Curator’s Favorite: All in a Day’s Labor

This new acquisition, purchased in honor of my twenty years of service at the Library Company, is a new favorite of mine in our stereograph collection. Taken by Philadelphia photographer Robert Newell around 1863, this stereograph is not typical of Newell’s commercial work which focused on street scenes, specific buildings, and landscapes. People, when they appear at all in Newell’s photographs, are usually small, relatively indistinct figures. Here, however, Newell has focused on bricklayers as they labored on a building on the south side of the 700 block of Arch Street. Given that Newell’s photography studio was located at 724 Arch Street, it is not hard to imagine that Newell stepped out of his studio window onto the scaffolding to photograph this scene, a much easier task than dragging his camera equipment up the steep ladder visible in the stereograph.

Robert Newell, American Mechanic, Arch Street below 8th, Philada., albumen print stereograph, ca. 1864.

Robert Newell, American Mechanic, Arch Street below 8th, Philada., albumen print stereograph, ca. 1864.

Perched on frighteningly precarious looking wooden scaffolding, these three masons pause momentarily in their labors to look directly into Newell’s camera lens. They all wear vests and hats, and the man in the foreground wears work pants pulled up over the bottom of his vest presumably to protect his street trousers worn underneath. This man also sports a necktie and a watch chain adding to the impression of someone more dressed up than we might expect for a bricklayer.

Although the men have paused in their work, the scene definitely shows an active job site.  The worker in the foreground holds a trowel and brick in his hand while near his feet rests a mortar board used to mix the sand, cement, water, and lime that constitutes mortar. The men have used the wooden scaffolding post near the mortar board to wipe off excess mortar before applying it to the bricks as evident by a large swatch of mortar  visible at chest height.

In an era when most portrait photography took place in a photographer’s studio with sitters dressed in good clothing and posing for the camera, an image like this stereograph is a refreshing view of our mid-19th-century ancestors caught in a more candid moment.

Sarah J. Weatherwax
Curator of Prints and Photographs