-by Greg Hoots-
Times have changed. Numerous times, in my role as a photo historian, I’ve heard people say, “we don’t have any old photos, my folks never owned a camera.” Other times, I’ve heard, “we couldn’t afford to buy film,” as was often the case with my family.
Now, everyone in America carries a cellphone with them that takes both still photos and video! Twenty years ago, camera phones were technically inferior to a good camera, and some considered cellphone cameras to be a fad. Now, there are over 300-million cellphones in America, and all of them are equipped with high-tech cameras. Living proof of the widespread use of cellphone cameras can be found by watching the news on any given day, where one can see crimes, apprehensions, natural disasters, and cute cat videos at will.
Such was not always the case. With the evolution of photography in the early 1800s, the processes were improved, resulting in the remarkable improvement in print quality of photos produced. Still, in the post-Civil War era, photography was still a mysterious craft, practiced mostly by young men with fabulous cameras mounted on tripods, covered with a black shroud.
By the 1880s, improvements in photo processing led to changes in the industry. The development of the albumen silver print, in which light-sensitive chemicals were bonded to paper with albumen, extracted from egg whites, to create a thin, paper format on which photographs could be transferred from negatives.
The thin photographic paper was prone to wrinkling and tears, and the photographic industry responded by creating a cardboard mounting board on which the print would be glued. Most commonly, just below the photographic image, the photographer’s name and city of origin appeared as a signature to their work.
The most common type of photo produced by early professional studios was the portrait. The most common type of presentation was made in the form of a cabinet card, and its predecessor, the carte de visite. Both formats provided a stiff cardboard base for the mounting of the photo, but while the carte de visite cards measured 2.5 x 4-inches, the larger cabinet card mounting was typically 4.25 x 6.5-inches in size.
Today, cabinet cards and carte de visite photographs have become very collectible. As is with many endeavors of collecting, there are collectors who are specialists, collecting a particular subject matter or views by a specific photographer. Perhaps the rarest form of the cabinet card is what is known as a banner photo. In a banner photo, a person or persons are seen holding a banner or sign that advertises a particular product. Like all advertising memorabilia, some collectors seek banner photos of a particular subject matter, and others seek banner photos that have regional or local significance. The rarest of the banner cards are those that are of a particular subject matter, have an identifiable locale, and one in which the subject or subjects are identifiable, a trifecta, one might say.
Such is the case with today’s Photo Friday view. Seen below, today’s photo is a cabinet card view by Alma, Kansas photographer, Gus Meier, produced in 1904 for Mid-Kansas Milling, a local flour mill located at Alma. When this photo was taken, the mill was owned by Alma banker and photographer, Louis Palenske.
The two girls in the photo, Tena Zwanziger, left, and Coral Jacobs are seen in dresses made from Mid-Kansas milling flour sacks. Such outfits made from flour sacks were a popular advertising motif for banner cards created in the 1890s and early 1900s. In this view, Louis Palenske’s nephew, Charlie Palenske, is seen seated between the two girls. Banner cards featuring individuals wearing flour-sack clothing are extremely rare and highly sought-after. A very similar photo, taken at the same time, appeared in The Alma Signal of June 17, 1904, however in this view the two girls are wearing hats, and Charlie Palenske does not appear in this view.
Today’s photo comes to us from Morgan Williams, who has an extensive collection of photographs, postcards and related items, including flour milling, from rural Kansas and other mid-western states. Williams, co-authored a book, Larger than Life: The American Tall-Tale Postcard, 1905-1915, with Cynthia Elyce Rubin, (Abbeville Press, 1990), which features folk art photography in the form of exaggeration postcards, popular in the early 20th century. The postcards mainly show scenes related to farming, fishing, and hunting created by small-town photographers. Williams grew up in Ottawa, Kansas and can be contacted at email@example.com