“Developing” the Story of an Object

The Montgomery Competition is a time-honored tradition that provides Second-Year Fellows with an opportunity to practice our close-looking and curatorial skills. I found my competition object sitting innocuously on a high shelf in a local antique store. I pulled this lantern down and read “Rochester Optical Company” on the front. With a quick inspection and a basic Google search, I determined that I was holding a dark room lantern made in the late 19th century. I would soon learn much more about this object as I prepared to present it to the Winterthur community.

Image: “Rochester Optical Company” and “Carlton No. 1” are clearly legible on the front flap of the lantern. The Carlton Lantern is primarily made of sheet iron with industrially applied black carbon based paint, which is largely intact. The wick of this lantern is intact along with two glass plates, one red and one amber. These plates are visible when the front flap is lifted, and they can be removed.

William Reid, Franklin Cossett, and William Carlton founded the Rochester Optical Company in 1882. According to their 1898 catalog, the company “engaged exclusively in the manufacture of photographic apparatus, and during this entire period it has been the policy of the house to carefully study the needs and cater to the requirements of amateur photographers.” One of these needs was the equipment for developing photographs in a dark room. The Carlton Darkroom lantern—named after founder William Carlton—was one of several models retailed by the company, and was a mid-cost option. The Carlton first appeared in the 1892 catalog and by 1894 there were two sizes marketed. This example is the smaller of the two sizes, and was manufactured from 1894 until at least 1899.

Image: A page advertising the Carlton Lantern, marketed in the Rochester Optical Company’s trade catalogs. According to the 1898 catalog: “The Carlton Lantern is made upon an improved plan, giving an abundant draft and complete ventilation, hence no smoke, no fume, but a steady safe light and plenty of it.” Image by author from the Rochester Optical Company, Illustrated Catalog of Photographic Apparatus Manufactured by Rochester Optical Co. 1898, accessed from the George Eastman Museum, Technology Archives.

The Carlton Lantern was made for serious amateur photographers. Amateur photography was as a serious hobby in the late 19th and early 20th century, with home dark rooms and photography clubs common. In the May 1888 edition of Harper’s Weekly, Rochester Optical Company advertised the sale of “complete outfits” of photographic apparatus to amateurs. They marketed amateur photography as quote “the most fascinating amusement for home or outdoor recreation.”

Image: An engraving of a woman taking a photograph of a picturesque outdoor scene is featured in this advertisement by the Rochester Optical Company. This advertisement was published in the May 1888 edition of Harper’s Magazine, which shows the wide reach of the Rochester Optical Company and the broad popularity of amateur photography.

This object also represents the industrial heritage and photographic material manufacturing history of Rochester, NY. Rochester Optical Company operated successfully through the 1890s, and in 1899, it merged with five other companies, including three of its competitors in Rochester. This incorporated company was named the Rochester Optical and Camera Company. Unfortunately, this merger was not successful and the company lost one hundred thousand dollars annually for the second and third years of its existence! The now more recognizable Eastman Kodak Company purchased the failing company in 1903 and made it profitable once more. Rochester Optical Company merged into the Eastman Kodak Company, becoming the Rochester Optical Division.

This dark room lantern fascinated me when I first saw it and it continues to do so today, in part because of the rapid change in photographic technology in the past 150 years. Photography is still a popular hobby today, and almost everybody can take pictures easily with their phone and digitally share them. We don’t even need to develop our pictures to look at them, though one only needs to go to the nearest convenience store to do so! This darkroom lantern tells me that while the technology from a century past has changed, the basic human interest in taking photographs has not.

For more information on Rochester’s photographic history visit or read:

  • The George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY. https://eastman.org
  • Jenkins, Reese V. Images and Enterprise: Technology and the American Photographic Industry, 1838 to 1825. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.
  • Kingslake, Rudolf, The Photgraphic Companies of Rochester, New York. Rochester: George Eastman House, 1997.

 

By Sara McNamara, WPAMC Class of 2018.

 



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