The Hand Colored Photography of William James Harris

Interest in early 20th c. hand-colored photographs by “Harris” has been increasing in recent years, especially in Harris’s Florida scenes. Yet I’ll wager that most collectors don’t even know Harris’s first name, let alone anything about his background.

We had no information on Harris ourselves until several years ago when we mentioned Harris in a previous article and asked readers to supply us with any known information. As a result we received an article on Harris postcards, and an article that had been published on Harris by the St. Augustine Historical Society in 1991, both of which shed considerable light on the hand-colored photography career of William James Harris.

William James Harris (1868-1940) was born on October 12, 1868 in Herefordshire, England. His family emigrated to America in 1870, settling in the Wilkes Barre, PA area. Known in his youth as both “Will” and “Willie“, by age 20 he apprenticed under a local photographer. Within one year he was able to start his first photography business while living with his parents and operating his first studio within their house.

In 1890, the 22 year old Harris moved with his family to W. Pittston, PA where, although he continued operating a studio in his parents home, he also began his career as a traveling photographer. During the early 1890’s, he spent considerable time photographing coal miners and mining operations in eastern Pennsylvania’s coal regions. Soon thereafter he began utilizing the railroads to transport him, and his photography equipment, to the mountains, lakes, cities, and wherever else he decided to take his camera. Cabinet photographs sold by Harris around this time listed his address as West Pittston, PA; Tunkhannock, PA; Pittston, PA; Penn Yan, NY; Binghamton, NY; and Keuka, NY

In 1893 Harris traveled to the World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago. While there his began the first of many subsequent promotional feats. One of the focal points of the 1893 Columbia Exposition was the first-ever introduction of George Ferris’s great “Ferris Wheel“. And it was Harris who was the first to photograph it. He envisioned that by climbing upon a roof approximately the same height as the Ferris Wheel’s center shaft, he would be able to produce a view whereby the curves of the wheel were not distorted vertically by perspective. This photograph was so impressive that Harris donated 2000 of them to the Ferris Wheel Company, each of which included his name and address, which helped to make an early name for the young photographer.

In 1895 he married Maude Dunn, a marriage that was short-lived because she died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1897.

Shortly after Maude’s death, Harris and some friends opened a tourist business in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, selling pictures of Buck Hill Falls, the Delaware Water Gap, and other local attractions to tourists and local residents. While operating from the “Harris Gallery” his services also included cabinet cards and tin-type photographs,. This portable studio once again served as an excellent promotional feat because it enabled him to both advertise his business, and process his photographic work, wherever he went.

Around 1901, Harris married a second time, making Marion E. Briant the second Mrs. Harris. Together they had two children, a daughter (Ruth) and a son (Carver). This marriage lasted until about 1920. After the divorce, Marion Harris returned to her Dover, NJ home with Ruth, leaving Carver with his father.

Soon thereafter, Harris married Ella Anderson, his third and final marriage.

Lake Hopatcong: It was in 1898 that Harris moved to a location that would play a vital role in his life…Lake Hopatcong, NJ. Located in northern New Jersey, it’s 9 miles of coastline and coves make it New Jersey’s largest lake and at the turn of the century, Lake Hopatcong had become a summer mecca for the rich and famous. Conveniently located to nearby New York city, Lake Hopatcong offered an easy summer getaway from the city heat and many summer “cottages“, which in many instances were more like mansions, began springing up around the lake. Harris quickly recognized the need for his photographic services here during the summer months.

Beautiful sunsets became the Harris trademark while working on Lake Hopatcong and he was farsighted enough to set himself up on a part of the lake that was recognized as having the best sunsets. And being the great promoter that he was, Harris began advertising his studio as offering the finest sunset photographs on the lake. Soon tourists began flocking to his studio for their personal and family photographs on Lake Hopatcong.

In another move of public relations genius, Harris created his own personal “Floating Studio” in the summer of 1899. Replacing his land-based portable studio, this floating studio was actually a houseboat specially outfitted as a photographic studio. Called the “Harris Photo Float“, this 16’x50′ floating studio was capable of traveling around the lake, and even had a special porch for his famous sunset photos. Although other photographers were also working around the lake, Harris’ floating studio and his gift for promotional effect gave him a competitive edge over the other photographers and he controlled a sizeable portion of the lake’s photography business. Unfortunately, in 1903 Harris’ floating studio sprang a knothole leak and sank, taking with it much of Harris’ photographic equipment.

But he quickly recovered from this disaster and went on to continue a nearly 40-year relationship with Lake Hopatcong. Harris continued his summer visits to the lake until as late as 1939, when he was in his 60’s and his photographic career began winding down.

St. Augustine, Florida: In 1898 Harris moved to St. Augustine, Florida where he opened the “Acme View Company“. Harris’s Florida photographic services included the sale of cameras and equipment, free photographic instructions to amateur photographers, the use of his darkroom, as well as professional photographic services to local residents or visiting tourists. He also lost no time in photographing the beautiful sights in St. Augustine and the surrounding Florida countryside.

Harris quickly fell in love with St. Augustine and to a larger extent, nearly all of Florida. Between 1898 and 1940 Harris began a photographic career that most of us would aspire to achieve today…summers along the shorelines of beautiful Lake Hopatcong, NJ… and winters in warm and sunny St. Augustine, FL.

St. Augustine offered a variety of photographic subjects that appealed to Florida’s growing tourist trade including the Fountain of Youth, the Oldest House in America, Ft. Marion, City Gates, and The Old Slave Market, among others.

In 1912 Harris began a long, and sometimes controversial, relationship with the St. Augustine Historical Society. Serving as its business manager and head curator, Harris was instrumental both in recruiting new members to the Historical Society as well as promoting both the history and heritage of St. Augustine. While on his watch, certain members began to dispute some of the Historical Society’s unsubstantiated claims…was the “Oldest House in America” actually as old as claimed?. Was the “Old Slave Market” truly a “Slave Market” or was it simply a “Public Produce Market“.. The “…well, they could have been…” responses by certain area business people met resistance from other historical purists, and some changes in St. Augustine’s historical claims resulted.

Regardless of the controversy, Harris’s association with the St. Augustine Historical Society lasted until his death in 1940 and all the while, Harris continued to promote his St. Augustine postcard and photography business.

Harris Postcards: It was in 1893 while visiting the Columbia Exposition that Harris saw a glimpse of the next coming trend…postcards. By 1898 Congress passed a law authorizing the manufacture and use of “Private Mailing Cards” and what started as a trickle soon exploded into a huge business. And Harris was in a perfect position to earn his share of the business. The telephone was not yet commonplace and postcards soon became a primary means of casual communication. In 1901 Harris was selling a grouping of 30 Lake Hopatcong views that were capable of being inserted into a letter, so converting them into postcards was a relatively simple task. Quickly converting much of his existing stock into postcards and adding new views each year, Harris soon had literally hundreds of Lake Hopatcong postcard views and became known around Lake Hopatcong as “Harris, the Postcard Man“. Anyone wishing to send a personal message about their special trip or vacation on Lake Hopatcong usually did it using a Harris postcard. In 1909 alone Harris claims to have sold over 200,000 Lake Hopatcong postcards and projected even more for 1910.

As his postcard business grew, he expanded into the souvenir and novelty field, selling paperweights, cups, fancy holders, and other assorted wooden and birch bark novelties, all with the name “Lake Hopatcong” on them. Although such a souvenir business was common in St. Augustine and other places, Harris was one of the first to start such a business at Lake Hopatcong.

As the postcard craze began to wind down around 1915, Harris had been watching from a distance the success of Wallace Nutting in Massachusetts and soon decided to enter the field of hand-colored photography himself. With his background, it was a natural.

Hand-Colored Photographs: Harris’s earliest attempt with hand-colored photographs came when he first hand-tinted his Lake Hopatcong postcards. After working in black & white for many years, starting around 1905 Harris assumed that the added color could lead to increased sales. But he also soon learned that the added expense of hand-coloring his postcards led to a higher unit price, and eventually to lower sales. Ultimately Harris went the route of so many other postcard photographers of having his postcards produced in color on large-run color printing presses.

As part of his New Jersey summer-Florida winter cycles, Harris began taken new photographs with the intention of hand-coloring them for re-sale. His best selling pictures soon came to be from the New York Adirondack Region (especially Ausable Chasm) and Florida (especially The Singing Tower), although his northeastern pictures came from throughout a four-state region and his Florida pictures came from throughout the entire Miami-St. Augustine stretch.

Before long, “Harris Pictures” began to replace “Harris the Postcard Man” as his primary source of income. According to his son Carver…”what money he had, he made from colored pictures“. And apparently he made enough money to buy houses in Florida and New Jersey, an imposing automobile, a house-car, and several launches and speedboats (which enabled him to get around Lake Hopatcong faster than ever).

Like Wallace Nutting pictures, Harris pictures were usually hand-colored photographs, tipped onto a linen-type matboard, and signed with the “Harris” name lower right, and title lower left, usually signed in pencil. Most Harris pictures were matted, although a fair number were “close-framed” and signed directly on the picture without any matting. And quite often you will still find an original “Harris” label either on the matboard back or on the backing paper.

Yet Harris pictures carry several subtle differences between Nutting and some of the major Nutting-Like photographers:
• Most Harris pictures were oblong views, with the length usually being more than twice the width (or vice versa).
• Harris only sold Exterior (outdoor) views. He never sold Colonial Interior scenes.
• You will only see the name “Harris” signed on the picture, never “W.J.‘ or any other variation of his first or middle names. There is also never any mention of Harris’s first or middle name on any of his picture labels.
• Although the “Harris” name is usually written parallel under the picture, occasionally you will see the “Harris” name written at a 45 degree angle.
• While more unusual, it is not uncommon for the Harris name to be lower left and the title to be lower right.
• Most Harris signatures are signed in pencil

And perhaps most different from Nutting, many Harris pictures are hand-colored “photogravures” rather than hand-colored photographs. Although his earliest scenes were produced on photographic paper, some of his later and best-selling views were reproduced in larger black & white quantities using the photogravure printing method, and then individually hand-colored. Whereas Nutting had nearly 100 colorists at his peak, Harris never had more than 5 people coloring his pictures at any given time.

One interesting story about Harris pictures relates to several of his pictures that feature a egret standing in the Florida water. Apparently for the sake of simplicity, Harris carried a “stuffed” egret as part of his photographic equipment, presumably because it was easier to shoot a still bird for effect rather than a live, uncontrollable bird. He was also known to carry a stuffed alligator for effect as well.

Not surprisingly, Harris was usually his own best salesman and his photographic expeditions also became sales trips as well. Whenever he went into the countryside to shoot new pictures, he usually stopped at various art and gift shops along the way to obtain new wholesale and retail orders for his picture business. It was estimated that more than 70 shops on both coasts of Florida alone carried Harris’s hand-colored pictures. Many hotels used Harris pictures on their walls to promote the beauties of early 20th c. Florida, and it is estimated that Harris would typically need more than 25,000 pictures per season just to satisfy the demand of his Florida sales outlets.

And as the Florida season would end Harris would pack car, head back north, and start the cycle all over again at New Jersey’s Lake Hopatcong.

The Final Years: William James Harris died on August 2, 1940 after suffering through a long illness and was buried in his adopted city of St. Augustine. Although not as well known as Wallace Nutting or some of Nutting’s other contemporaries, Harris did achieve a considerable level of fame. He enjoyed a reasonable financial success in his chosen photographic field, he enjoyed the travel and work between the northeast in the summer months and Florida in the winter months, he had a diverse family life, he developed a strong bond with his adopted city of St. Augustine, FL, and his photographic works certainly helped to popularize Florida more than any other photographer of his time.

And now more than ever, collectors of hand-colored photography are actively seeking the beautiful hand-colored pictures of William James Harris.

Mildred K. Pearson

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