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Howes Brothers Photographs
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Howes Brothers photographs

Their Work
Historical Context and Technology
Acquiring the Collection
Examples
Resources
Digital Vision
Ordering Howes Brothers Prints

The Howes Brothers photographic collection consists of over 23,000 glass negatives. The photographs were taken between 1882 and 1907. These photographs are a valuable resource for historians interested in this period.

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Walter Howes

Alvah Howes

George Howes

The writing below Walter says "All Ready Still" with the "s" reversed.

The three Howes brothers were natives of Ashfield. Alvah Howes was the first to take up photography. Alvah was born in 1853 and grew up on the family farm. In 1880, when he was twenty-six, he was still working as a farm laborer. It is not known exactly how Alvah learned about photography or exactly when he started, but 1882 is sometimes cited as the first year, and by 1886 Alvah and his brother Walter toured as itinerant photographers. In 1888 Alvah opened a studio in Turners Falls. Alvah employed various assistants, and his youngest brother George was sometimes one of them.

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Work of the Howes Brothers

In the first years, the business must have been a shoestring operation, and in 1886 when the brothers first started touring, one of the places they stayed was in Florence with relatives. In 1887, again, one of the places they stayed was with relatives, this time in South Coventry, Connecticut. From notes in Walter Howes notebook, we know that they typically visited about three areas in the course of a season.

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Map showing locations that have been identified
as sites of Howes Brothers photographs.

We know from correspondence from the time that the touring part of the company usually was a crew of three men. Alvah usually stayed in Turners Falls and managed the studio where the processing was done. The men on tour were typically Walter and Harry Sturtevant (an Ashfield neighbor) who did the photography, and a third person (sometimes George Howes), who drove the wagon and did errands. When they arrived in a town, they would first find room and board, then set about soliciting customers. They would go up and down streets and visit homes, schools, and factories to invite people to sign up to have their photographs taken. They actually took the photographs on a second visit. They would eventually return to sell the prints at a price of three for a dollar.

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Historical context and technology

The era captured for the most part was the era before the automobile. The roads were still unpaved, and horses were the principal means of transportation. Machinery was water powered or steam powered. Telephones and electricity were arriving in some areas, and electric trolleys were connecting between the rail lines and the more remote towns, and between the cities and suburbs. In New England at that time, the larger cities in the valleys were growing rapidly, but rural towns in the hills were in a period of decline. Nevertheless, the hill towns still had a great diversity of small manufacturing enterprises that would mostly vanish in the decades to come.

The photography of the Howes Brothers was made possible by the development of dry plate photography. A few years before, the wet plate photography basically required that the film be very close to the darkroom. The photography of that earlier era was difficult to take to the field, except by heroic effort. A few photographers did lug the lab to the field, but the effort required kept their work rare and expensive. The dry plate innovation allowed photography to move more easily out of the studio and among the people.

 

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Actual camera used by the Howes Brothers

One constraint of the portrait business of the era of the Howes Brothers was that they needed to take pictures that they would be able to sell. Although this might be expected to exclude some subjects, the scenes represented show a very wide cross section of society. By photographing factories, school classes, and work groups, the Howes Brothers had a reasonable prospect of selling prints even if some of the subjects or workers might have thought the prints expensive. We see in some of the photographs people proudly posing with favorite possessions in front of shockingly inadequate shelters.

Another photographic innovation, roll film, probably had a hand in ending the photographic career of the Howes Brothers. The roll film and smaller cameras that were easy to use made photography even more democratic and reduced the need for professional photographers. Unfortunately, the roll film captured less detail and often did not survive as well over time.

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Acquiring the collection

Ashfield Historical Society acquired the main bulk of the glass negatives (over two tons) in 1963. It is almost a miracle that the collection survived that long. For many years the negatives had been stored in the former Zacharia Field Tavern in the attic. Local residents recall playing with the glass negatives in the nearby fields. One local resident remembers manhandling apple boxes of the slides when removing them when the building caught fire. Two families acquired the negatives and donated them to the Ashfield Historical Society.

By 1975 the Society had come to realize that the Howes negatives were probably the most important part of the collection. In 1978 the Society applied for grants to begin work on preserving and storing the negatives. There was some discussion of building a fireproof vault to store the collection, but instead the former meat locker in the museum building was renovated to store them.

In 1979 work on the photographic collection went into high gear. Alan Newman was appointed project director. The negatives were painstakingly cleaned and placed in acid-free envelopes. Construction began on a fireproof vault that would control environmental conditions. Working with the Peabody Museum at Harvard, the Society began microfilming the negatives to create a positive film record. The process used was a pioneering one developed under supervision of Alan Newman. The negatives were photographed onto 35mm motion picture stock cut into 100' strips that can be used on standard microfilm viewers.

The activity surrounding the negatives culminated in the publication in 1981 of the book New England Reflections, Photographs by the Howes Brothers, 1882-1907. An exhibit of the photographs toured the country. The book is no longer in print, but can be found from time to time on the used book market.

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Examples

The following are just a few samples of the Howes Brothers work. Click on the thumbnails to see a full-sized version.
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Ashfield Lake
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People with pets.
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All Ready. Still.
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Sawmill, oxen.
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Ashfield Town Hall, Crafts Store.
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Lake scene (not Ashfield Lake).
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Stage time at Ashfield House.
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Ashfield House.
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Wells and Dean Store, Bloomfield CT.
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W. K. Lewis & Brothers Condensed Milk Manufactory.
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Stone house, Wilbraham, 1897.
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Ward's Mill, Buckland, MA.
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House with spire, woman seated.
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House, man in wagon, and woman.
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Octagon house.
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School class, Florence, MA.
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Garrets.

Resources

Four copies of the microfilm positives of the slides were made, and at least three of them are open to the public for viewing on microfilm viewers. Each set of microfilm is accompanied by computer listings that catalog the photographs according to various criteria. The public copies are available at:


At any time

Each print that the Howes Brothers sold was printed on the back with information to allow reprints to be ordered, as shown below.

A. W. & G. E. HOWES,

Photographers,

ASHFIELD, MASS.

Duplicates of this Photograph can be had at any time.
In ordering, describe picture; also give
year and number.

For 1898.            No. ................


This shows how the Howes Brothers kept track of the negatives through the years. Each year they would number the negatives from 1 on up as the year went on. They wrote the number on the negative itself, and filed them in apple crates according to year. To order a reprint, you had to know the year, and the number of the negative within that particular year. Unfortunately, the negatives became mixed up, and the year they were taken is often unknown, but the sequence within the year was still known. As a result, we might have several negatives with the same number. A new numbering scheme was adopted to classify the negatives to allow for the unknown year. For example, if several images had the number 3126, they were assigned numbers 3126a, 3126b, ...

In 1988 the Historical Society received the following hand-written letter:

P. Willard Nielson
1304 Burbank Court
Sun City Center
Florida, 33570

1/30/88
A W and G E Howes
Ashfied, Mass.
Gentlemen:
I have in my possession a photo taken by you in 1902 and marked "For 1902" no. 3067. Your Company states further on the back of the photo "Duplicates of this Photograph can be had at any time." Does this mean in 1988? The photo shows my mother, four of her sons and a daughter. The picture was posed in front of a large colonial house (since destroyed) on Teiry's Plain Road in Simsbury, Connecticut.
If eighty-six years later prints are still available I would like to buy one about twice the size of the one I have which is about 5-1/2" wide x about 3-3/4" high.
I, as the only living member of this family and the "runt of the litter" was born in 1905 (Feb. 15) two months after our father died.
Sincerely,
P. Willard Nielson

This is the sort of letter which warms the heart and soul of the Ashfield Historical Society. It shows the value of the collection of some 23,000 glass-plate photographs taken by Alvah and George Howes.

Because of Mr Nielson's description, Howes Collection curator Dee Brochu was able to find the negative and make a print for him. His letter also added to the computerized base of information which describes the photos.

In gratitude, Mr Neilson sent a $100 donation to the Society. He also informed the Ensign-Bickford Foundation of Simsbury, Connecticut about the Howes collection, and the foundation matched his $100 donation.

(Based on an account from the Autumn 1988 Ashfield Historical Society Newsletter.)

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Digital Vision

Several of us have given some thought to the possibilities of digitizing the Howes Brothers Photographic Collection and making it available online so that it could be used by researches interested in the history of the time depicted. Such a project would be a major undertaking. We would be interested in hearing from anyone who has an interest or skills and experience with developing online archives of digital images.

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Ordering Prints

Prints of Howes Brothers photographs are available to the public. If you are interested, please contact the curator (see the Contacts page).

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Maude Dodge photographs

Maude Dodge took photographs in Ashfield from about 1905 to 1920. Many of her views were made into postcards. The Historical Society already owned 170 of her glass negatives in 1997 when it became known that another group of negatives was on the market. Donations were received to allow purchasing the additional negatives. These negatives provide continuity with the Howes photographs.

Myrtle Percy photographs

Myrtle Percy moved to Ashfield in 1896, and during her life collected photographs of many areas in Ashfield. Some of her photographs were pictures of old pictures that other people had hanging on their walls. This collection extends the photographic record of Ashfield scenes to the middle of the 20th Century.


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The Ashfield Organ


by David King

Ashfield is a rich place for fans of historic pipe organs. The organ at First Congregationalist Church was built in 1903 by George Reed of West Boylston and is still in excellent original working condition. It is also said to be the largest organ in the hilltowns, having eighteen ranks and slightly more 1000 pipes. The 1860 instrument in St. John's Episcopal church, built by William Johnson of Westfield, is considerably smaller (only 366 pipes) but is the second oldest unaltered Johnson known to exist. It has recently been recognized as an instrument of historic value by the Organ Historical Society. But it is Ashfield's third pipe organ that is the most intriguing.

In 1964, a group of workmen making repairs lifted the floorboards in the attic of Town Hall and discovered a disassembled pipe organ tucked between the joists. This isn't as bizarre as it might sound given that the Ashfield Town Hall is housed in the former Congregationalist Church building, built in 1812. Evidently someone in the distant past had broken the organ down into parts small enough to carry up a narrow spiral staircase and tucked it away for future generations, probably when the church building was sold to the town in 1870.

While the organ is far from complete, the remains are considerable: the bellows and reservoir, two wind chests (which contain the system of valves and channels that allows air into a pipe when a key is pressed), half of the keyboard and mechanical action, twenty or so pipes, and five stop knobs, four of which still have their faces. The two wind chests originally held four ranks of pipes each, for a total of about 450 pipes.

The workers also found enough of the casework that six members of the Historical Society -- Ray Reniff, Leland Godfrey, Norm Pike, Howard Barnes, Joseph Dufresne, and Ray Anderson -- were able to reassemble the original case in time for the town's bicentennial in 1965. Since they were assembling it for display in a room considerably shorter than the one it originally occupied, they made new panels for the lower part of the case that let them reduce the overall height by 42 inches. They also made some doubtless inaccurate guesses about the placement of the keyboard, stop knobs and pedals. The overall result was a reconstruction that is probably close to but not identical with the original.

But the case tells us little about the musical instrument that was once inside. For this, the four existing stop names are much more suggestive. They are Stopped Diapason (a flute-like wooden eight-foot stop 1), Open Diapason (a louder, more full-bodied eight-foot metal stop), Principal (a four-foot metal stop) and Fifteenth, (a two-foot metal stop). Together, these four stops would make up a reasonable small organ. But there is that fifth, unidentified stop knob and the existence of the second wind chest, which would give room for four more stops. There are also the additional complications that the case as reconstructed doesn't seem to have room for eight stops and that the two wind chests were apparently made by two different manufacturers.

Who made the organ and when? Unfortunately, there is at present no certain answer. There were no signs of a manufacturer's name or date on the remaining parts, except possibly for the penciled signature, Jas. A. Packard, on one of the wind chests. Since there are no known organbuilders of that name, and since there have been Packards living in Ashfield for generations, this signature may well be of one of the boys who once pumped the bellows. Still, certain details of the construction make it clear that it was made sometime before the Civil War.

Norm Pike, one of the restorers, searched the church records back to 1820, looking for all references to music. The first mention of an organ dates to June 18, 1840, when the board voted that "the building committee remove the Organ, and the Stove, and pipe" so that builders could divide the building into two stories. Since there was no mention of the actual purchase of the organ, Mr. Pike concluded that the purchase of the organ was included in the orginal cost of the building, and that the organ dated back to 1812 or 1813.

But this assumes that the organ found in Town Hall belonged to the 1812 church building, and the fractious history of Ashfield's churches allows for a number of other possibilities. In 1820, a small group split from the Congregationalist Church to form St. John's Episcopal Church, which built its current building in 1828. According to F. G. Howes, a nineteenth-century historian of the town, St. John's Church purchased its first organ in 1834. Also, during the 1840's divisions grew in the congregation of the Congregationalist Church to the point that during one morning service they had two different choirs singing the same hymn to different tunes. (One Isaac Taylor commented at the time, "This day is the Scripture fulfilled in our ears, the songs of the sanctuary are turned into howling.") The churches eventually split in 1855, with the second church erecting a new building across the street from the original building. The two churches reunited in the new building in 1868, which is how the old building wound up as Town Hall. So if the organ were associated with one of the town's churches, it could date from 1812 to 1855 or anywhere in between.

We may now have a clue to the mystery. When the Johnson organ at St. John's Episcopal Church received recognition by the Organ Historical Society, I had an opportunity to talk with Ms. Barbara Owen, the foremost expert on New England organbuilding. I subsequently sent her a photo of the case as it was assembled in the 1960's, and she was kind enough to send me her thoughts.

Ms. Owen thinks it highly unlikely that the instrument dates from as early as 1812, since most rural churches didn't start installing organs until two or three decades after that. Before then, church music in rural churches consisted of singing schools and church bands, mostly made up of string instruments. And, indeed, the Congregationalist Church supported a singing school in 1799 and again in 1827. Instead, Ms. Owen places the organ between 1825 and 1840 on the basis of its style -- it was probably built by a "country" builder imitating the style then popular in Boston.

She also explains why there was no mention of the purchase of the organ in the church records. At this time, organs were often bought not by the church but by committees of members trying to improve the church music and then sold back to the church over time. Given this information, one of the entries Mr. Pike discovered in the church records makes new sense. On March 27, 1838, the church sold its bass viol. This may have been because the new organ arrived and the church band was no longer needed.

As to who built it, Ms. Owen suggests Henry Pratt of Winchester, New Hampshire. Pratt is believed to have built about 70 organs from 1799 to 1841, mostly chamber organs -- small instruments intended for use in homes. However, according to an article in New England Magazine, he built twenty organs for churches between 1799 and 1834, mostly in western and central Massachusetts and western New Hampshire. The records are sparse for the years 1834-1841, but Ms. Owen suspects he continued to build church organs in this period.

Can we be sure? There are possible lines of research. For instance, a careful examination of the remaining parts might reveal a signature inside one of the wind chests -- far more likely to be a builder's signature than one on the outside of the chest. Also, there is a Pratt organ in storage in nearby Deerfield, and a comparison of construction details of the two instruments might lead to a confident identification.

And the mystery of the two wind chests and extra stop knob? Ms. Owen suspects that we have the remains of two different organs, though all five stop knobs probably belonged to the same instrument. The fifth stop knob would have been labeled Stopped Diapason Bass. It was a common practice at the time to divide the Stopped Diapason rank into two sections -- a bass section consisting of the bottom 12 to 17 pipes, and a treble section consisting of the rest. This allowed the organbuilder to construct the Open Diapason rank without the lowest pipes (i.e. the largest and most expensive ones). When the organist pulled the Open Diapason and Stopped Diapason Bass knobs together, he or she had a complete rank of pipes, with the lowest ones being made of wood rather than metal. Was this the case in the Ashfield Organ? Again, further research may reveal the answer. Or it may not.

And the future of the Ashfield Organ? The first step is clearly a more detailed examination of the existing parts and an attempt to identify the builder. After that, it would be possible to construct a playing instrument from what we have. One can make an educated guess as to what the entire organ sounded like from the remaining pipes, especially if we have other organs by the same builder for comparison.

Should it be done? Organs of this era are relatively rare and often found in museums -- in addition to the Pratt in Deerfield, there are others in Storrowtown Village and Old Sturbridge Village. The restoration of the action would require some woodworking skills but nothing beyond the reach of a gifted amateur. The real difficulty would be in replacing the pipework, which would require the work of skilled professionals. But given the historical value of the instrument, both to the town and to the organ community at large, the work would be well worth doing.



1. The pitch of a rank of organ pipes is identified by the length of the lowest C pipe. An eight-foot stop sounds at the same pitch as a piano. A four-foot stop sounds an octave above that, and a two-foot stop an octave above that. Back
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