Side-by-side perspective – Photo gallery included
Special to The Union
From the earliest days of California statehood, Nevada County has been a magnet for artists and writers. The economic prominence of the area coupled with the regional beauty made it particularly attractive for the photographer.
In this column, the county images of Desire Fricot, Alma Lavenson, and Jervie Henry Eastman have been chronicled. But … the earliest and most influential of all may have been the stereographs of the San Francisco firm of Lawrence and Houseworth.
Stereographs are two photographs mounted side-by-side that appear three-dimensional when placed in a viewer called a stereopticon (or stereoscope.) By the mid-19th century, collecting and viewing stereographs was a popular middle and upper class activity.
By the 1870s, millions of stereographs were available for purchase. In a world without mass entertainment, such as radio, television, or the movies, stereographs were the most common way to see the world without leaving home. And Lawrence and Houseworth tapped into that market.
George S. Lawrence and Thomas Houseworth were among the thousands who flocked west for the Gold Rush. Arriving in San Francisco in April 1849, they soon headed for the Gold Country. For the next two years they worked as miners in Calaveras and Trinity Counties. As were most other miners, they were not successful and they returned to San Francisco.
Lawrence became a jewelry and optical merchant and, in 1855, Houseworth became Lawrence’s business partner. They sold a wide variety of items, including imported optical, mathematical and philosophical instruments, cutlery, billiard balls, and even chalk. But it is their stereographs by which we remember the duo.
In 1859, Lawrence and Houseworth began selling stereographs from an English company. But the demand was so great that they soon contracted with local photographers to acquire and publish a diverse collection of images documenting California’s major settlements, boom towns, mining operations, shipping and transportation routes, and points of scenic interest throughout Northern California and Western Nevada.
The firm began to take, publish and market stereographic photographs under their own name. To entice customers they displayed the images in their shop windows. Crowds gathered frequently to see the newest images.
While Lawrence and Houseworth were not the first to promote California through photographs, they may have been the most popular in their day. By the early 1860s, the business boasted the largest collection of stereographs on the Pacific Coast.
Their popularity is evident from this review of a display the firm presented at the San Francisco Mechanics Industrial Fair of 1865: “Their stereoscopic views have occupied a prominent position in the Art Gallery, and have never, from the time they were first introduced, remained five minutes of time without being occupied by visitors.”
George Lawrence retired in 1868 and the firm was renamed Thomas Houseworth and Co. Houseworth aggressively pursued talent to fill his need for imagery. He hired some of the most prominent photographers of the era.
These included Thomas Hart, who was the primary photographer of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad then being built; Carleton Watkins, whose images of the Sierra later influenced Ansel Adams; and Eadweard Muybridge, who was contracted to make an extensive collection of Yosemite images.
A few years later, Muybridge would independently take a series of photographs of a galloping horse ” which are considered most influential in the development of motion picture technology.
Competition ultimately ended Lawrence and Houseworth’s reign as Kings of the Stereographs. The increasing popularity of the form led to an invasion of competing firms and Houseworth simply could not keep up the pace. He cut back on the number of photographs he sold.
He began to focus almost exclusively on portrait photography and the sale of the images through a catalog. By the 1870s, his business was failing. Through the 1880s, he struggled to survive as a photographer until he finally abandoned the attempt. Thomas Houseworth spent the rest of his long life (he died at age 86) as an accountant and optometrist.
However, the legacy of the Lawrence and Houseworth stereographs are still with us. They remain one the 19th century’s greatest repositories of historic imagery. The firm would produce thousands of photographs ” a few from Nevada County are reproduced here. The dates of these images are listed as “circa 1870.”
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