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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Mathew Brady's Photos

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, October 26, 2014

Matthew Brady was a renowned 19th century photographer in America, best-known for his photos of the Civil War period.


It is said that the photos taken by him and his assistants brought “the reality of war” to the people of the United States.


Brady began working with daguerreotypes in the 1840s, moving to the format of glass negatives in time for the Civil War as photographic equipment provided a new media for the documentation of war.


In addition, Brady is well-known as the photographer of every U.S. President from John Quincy Adams to William McKinley.


Following the Civil War, Brady was in financial distress for the rest of his life.  Photography with glass negatives was expensive, and efforts to sell postcards using his photos were only partly successful.


His loss of eyesight and the death of his wife made him a lonely man.  Brady died penniless in a New York hospital in 1896.


His studio in New York City was taken over by his daughter who tried to sell Brady’s works, but she too found only a limited market for his photographic work.


His glass negatives were removed from his studio and stored in a New Jersey warehouse.  The only interest in his glass negatives was gardeners who purchased them to replace broken glass in area greenhouses.  Other negatives were broken and destroyed by accident or to clear warehouse space.


Frederick Hill Meserve appeared on the scene.  His father had fought in the Civil War in the Union Army, and in an effort to document his father’s recollections, New York City businessman Meserve purchased wartime photos from bookstores and auctions.


Aware of Brady’s works, in 1902 Meserve found 15,000 of Brady’s glass slides in a warehouse, about to be destroyed.  He purchased them, and began one of the most extensive collections of Civil War photos which included several photos of Abraham Lincoln.


Frederick Hill Meserve shared his photo collection with historians and many appeared in books of the period regarding the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln.  He published a 28 vol. set based on the Brady photos in 1911, a set that is now the prized part of many archives and academic libraries.


His daughter, Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt, took over the family legacy upon his death in 1962 and established the Meserve-Kunhardt Collection.


She continued the family practice of acquiring Lincoln collections and in 1958 purchased the family relics of Mary Lincoln’s great-niece which included family scrapbooks.


Her son was Philip Kunhardt, Jr., managing editor of “Life Magazine” who continued the tradition of allowing scholars to access the collection, and his descendants continue the access as well as publishing their own books using the materials collected.


Some of the books produced from the Meserve- Kunhardt Collection are “The Time-Life book of Mathew Brady and His World” as well as “Twenty Days” about Lincoln’s assassination.


A newer book, “Looking for Lincoln” was written by a newer generation of the Kunhardt Family and examines Lincoln through 1926 when Robert Todd Lincoln died.


And speaking of Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s only child to live to adulthood; he gathered 8 trunks of papers of his father’s papers and guarded them his entire life.  Many times he threatened to burn them, like he did with his mother’s papers.


Finally, in 1923, Robert Todd Lincoln signed ownership of the papers to the Library of Congress with the provision they not be made public until 21 years after his death, which took place in 1926.


It is fascinating to me how documents and information is preserved or lost to future generations based on happenstance and events of the past.  Some sources say that half of Brady’s photos were destroyed before the remainder could be saved.


What letters of Lincoln were lost when his son burned the letters of Mary Todd Lincoln?


Looking to the future, will today’s famous people of tomorrow even have documents that should be saved, and if they do, will someone destroy a hard drive someplace and eliminate everything that was known about someone?