The now and then postings of the discoveries and contributions of the Miller and Bechtold families .

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Howes Brothers photographers of Ashfield, MA

Our 4th Cousins thrice removed, Howes brothers Alvah, George and Walter, were famous and prolific photographers.

Howes Brothers photographs

The Howes Brothers photographic collection consists of over 23,000 glass negatives. The photographs were taken between 1882 and 1907. These photographs are a valuable resource for historians interested in this period.
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Walter Howes Alvah Howes George Howes
The writing below Walter says "All Ready Still" with the "s" reversed.
The three Howes brothers were natives of Ashfield. Alvah Howes was the first to take up photography. Alvah was born in 1853 and grew up on the family farm. In 1880, when he was twenty-six, he was still working as a farm laborer. It is not known exactly how Alvah learned about photography or exactly when he started, but 1882 is sometimes cited as the first year, and by 1886 Alvah and his brother Walter toured as itinerant photographers. In 1888 Alvah opened a studio in Turners Falls. Alvah employed various assistants, and his youngest brother George was sometimes one of them.

Work of the Howes Brothers

In the first years, the business must have been a shoestring operation, and in 1886 when the brothers first started touring, one of the places they stayed was in Florence with relatives. In 1887, again, one of the places they stayed was with relatives, this time in South Coventry, Connecticut. From notes in Walter Howes notebook, we know that they typically visited about three areas in the course of a season.

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Map showing locations that have been identified
as sites of Howes Brothers photographs.
We know from correspondence from the time that the touring part of the company usually was a crew of three men. Alvah usually stayed in Turners Falls and managed the studio where the processing was done. The men on tour were typically Walter and Harry Sturtevant (an Ashfield neighbor) who did the photography, and a third person (sometimes George Howes), who drove the wagon and did errands. When they arrived in a town, they would first find room and board, then set about soliciting customers. They would go up and down streets and visit homes, schools, and factories to invite people to sign up to have their photographs taken. They actually took the photographs on a second visit. They would eventually return to sell the prints at a price of three for a dollar.

Historical context and technology

The era captured for the most part was the era before the automobile. The roads were still unpaved, and horses were the principal means of transportation. Machinery was water powered or steam powered. Telephones and electricity were arriving in some areas, and electric trolleys were connecting between the rail lines and the more remote towns, and between the cities and suburbs. In New England at that time, the larger cities in the valleys were growing rapidly, but rural towns in the hills were in a period of decline. Nevertheless, the hill towns still had a great diversity of small manufacturing enterprises that would mostly vanish in the decades to come.
The photography of the Howes Brothers was made possible by the development of dry plate photography. A few years before, the wet plate photography basically required that the film be very close to the darkroom. The photography of that earlier era was difficult to take to the field, except by heroic effort. A few photographers did lug the lab to the field, but the effort required kept their work rare and expensive. The dry plate innovation allowed photography to move more easily out of the studio and among the people.

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Actual camera used by the Howes Brothers
One constraint of the portrait business of the era of the Howes Brothers was that they needed to take pictures that they would be able to sell. Although this might be expected to exclude some subjects, the scenes represented show a very wide cross section of society. By photographing factories, school classes, and work groups, the Howes Brothers had a reasonable prospect of selling prints even if some of the subjects or workers might have thought the prints expensive. We see in some of the photographs people proudly posing with favorite possessions in front of shockingly inadequate shelters.
Another photographic innovation, roll film, probably had a hand in ending the photographic career of the Howes Brothers. The roll film and smaller cameras that were easy to use made photography even more democratic and reduced the need for professional photographers. Unfortunately, the roll film captured less detail and often did not survive as well over time.

Acquiring the collection

Ashfield Historical Society acquired the main bulk of the glass negatives (over two tons) in 1963. It is almost a miracle that the collection survived that long. For many years the negatives had been stored in the former Zacharia Field Tavern in the attic. Local residents recall playing with the glass negatives in the nearby fields. One local resident remembers manhandling apple boxes of the slides when removing them when the building caught fire. Two families acquired the negatives and donated them to the Ashfield Historical Society.

By 1975 the Society had come to realize that the Howes negatives were probably the most important part of the collection. In 1978 the Society applied for grants to begin work on preserving and storing the negatives. There was some discussion of building a fireproof vault to store the collection, but instead the former meat locker in the museum building was renovated to store them.

In 1979 work on the photographic collection went into high gear. Alan Newman was appointed project director. The negatives were painstakingly cleaned and placed in acid-free envelopes. Construction began on a fireproof vault that would control environmental conditions. Working with the Peabody Museum at Harvard, the Society began microfilming the negatives to create a positive film record. The process used was a pioneering one developed under supervision of Alan Newman. The negatives were photographed onto 35mm motion picture stock cut into 100' strips that can be used on standard microfilm viewers.
The activity surrounding the negatives culminated in the publication in 1981 of the book New England Reflections, Photographs by the Howes Brothers, 1882-1907. An exhibit of the photographs toured the country. The book is no longer in print, but can be found from time to time on the used book market.


The following are just a few samples of the Howes Brothers work. Click on the thumbnails to see a full-sized version.
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Ashfield Lake
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People with pets.
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All Ready. Still.
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Sawmill, oxen.
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Ashfield Town Hall, Crafts Store.
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Lake scene (not Ashfield Lake).
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Stage time at Ashfield House.
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Ashfield House.
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Wells and Dean Store, Bloomfield CT.
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W. K. Lewis & Brothers Condensed Milk Manufactory.
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Stone house, Wilbraham, 1897.
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Ward's Mill, Buckland, MA.
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House with spire, woman seated.
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House, man in wagon, and woman.
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Octagon house.
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School class, Florence, MA.
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Four copies of the microfilm positives of the slides were made, and at least three of them are open to the public for viewing on microfilm viewers. Each set of microfilm is accompanied by computer listings that catalog the photographs according to various criteria. The public copies are available at:
  • Ashfield Historical Society
  • Library, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
  • Library, Greenfield Community College
  • Boston Public Library

At any time

Each print that the Howes Brothers sold was printed on the back with information to allow reprints to be ordered, as shown below.
A. W. & G. E. HOWES,

Duplicates of this Photograph can be had at any time.
In ordering, describe picture; also give
year and number.

For 1898.            No. ................

This shows how the Howes Brothers kept track of the negatives through the years. Each year they would number the negatives from 1 on up as the year went on. They wrote the number on the negative itself, and filed them in apple crates according to year. To order a reprint, you had to know the year, and the number of the negative within that particular year. Unfortunately, the negatives became mixed up, and the year they were taken is often unknown, but the sequence within the year was still known. As a result, we might have several negatives with the same number. A new numbering scheme was adopted to classify the negatives to allow for the unknown year. For example, if several images had the number 3126, they were assigned numbers 3126a, 3126b, ...

In 1988 the Historical Society received the following hand-written letter:
P. Willard Nielson
1304 Burbank Court
Sun City Center
Florida, 33570

A W and G E Howes
Ashfied, Mass.
I have in my possession a photo taken by you in 1902 and marked "For 1902" no. 3067. Your Company states further on the back of the photo "Duplicates of this Photograph can be had at any time." Does this mean in 1988? The photo shows my mother, four of her sons and a daughter. The picture was posed in front of a large colonial house (since destroyed) on Teiry's Plain Road in Simsbury, Connecticut.
If eighty-six years later prints are still available I would like to buy one about twice the size of the one I have which is about 5-1/2" wide x about 3-3/4" high.
I, as the only living member of this family and the "runt of the litter" was born in 1905 (Feb. 15) two months after our father died.
P. Willard Nielson
This is the sort of letter which warms the heart and soul of the Ashfield Historical Society. It shows the value of the collection of some 23,000 glass-plate photographs taken by Alvah and George Howes.
Because of Mr Nielson's description, Howes Collection curator Dee Brochu was able to find the negative and make a print for him. His letter also added to the computerized base of information which describes the photos.

In gratitude, Mr Neilson sent a $100 donation to the Society. He also informed the Ensign-Bickford Foundation of Simsbury, Connecticut about the Howes collection, and the foundation matched his $100 donation.

(Based on an account from the Autumn 1988 Ashfield Historical Society Newsletter.)

Digital Vision

Several of us have given some thought to the possibilities of digitizing the Howes Brothers Photographic Collection and making it available online so that it could be used by researches interested in the history of the time depicted. Such a project would be a major undertaking. We would be interested in hearing from anyone who has an interest or skills and experience with developing online archives of digital images.

Common Ancestors
Joseph Howes Elizabeth Paddock
Joseph Howes Elizabeth Paddock
Born in Yarmouth,
Died in Yarmouth

Brother - Brother
Barnabas Howes Lois Mayo
Joseph Howes Ann Vincent
Born in Yarmouth,
Died in Yarmouth

1st Cousin
Kimbal Howes Elizabeth Howes
Zachariah Howes Lavinia Sears
Born in Yarmouth, died in Ashfield

2nd Cousin
Barnabas Howes Abigail Bassett
Nathan Howes Nabby Phillips

3rd Cousin
George Howes Ruth Smith
Nathan Howes Ereda Baker
Nathan is Buried in Iowa

4th Cousin
Alvah Howes
Walter Howes
George Howes
Jennie Howes Emil Bechtold

The 3 Howes brothers remained in Ashfield
4th Cousin
Once removed

Frederick Bechtold Marie Dresser

4th Cousin
Twice removed

4 Bechtold Children

4th Cousin
Thrice removed

Bechtold-Miller Bechtold-Connolly


  1. Too bad you do not comment on where you got all the posting. Not your own, for sure.