know why they chose not to their pictures taken along with their mansion, but went against the custom of the time and must have been a deliberate decision. In 1909, Edwin Hills disappeared while on a trip to New York City. His body was subsequently discovered in a room in a hotel where he had registered under an assumed name with an unknown woman. His son, Edwin H. Hills, died in 1927. Emma Hills continued to live in the house on Washington Street with her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. The house was torn down in 1952.

To see additional photographs from this series, search Connecticut History Online, a statewide digital library, or eMuseum, the Connecticut Historical Society‘s own online collections catalog.

America’s First “Brown Water” Navy

This past weekend we offered a special Civil War-themed behind the scenes tour at CHS. I spent a day selecting a wide variety of objects, manuscripts and graphics items to include in the tour, including several that I had not used in the past. Among these was a pair of fine photographs of river gunboats being constructed in September 1861. Continue reading

Looking at the Backs of Things

Curators and catalogers spend quite a bit of time looking at the backs and bottoms of things, trying to glean information about pictures and objects.  Labels on the back of the frame of an oil painting may tell where and when it was exhibited or purchased.  Marks on prints and drawings may prove clues to previous owners.  Photographer’s names often appear on the backs of nineteenth-century photographs rather than on the fronts.  If the photographer moved frequently, then the address in the imprint can help determine the date of the photograph as well.  Other kinds of museum objects such as ceramics and silverware often bear their makers’ marks as well.  As a graphics curator, I’m not only fascinated by the artifacts that I work with, I’m fascinated by the people who made them.  The imprint of the Hartford photographer Daniel S. Camp appears on the backs of a lot of photographs of local landscapes and people taken in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

Pave Paradise, Put Up a Parking Lot, or, You Don’t Know What You Got ‘Til It’s Gone

Of the many buildings that Hartford has lost to development since the mid-twentieth century, the one that seems to sting a little bit more than most of the others is the Hartford-Aetna Bank Building. When it was built in 1912, the 11-story building was Hartford’s tallest. In 1990, the building was slated for demolition by the Society of Savings, with a 45-story office tower to go up in its wake. Continue reading

New York City in the 1970s

Richard Welling. Times Square, New York City. 2012.284.694.

Richard Welling. Times Square, New York City. 2012.284.694.

Despite not being alive in the 1970s and having only spent a limited amount of time in New York City, photographs of it in the ‘70s are some of my favorite things on earth. (Actually, really any photos from ‘70s do it for me; the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1972-1978 project, Documerica, is one of the most awesome collection of photographs ever. It was originally conceived as a way of documenting subjects of environmental concern across the United States, and while it does do that, it also seems to capture the spirit of the decade. I think. I wasn’t there.) So, Richard Welling, who I’ve written about before, was into the architecture of New York City and photographed it with his SX-70 Polaroid camera in the 1970s. Continue reading

David Starr, Civil War soldier

Photograph of David Starr. 2013.221.

Photograph of David Starr. 2013.221.

David Allen Starr was the son of David H. and Harriet Rogers Starr of New London, Connecticut. In 1862 he and his brother Elisha enlisted in the 5th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers. David was captured by the Confederate Army at the battle of Cedar Mountain and taken first to Libby Prison and then to Belle Isle. He was lucky enough to be paroled in five months but not before being starved and enduring the hot sun with no place to take cover. After his release, David was placed on guard duty at a hospital in Frederick, Maryland, before rejoining his regiment which was preparing for General Sherman’s “march to the sea”. Continue reading

Richard Welling and the SX-70

The SX-70 was a camera manufactured by Polaroid between 1972 and 1981. The new Polaroid greatly improved on the early models, which required the user to manually pull the photograph out of the camera and peel apart the film pack, as it ejected the film automatically and developed automatically, as well.  Continue reading

Illustrating Stylish Travel

Often times at the CHS, we write articles, present programs, and give tours based on our collections.  Many times these articles, programs, and tours are based on information and items we already know we have in the collection.  However, sometimes the topic comes first, and the illustrations come second.


Cheney Album. Volume 5. 1991.28.5.

Continue reading

A Glimpse of Hellen Keller in Her Garden

Nothing is more ephemeral than a garden, unless it’s a person. Gardens change from season to season and most often die with their creators, leaving nothing but memories.  Photography has the magical ability to bring back lost gardens and people long dead.  Helen Keller had a garden full of fragrant flowers at her home, Arcan Ridge, in Easton, Connecticut, where she lived for more than thirty years following the death of her companion and teacher, Annie Sullivan. Deaf and blind, Keller was able to pursue an active career as a writer and humanitarian. In this photograph by Rosalie Thorne McKenna, which was given to CHS in 2011 by the Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation, we can see how Keller, who died at Arcan Ridge on June 1, 1968, was able to experience and appreciate nature through the fragrance of the flowers with which she surrounded herself. To find out more, go to YourPublicMedia.Image

Let it snow

CHS Snow StormNow that almost everyone has been plowed out, shoveled, and used the snow blower, it is time to heave a sigh of relief. This was a huge storm, but not compared to the Blizzard of 1888. You think your snowbanks are high? Take a look at some of the images from our collection of what downtown Hartford looked like. Continue reading