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MS Am 2242

Meserve, Frederick Hill, 1865-1962, collector. Frederick Hill Meserve's Historical portraits, ca.1850-1915: Guide.

Houghton Library, Harvard Library, Harvard University


Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138 USA

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: MS Am 2242
Repository: Houghton Library, Harvard Library, Harvard University
Creator: Meserve, Frederick Hill, 1865-1962, collector.
Title: Frederick Hill Meserve's Historical portraits,
Date(s): 1850-1915.
Quantity: 3 linear feet
Quantity: (19 volumes)
Language of materials: Collection materials are in English.
Abstract: A privately printed (New York) collection of approximately 8000 cartes-de-visite photographs of nineteenth century figures, including over a hundred photos of Abraham Lincoln, his famous contemporaries, both American and European, and photos of Union and Confederate Army officers from the collection of Frederick H. Meserve, a New York textile executive and photograph collector.

Immediate Source of Acquisition:

Purchased from Frederick Hill Meserve; received: 1934.
Recataloged from: US 42505.440*
See scope and content note below for additional provenance information.

Conditions Governing Access:

There are no restrictions on physical access to this material. Collection is open for research.

Preferred Citation for Publication:

Frederick Hill Meserve's Historical Portraits, ca.1850-1915 (MS Am 2242). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Biographical / Historical

Meserve was a New York textile executive, booklover, and authority on Lincolniana. He has been called America's first great photograph collector.


Includes the following volumes (with publication date):

Scope and Contents

A privately printed (New York, 1913-1915) collection of approximately 8000 cartes-de-visite photographs of ninetheenth century figures, including over a hundred photos of Abraham Lincoln, his famous contemporaries, both American and European, and photos of Union and Confederate Army officers. These volumes were printed directly from negatives (many of which were the originals made by the studio of Mathew B. Brady) and from negatives made from photographs for the most part from the collection of Frederick H. Meserve. Vol XXVII was also issued to subscribers in 1915 as a separate volume on Lincolniana.
The three original subscribers for these sets were: Samuel V. Hoffman (then president of the New-York Historical Society, to whom he gave his set in 1933), John Gribbel (of Philadelphia, whose set is now owned by Lincoln Memorial University), and the New York State Library at Albany.
The fourth original set is the one now housed in the Houghton Library. This set was subscribed by Belle da Costa Greene, the librarian to Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan, with the condition that Mr. Morgan himself confirm the pubchase upon his return from Europe. Mr. Morgan died soon after, and the set was not made up for the Morgan Library. This fourth set, however, was taken by Mr. Adrian Hoffman Joline but he too died before the work was completed This set was often called the "Morgan-Joline set" and Mr. Meserve kept it in his safe deposit vault during the suceeding years. In September of 1934, Mr. Philip Bradish Kunhardt offered it for sale to the Harvard College Library. [See curatorial file for additional information provided by Mr. Kunhardt].
Three additional sets were created by Meserve in the 1940s: a fifth set for Indiana University, a sixth for Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, and a seventh set for the Chicago Historical Society. [see Picture History Magazine at: www.picturehistory.com ]

Notes on the index to these volumes (the following text was copied from the index):

On the day that Lincoln, the lawyer, delivered his celebrated Cooper Institute Speech in New York, February 27, 1860, he was taken to Brady's studio, then at Broadway and Fulton Street, by the committee of the Young Men's Central Republican Union, and a portrait was made among others which was widely distributed in the following campaign. Bryant, Hawthorne, Holmes and Longfellow were among the men of letters whose portraits were made in this studio; and Henry Ward Beecher, Edwin Booth, Adelina Patti, General Grant and thousands of his officers, the Prince of Wales, and Tom Thumb were photographed in their turn. Presidents and their Cabinets, members of Congress, and visitors from the states left with this industrious artist and his assistants negatives which became historical documents, and from which photographs were made for the universal family albums.
Because of his great labors in the field with the Union army during the War of the Rebellion Matthew B. Brady ranked first among the comparatively few photographers of this period. To his galleries in Washington and New York, during and after the war, people who were making history came with the rest. Photographs from his negatives form the base of this collection which is intended to be a Portrait Gallery of the prominent people of that time, although many photographs of persons of note from other sources and of a later period have been added. The work has not been confined entirely to America as a few portraits of celebrated persons of other countries are included. Brady began his work as the glass negative process of photography was supplanting the costly individual daguerreotype and ambrotype. The less expensive paper print, with its possibility of endless duplication, brought the photographer's art within the reach of all. None of these early negatives were touched up to make flattering pictures, but they were exact reproductions of those who posed for them. Wrinkles and blemishes were not removed and the characteristics and individualities were not lost.
In many cases Brady's photographs may be recognized by the gallery properties. The arm chair in which President Lincoln sat at different times was used by Senator Sumner and also by the firey Senator Wigfall, who became a General in the Confederate army. Another chair in which the President sat at a later time may also be seen in the pictures of many men who came to Washington as a climax of local reputations. The column, frequently draped with a curtain, and tables with books and ink-well, were moved about on an oil cloth carpet with a large pattern; and the head-rest, invariably used with the wet plates which required long exposures, is often in view.
The size of the portraits in this work is that of the usual photograph of this early period, known as carte-de-visite; and often the whole figure was photographed with such clearness on these small glass plates that enlargements have been made from the original negatives eight or ten times greater without loss of detail or perfection. From the time of their making very many of these photographs have been used as illustrations for biographical and historical articles in magazines and books, first as the basis of woodcuts and engravings, and later for half-tone and photogravure reproductions. The clearness of the portraits and fidelity to life give them a special value for such use.
Identification has in some instances been difficult, and care has been taken to identify the portraits and to verify the names by comparison with the collections of the War Department, the Commandery of the Loyal Legion of New York, The Review of Reviews Company, and with private collections. But in spite of this care errors may be found as some of the early negatives were not marked and could only be identified by comparison with woodcuts and engravings, and some by the memories of men who participated in the scenes of the times. In the search for identification it has frequently happened that an early photograph of an actor in the drama of the war had not been preserved by him, and its discovery brought from the veteran a flood of reminiscence.
In other cases its existence was unknown to children or grandchildren and its discovery to them afforded the keenest pleasure. The portraits are grouped in series indicative of the acts or prominent services in public or private life of the subjects. If portraits have been repeated it is to make a series more complete where the service has been conspicuous in more than one direction, but whenever there are different portraits of the same person, either made at the same or different times, all are shown, thereby adding greatly to the interest of the collection for purposes of comparison.
The Lincoln series of portraits consists of 108 different photographs. Under the name of each portrait, so far as may be without too great search, is given the service or profession by which the subject became prominent; but no attempt has been made to enlarge upon it, or to give a list of local honors through which his fame may have been greater. Such details may readily be found in the biographical encyclopedias. The names and rank of the Officers of the Union and Confederate Armies have been compared with Heitman's Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army. Not every portrait is of equal historical value, but all are of people who played some part in their time, beyond that of the greater number of their contemporaries to whom opportunity for celebrity never came or was not recognized.
The member of congress whose one term gave him distinction and led him to Brady's gallery, or to that of one of his competitors, an act which may have saved him from oblivion, may be revered for his high character and greater services to his own state, and be remembered by descendants who would rejoice to find his likeness in these pages. Because of careless handling of the glass wetplate negatives in a few instances the varnish, which was necessary to preserve the sensitive film, has been scratched and damaged; but even these damaged plates are of interest and often may be the only ones known of the historical personage.
This is also true of some of the copies which have been made from faded photographs of which the negatives were probably long ago destroyed. Attention is called in this connection to some of the portraits in the Confederate series. These, including what is believed to be the most complete collection of General Officers, have been made from photographs gathered from a hundred sources, the greater number however having been copied in Brady's studio from originals which he obtained for the purpose. But in the other series the larger part of the photographic prints have been made directly from the life negatives. It is likely that some of the copied photographs were copyrighted when made or first published, but the compiler is not able to give credit as the photographs used were themselves copies in many cases, or contained no copyright marks; and the very limited number of these books which are not for general sale or distribution, did not seem to call for a search to determine if copyrights existed.
It is believed that the collection will grow in value as an adjunct to the written histories, and as offering material for the critical study of an important epoch in American history. Future historians may search here for the portraits of the men and women who talked or wrote or fought their way into prominence and so impressed their personalities upon the pages of their times.

Container List

General Index to the Volumes: A

General Index to the Volumes: B

General Index to the Volumes: C

General Index to the Volumes: D

General Index to the Volumes: E

General Index to the Volumes: F

General Index to the Volumes: G

General Index to the Volumes: H

General Index to the Volumes: I-J

General Index to the Volumes: K

General Index to the Volumes: L

General Index to the Volumes: M

General Index to the Volumes: N

General Index to the Volumes: O

General Index to the Volumes: P

General Index to the Volumes: Q

General Index to the Volumes: R

General Index to the Volumes: S

General Index to the Volumes: T

General Index to the Volumes: U-V

General Index to the Volumes: W

General Index to the Volumes: X-Z

Additional Index: Barnum's Curiosities of Nature

Additional Index: The Life Photographs of Abraham Lincoln

Additional Index: Photographs of Casts, Paintings and Caricatures of Abraham Lincoln

Additional Index: Photographs of Mrs. Lincoln and the Sons of the President, and of Relatives and Friends

Additional Index: Photographic Views Illustrating the Life of Lincoln

Additional Index: The Vice-Presidents, Presidents Pro Tempore of the Senate, and the Cabinet during President Lincoln's Administrations

Additional index: The Unsuccessful Candidates for President in 1860 and 1864

Additional Index: Views of Persons and Scenes in Connection with the Death and Burial of Lincoln

Additional index: Portraits and Views Relating to the Conspiracy and the Capture of Booth

Additional index: Views and Portraits Relating to the Trial and Execution of the Conspirators