The Nathaniel L. Stebbins collection, one of Historic New England’s most significant photographic collections, is now accessible online. Stebbins, a widely celebrated marine photographer, captured the essential New England pastimes of yachting and racing, as well as an extraordinary variety of marine vessels from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Historic New England is a museum of cultural history that collects and preserves buildings, landscapes, and objects dating from the seventeenth century to the present. In its first one hundred years, Historic New England's Library and Archives has amassed more than 500,000 photographs that depict innumerable facets of life in the region from the nineteenth century to the present. The digitization of the Stebbins collections is an important step in Historic New England’s ongoing Collections Access Project.
The Northeast Document Conservation Center digitized a significant portion of the Stebbins collection for Historic New England, imaging over 5,000 8”X 10” original albumen prints.
The Center’s Imaging Studio is well-equipped for digitizing large and varied collections and NEDCC’s technical photographers are experienced in the care and handling of historic collections and fragile materials.
NEDCC is a highly-regarded center of expertise for photograph conservation and conservators are always available for guidance and consultation on especially fragile materials. Conservation treatment can also be performed while the materials are in-house for digitization.
The stunning maritime photographs in this collection were taken by Nathaniel L. Stebbins from the 1880’s to1922. Stebbins was a commercial photographer from Boston who specialized in marine photographs. He took up photography in his mid-thirties and entered into the profession just after the introduction of the dry plate method, which made outdoor photography practical for the first time. By all accounts, he was known as a shrewd businessman. His choice to specialize in yachting photography made good business sense given that the yachting enthusiasts of the time were the some of the most successful and prominent citizens in Boston. He also sold prints of popular subjects, such as naval vessels and America’s Cup contenders, and the prints were mounted on cards for distribution to the public. Stebbins was successful at publishing his photographs in book form as well, and his early books on yachting were especially valued among the yacht club members of the New England coast.
There is no indication that Stebbins realized the historic importance of his photographs at the time. But his photographs from the 1880’s to the1920’s document a time of sweeping technological and social change. These decades witnessed the displacement of commercial sail and the entrance of the revolutionary improvements of steam navigation. Many of the original glass plate negatives from Stebbins collection were lost or sold for scrap glass, as it was a common practice at the time to reuse glass plate negatives for greenhouse glass and other building projects. But the photographic prints of many of the lost plates still exist in family or business collections and have surfaced from time to time.
Historic New England’s digitization initiative has created access to this stunning collection of maritime photographs. As part of its centennial celebration in 2010, Historic New England inaugurated its first online system that merges information about its immense collections of museum artifacts, archival documents, and library resources in a single portal. This unified database contains thousands of records and images. A significant percentage of Historic New England’s total holdings have been catalogued. The project is ongoing, and the number of records and images continues to increase.
For more information and to explore the Nathaniel L. Stebbins photographic collection online: www.historicnewengland.org/stebbins
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[Story acknowledgements: “Steamers, Schooners, Cutters & Sloops” Marine Photographs of N.L. Stebbins Taken 1884 to 1907, selected and annotated by W.H. Bunting, Published for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities by Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston 1974.]