1800s photo collection shows frontier lives and clear-cut forests
By Leigh Hornbeck
A collection of photographs made between 1885 and 1887 and recently made available to the public through the digital archive at Union College capture a moment of transition in the Adirondacks.
The photographer was the Rev. Osmond D. Putnam (1861-1926) who owned a camera that produced 5-by-8 gelatin glass plate negatives. Raised in a wealthy family at the base of Crane Mountain in Johnsburg, Putnam traveled by foot or stagecoach around Warren and Essex counties when he was on break from Houghton Wesleyan Seminary.
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Cameras were not yet common in typical households in the 1880s, especially in those of the poorer homesteads Putnam visited. His customers might have their picture made once in their lifetimes, if at all, during a trip to Glens Falls. For Putnam, they dressed in their Sunday best—the women in high-necked, button-front dresses with long, layered skirts; the men in suits, starched collars and somber expressions matching those on their companion’s faces.
The expressions give the impression they were miserable, which isn’t entirely fair. They had to hold still for far longer than it takes to make a picture today.
The surroundings in these portraits are as important as the subjects themselves. Frequently, Putnam’s camera captured fields of stumps, rough cabins, frame houses and logging camps. At the time, there was a growing movement to protect the Adirondacks from clear-cutting, but it would be another 10 years before the state protected swaths of the region with the constitution’s “forever wild” clause. To view Putnam’s pictures compared to the lush forests now occupying those same spaces is to consider what the landscape would look like without the protections now in place.
The Adirondackers portrayed by Putnam’s images lived in a rough place with no safety net. Survival was based on what they could extract from the land, observes historian Andrew Morris, a professor at Union College.
Morris has studied the creation of the Adirondack Park as a case study of American environmentalism. By 1885, Americans had pushed south and west to the Pacific Ocean. But there was still a vast, largely unexplored wilderness just 250 miles north of New York City.
“They had one foot in the subsistence economy and one foot in a cash economy, trying to take advantage of the new tourism,” Morris says.
See the collection
Explore the 132 images from the Putnam collection, such as this one of a child holding a cat, taken in 1886.
The collection of 132 glass-plate negatives was a gift to Union College in 2019 by Noel Riedinger-Johnson, a Schenectady native who lives in Aiken, South Carolina. Although they had been in storage for decades, some of them were published in 1986 in a book by Riedinger-Johnson, “Adirondack Portraits, A Piece of Time,” a collection of writing by Jeanne Robert Foster.
Foster (1879-1970) was a model, a journalist during World War I, and traveled extensively. She was born in Johnsburg, however, to parents who sometimes struggled to feed their children. During one of the lean times, Foster lived with the family of Francis Putnam. The photographer, O.D. Putnam, was one of his sons. Foster was friends with James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and both John Butler Yeats and his son, William Butler Yeats. She held onto her Adirondack roots and memories from her childhood were often the subject of her poetry. In her later years, the way of life she remembered was gone. In a passage from “Adirondack Portraits,” she writes:
“In the farmhouses you will no longer find the rag-carpet looms or the spinning wheels; and the farmers cannot open a barn door to show a fanning mill for buckwheat or a horse-power threshing machine for oats. Together with much else that was useful and beautiful, they belong to yesterday, to a way of life that has vanished, never to return.”
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This article first appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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