Edward S. Curtis collection of interpositive glass plates and papers
Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
Edward S. Curtis was born in Wisconsin, on February 19, 1868, and decided, early in his life, to work in photography. By the age of 17, he was working as an apprentice in a studio in St. Paul, Minnesota; and after his family relocated to Seattle, Washington, he founded the Curtis Studio in 1891. Curtis served as the official photographer for the Harriman Alaska Expedition, a two month expedition in 1899 to explore the waters and coastal territory of Alaska. In 1900, he visited the Piegan Blackfeet in Montana with George Bird Grinnell, an anthropologist studying Native American cultures whom he had met in 1898, and his interest in photographing Native Americans was strengthened.
By 1906, he was working towards creating a comprehensive set of volumes he hoped to call The North American Indian. He approached J.P. Morgan for funding and Morgan eventually "agreed to sponsor Curtis, paying out $75,000 over five years in exchange for 25 sets of volumes and 500 original prints." (King) With this funding, Curtis was able to purchase equipment, make travel arrangements, and hire interpreters and researchers. Gilbert King states that Curtis took photographs "with his hulking 14-in-by-17-inch view camera, which produced glass-plate negatives that yielded the crisp, detailed and gorgeous gold-tone prints he was noted for."
For thirty years, Curtis traveled through the American West documenting more than eighty tribes of Native Americans west of the Mississippi from the Mexican border to northern Alaska, taking more than 40,000 photographs. Jake Homiak, director of Smithsonian Anthropology Collections and Archives Program, describes Curtis's style as ethnographic romanticism, which is evident in his focus on "ideals and imagery designed to create a timeless vision of Native American culture," (King). As time progressed, he was increasingly dismayed by the ways in which native culture was being lost as "modern amenities and American expansion had already irrevocably altered the Indian way of life," (King). In order to achieve his goals, Curtis photographed Native Americans in traditional clothing, staged re-enactments, and manually retouched images to remove "any modern artifacts," (King).
Over the years, interest in Native American culture waned and crises like World War I and the 1929 crash of the stock market took popular focus from Curtis's work. In addition, J.P. Morgan's death resulted in a dramatic reduction of funding. According to the Edward Curtis Gallery, "upon its completion in 1930, [Curtis's] work, entitled The North American Indian, consisted of 20 volumes, each containing 75 hand-pressed photogravures and 300 pages of text. Each volume was accompanied by a corresponding portfolio containing at least 36 photogravures." His work and travel caused problems in his marriage; and in 1916, his wife, Clara, sued for divorce, and "in a bitter settlement was awarded the Curtis family home and the studio. Rather than allow his ex-wife to profit from his Native American work, Edward and his daughter Beth made copies of certain glass plate negatives, then destroyed the originals." (King). According to George Horse Capture, "less than 300 sets of The North American Indian were sold." Faced with financial and family struggles, Curtis "suffered a complete mental and physical breakdown, requiring hospitalization in Colorado" (King). Following his recovery, he lived with his daughter and her family; and he attempted to write his memoirs which were never published. He died on October 21, 1952, at the age of 84. Today, responses to Curtis's photographs are varied—some see his work as being "responsible for many of the antiquated images of Native Americans that prevail today," (Eason) while others feel that his work provided documentation of "native beauty, strength, honor, dignity and other admirable characteristics [that are] an integral part of the people." (Horse Capture). Folder titles are largely taken from Curtis's own titles of images and the language should be considered in the context of the time in which the images were created by Curtis.
Eason, Arianne E., Laura M. Brady, and Stephanie A. Fryberg. "Reclaiming Representations & Interrupting the Cycle of Bias Against Native Americans," Daedalus, Spring 2018, Vol. 147, No. 2, pages 70-81
Edward S. Curtis Gallery, Edward S. Curtis, accessed 2022 February 24
Horse Capture, George. Shadow Catcher, PBS. American Masters, April 23, 2001, accessed 2022 February 24
King, Gilbert. Edward Curtis' Epic Project to Photograph Native Americans, Smithsonian Magazine, 2012 March 21, accessed 2022 February 10
This collection consists of two gifts of material relating to Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian. The bulk of the material consists of 168 interpositive glass plates, nearly all of which include artistic modifications by Curtis and his associates. Access to the interpositive glass plates is currently restricted while the material is being housed. Researchers interested in seeing digitized versions of the photogravure prints should consult Northwestern University and the Library of Congress. This collection is arranged in two series: I. Stephan Loewentheil collection of Edward S. Curtis material; and William H. Miller III collection of Edward S. Curtis interpositive glass plates.
Series I. Stephan Loewentheil collection of Edward S. Curtis material includes A. Documents relating to the publication of The North American Indian and B. The North American Indian original interpositive glass plates with artistic modifications.
A. Documents relating to the publication of The North American Indian contains a small number of brochures and pamphlets regarding the Curtis Studio and Curtis's photographs of Native Americans, as well as several documents relating to the funding and publishing of The North American Indian. These documents include a prospectus for the volume (signed by Theodore Roosevelt), a letter describing the publication plan, a printed invitation to help fund the publication, a partial list of subscribers funding the publication, and press notices. In addition, there are twenty-three proof sheets of photogravures from The North American Indian, largely from the portfolios, bearing editorial markings and corrections made during the course of printing. These editorial markings and corrections include penciled notes on the image, circles around imperfections in the prints, and a variety of numbers, some indicating volume numbers. Proof sheets are arranged numerically by Plate number.
B. The North American Indian original interpositive glass plates with artistic modifications consists of seventeen 14 x 17 inch glass plates, which reveal techniques not apparent when viewing the photogravure or negative. Multiple unique alterations can be seen on these plates, likely employed by Curtis to improve the compositions and emphasize ethnographic information. The types of artistic modification seen in these plates include etching, drawing, masking out, and areas where the photosensitive emulsion has been removed. These plates are arranged numerically by Plate number.
Series II. William H. Miller III collection of Edward S. Curtis interpositive glass plates consists of 151 14 x 17 inch unique, original interpositive glass plates which, like the Loewentheil plates, are frequently artistically modified by Curtis or his team of artisans. Many of these items have modifications such as etching, drawing, masking, or removal of emulsions, however the extent of the modifications for this group of material will not be known until housing is complete. Items from this group of material are arranged by the portfolio in which they were published in Edward S. Curtis's 20-volume The North American Indian. Images from portfolios 10 to 17 and 19 to 20 are represented in this group and are arranged numerically by Plate number and in portfolios as follows:
A. Portfolio 10: Kwakiutl;
B. Portfolio 11: The Nootka and the Haida;
C. Portfolio 12: The Hopi;
D. Portfolio 13: The Hupa, the Yurok, the Karok, the Wiyot, Tolowa, and Tutuni, the Shasta, the Achomawi, and the Klamath;
E. Portfolio 14: The Kato, the Wailaki, the Yuki, the Pomo, the Wintun, the Maidu, the Miwok, and the Yokuts;
F. Portfolio 15: Southern California Shoshoneans, the Diegueños, Plateau Shoshoneans, and the Washo;
G. Portfolio 16: The Tiwa and the Keres;
H. Portfolio 17: The Tewa and the Zuñi;
I. Portfolio 19: The Indians of Oklahoma, the Wichita, the Southern Cheyenne, the Oto, the Comanche, and the Peyote Cult;
J. Portfolio 20: The Alaskan Eskimo, the Nunivak, the Eskimo of Hooper Bay, the Eskimo of King Island, the Eskimo of Little Diomede Island, the Eskimo of Cape Prince of Wales, the Kotzebue Eskimo, the Noatak, the Kobuk, and the Selawik.
This collection does not contain glass plates for all the images that appeared in each of the portfolios represented. According to the Edward Curtis Gallery, each of the 20 volumes was accompanied by a corresponding portfolio containing at least 36 photogravures (which would have been printed using the interpositive glass plates). Number of plates per portfolio in this collection range from 5 to 25 plates.
The following indigenous peoples are represented in the images contained within this collection: Achomawi, Acoma, Arapaho, Assiniboin, Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, Cheyenne, Clayoquot, Cochiti, Comanche, Cree, Cupeño, Diegueño, Eskimo, Haida, Hano, Hesquiat, Hopi, Hupa, Jemez, Kainah, Klamath, Kwakiutl, Koskimo, Laguna, Maidu, Makah, Miwok, Northern Paiute, Nootka, Nunivak, Oto, Pomo, Quapaw, Sarsi, Serrano, Siksika, Tewa, Tolowa, Wailaki, Washo, Wichita, Yokuts, Yurok, and Zuni. The images were taken in regions including Alaska, Arizona, British Columbia, California, Great Basin, Great Plains, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pacific Northwest, Texas, and Washington State.
Photographs largely document people, mainly in the form in portraits. The majority of the photographs are of adults, but there are a number of images of children and adolescents. Curtis documented native dress, jewelry, hair styles, and costumes used in ceremonies. In addition to portraits, there are images of people at work fishing, whaling, hunting, gathering abalones, clams, fruits, roots, seaweed, and tules, washing wheat, transporting water or goods, and making pottery and baskets; people traveling on horse or in boats, especially canoes; and people practicing their spiritual life, making offerings, performing dances and ceremonies, and honoring the memories of their ancestors. There are also images of the places in which these peoples lived: adobe houses, tipis, villages, including some with totem poles, and camps.
For both series, folder titles are largely taken from Curtis's own titles of images and the language should be considered in the context of the time in which the images were created by Curtis. Curtis's The North American Indian (available online via Northwestern University Libraries Digital Collections) may be consulted for information contextualizing the history and significance of the images.
Series I, gift of Stephan Loewentheil, September 2021 and Series II, gift of William H. Miller III, July 2021.
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- Holly Mengel
- Finding Aid Date
- 2022 February 26
- Access Restrictions
At this point, a small portion of the collection is open to access (boxes 1 and 2). All interpositive glass plates are restricted from use until housing of these fragile items is complete.
- Use Restrictions
Copyright restrictions may exist. For most library holdings, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania do not hold copyright. It is the responsibility of the requester to seek permission from the holder of the copyright to reproduce material from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.