The Edward S. Curtis papers and photographs, circa 1895-2001 (bulk 1898-1951) primarily relate to Curtis's work on his opus, the North American Indian (NAI), although other subjects are documented as well. The papers relate closely to the Edward S. Curtis papers at the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections (UW), as that collection was donated by Curtis's daughter Florence Graybill and appears to be part of the same body of materials that was maintained by Curtis, and after his death, by Florence. Occasionally a correspondence exchange or manuscript draft is divided between the National Anthropological Archives and UW. Also found in both collections are notes, mostly dated 1951, in Curtis's handwriting on slips of paper or the document itself that gives an explanation of the document.
The collection includes correspondence, research notes, NAI files and promotional material, writings and memoirs, a small amount of material relating to a complaint regarding his reporting in NAI of certain Pueblo ceremonies, and correspondence and other documents relating to his gold mining interests. Also included are papers of Florence Graybill, who published on Curtis after his death and maintained contacts with various individuals and entities involved in Curtis exhibits, publications, and sales.
The correspondence exchanges are almost exclusively NAI related and document the relationships Curtis had with various influential people, including Gifford Pinchot, Joseph Blethen, Jacob Riis, William Farabee, Smithsonian scholars Frederick Webb Hodge and Matilda Coxe Stevenson, and the immediate and extended family of Theodore Roosevelt. Included are letters of introduction for Curtis as he sought to promote his work.
The research notes consist of a small mixture of writings on field experiences as well as maps used during his fieldwork (the bulk of Curtis's fieldnotes and NAI manuscripts are at the Seaver Center in the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History). The NAI files chiefly contain material promoting the work, such as published reviews, articles, and ephemera, but there are a few North American Indian Inc. business records (the bulk of the business records are maintained at the Pierpont Morgan Library). Of note is a lengthy annual report for the North American Indian, Inc., in which Curtis explains difficulties encountered in the fieldwork and volume publication. Related to his NAI work are letters and other materials documenting a 1934 complaint from Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior on Curtis's reporting of certain Pueblo ceremonies, as well as Curtis's response.
The writings comprise manuscript drafts on various topics. Most are short, stand-alone stories relating to his NAI work, often relaying a story about his own experiences. Similar stories can be found in Florence Graybill's papers, as she published some of them after his death. Also part of the writings are drafts for several chapters of Curtis's unpublished memoir, "As it Was."
Curtis's interest in gold mining is represented in correspondence and other material dating from 1938-1950. Most of the letters are between Curtis and his son Harold. Curtis's invention of a concentrator for separating fine gold from placer tailings is also documented in photographs and drawings.
Florence Graybill's papers pertain to writings, talks, and projects relating to Curtis after his death. Included are publication files for Graybill's biography of Curtis written with Victor Boesen, Visions of a Vanishing Race, as well as other of her articles and book reviews. Graybill's correspondence reveals her commitment to assist scholars and others interested in researching and exhibiting Curtis material, as well as her communication with individuals having a commercial interest in Curtis. Also present are Graybill's lecture notes for talks given, and articles and newspaper features on Curtis written by others.
The photographs in this collection primarily relate to Curtis's NAI work (1898-1927) and are a mix of original and working copy negatives, prints, and transparencies. The original negatives are remarkable in that they reveal some of Curtis's working methods in crafting his images through pencil and other enhancements, as well as showing removal of unwanted items from the image. Also of note are two original logbooks used for recording negatives from approximately 1895-1916. The majority of the prints appear to be silver gelatin prints made for reference; however, there are a fair number of platinum prints as well as several blue-toned silver prints in the collection. There are only a few cyanotypes.
Among the photographs is a deerskin-bound photograph album containing Harriman Alaska Expedition and NAI photographs, representing some of Curtis's earliest Native American subjects. These include images of people from the Puget Sound area as well as from his 1900 trip to the Blackfoot reservation. There are no annotations in the album; however, tucked among the pages are a few small notes of identification in Curtis's handwriting.
Photographs documenting other subjects are also present to a lesser degree. Among these are photographs of Curtis's Seattle photography studio, a 1915 Grand Canyon trip, hop field workers in the Puget Sound area, and Curtis's illustrations for Marah Ryan's book Flute of the Gods. Additionally, the collection contains a number of photographs of Curtis, his children, and portraits of various individuals including Theodore Roosevelt and actor Anna May Wong.
The Edward S. Curtis papers and photographs are arranged into the following 10 series:
Series 1: Biographical information, 1919-1952
Series 2: Correspondence, 1904-1951
Series 3: Research notes, 1900-1930, undated
Series 4: North American Indian, circa 1906-1920
Series 5: Writings, 1906, 1948, undated
Series 6: Complaint regarding Curtis's reporting of Pueblo ceremonies, 1924-1935
Series 7: Gold mining, 1938-1950
Series 8. Florence Curtis Graybill papers, 1948-2001
Series 9: Photographs, circa 1896-1927
Series 10: Duplicate material, undated
Biographical / Historical:
Edward Sherriff Curtis (1868-1952) was an American photographer famous for his photographs of the indigenous peoples of North America. His work was highly influential in shaping a sympathetic yet romantic view of cultures that he and many others believed to be "vanishing." Over the course of 30 years, Curtis visited more than 80 Native American communities and published his photographs and ethnographies in the twenty-volume North American Indian (NAI) (1907-1930).
Curtis was born in Whitewater, Wisconsin, to Ellen and Johnson Curtis in 1868. In about 1874, his family moved to a farm in Cordova, Minnesota. At a young age, Curtis built a camera, and it is possible that he may have worked in a Minneapolis photography studio for a time. In 1887, Curtis and his father moved West and settled on a plot near what is now Port Orchard, Washington, with the rest of the family joining them the following year. When Johnson Curtis died within a month of the family's arrival, 20-year-old Curtis became the head of the family.
In 1891, Curtis moved to Seattle and bought into a photo studio with Rasmus Rothi. Less than a year later, he and Thomas Guptill formed "Curtis and Guptill, Photographers and Photoengravers." The endeavor became a premier portrait studio for Seattle society and found success in photoengraving for many local publications. In 1892, Curtis married Clara Phillips (1874-1932) and in 1893 their son Harold was born (1893-1988), followed by Elizabeth (Beth) (1896-1973), Florence (1899-1987) and Katherine (Billy) (1909-?). Around 1895, Curtis made his first photographs of local Native people, including the daughter of Duwamish chief Seattle: Kickisomlo or "Princess Angeline." Curtis submitted a series of his Native American photographs to the National Photographic Convention, and received an award in the category of "genre studies" for Homeward (later published in volume 9 of the NAI). In 1896, the entire Curtis family moved to Seattle, which included Curtis's mother, his siblings Eva and Asahel, Clara's sisters Susie and Nellie Phillips, and their cousin William Phillips. Most of the household worked in Curtis's studio along with other employees. Curtis became sole proprietor of the studio in 1897, which remained a popular portrait studio but also sold his scenic landscapes and views of the Seattle Area. Curtis also sent his brother Asahel to Alaska and the Yukon to photograph the Klondike Gold Rush, and sold those views as well. Asahel went on to become a well-known photographer in his own right, primarily working in the American Northwest.
Curtis was an avid outdoorsman and joined the Mazamas Club after his first of many climbs of Mount Rainier. On a climb in 1898, Curtis met a group of scientists, including C. Hart Merriam, George Bird Grinnell, and Gifford Pinchot, who had lost their way on the mountain, and led them to safety. This encounter led to an invitation from Merriam for Curtis to accompany a group of over 30 well-known scientists, naturalists, and artists as the official photographer on a maritime expedition to the Alaskan coast. Funded by railroad magnate Edward Harriman, the Harriman Alaska Expedition left Seattle in May of 1899, and returned at the end of July. Curtis made around 5000 photographs during the trip, including photographs of the indigenous peoples they met as well as views of mountains, glaciers, and other natural features. Many of the photographs appeared in the expedition's 14 published volumes of their findings.
In 1900, Curtis accompanied Grinnell to Montana for a Blackfoot Sundance. Here, Curtis made numerous photographs and became interested in the idea of a larger project to document the Native peoples of North America. Almost immediately upon returning from the Sundance, Curtis set off for the Southwest to photograph Puebloan communities. By 1904, Curtis had already held at least one exhibit of his "Indian pictures" and his project to "form a comprehensive and permanent record of all the important tribes of the United States and Alaska that still retain to a considerable degree their primitive customs and traditions" (General Introduction, the NAI) had taken shape and already received some press coverage. With his fieldwork now increasing his absences from home, Curtis hired Adolph Muhr, former assistant to Omaha photographer Frank Rinehart, to help manage the Seattle studio.
In 1904, Curtis was a winner in the Ladies Home Journal "Prettiest Children In America" portrait contest. His photograph of Marie Fischer was selected as one of 112 that would be published and Fischer was one of 12 children selected from the photographs who would have their portrait painted by Walter Russell. Russell and Curtis made an acquaintance while Russell was in Seattle to paint Fischer's portrait, and not long afterwards, Russell contacted Curtis to make photographic studies of Theodore Roosevelt's children for portraits he would paint. Curtis subsequently photographed the entire Roosevelt family, and developed a social connection with the President. Several important outcomes came of this new friendship, including Roosevelt eventually writing the foreword to the NAI, as well as making introductions to influential people.
Key among these introductions was one to wealthy financier John Pierpont Morgan, in 1906. After a brief meeting with Curtis during which he viewed several of Curtis's photographs of Native Americans, Morgan agreed to finance the fieldwork for the NAI project for five years, at $15,000.00 per year. It was up to Curtis to cover publishing and promotion costs, with the publication being sold as a subscription. In return, Morgan would receive 25 sets of the 20-volume publication. The ambitious publication plan outlined 20 volumes of ethnological text, each to be illustrated with 75 photogravure prints made from acid-etched copper plates. Each volume would be accompanied by a companion portfolio of 35 large photogravures. With high-quality papers and fine binding, a set would cost $3000.00. 500 sets were planned. Under Morgan, the North American Indian, Inc. formed as body to administer the monies. Also around this time, Frederick Webb Hodge, Director of the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology, agreed to edit the publications.
Curtis then began more systematic fieldwork, accompanied by a team of research assistants and Native interpreters. In 1906, Curtis hired William E. Myers, a former journalist, as a field assistant and stenographer. Over the years, Myers became the lead researcher on the project, making enormous contributions in collecting data and possibly doing the bulk of the writing for the first 18 volumes. Upon meeting a new community, Curtis and his team would work on gathering data dealing with all aspects of the community's life, including language, social and political organization, religion, food ways, measures and values, and many other topics. (See box 2 folder 1 in this collection for Curtis's list of topics.) Curtis and his assistants, especially Myers, brought books and papers to the field relating to the tribes they were currently concerned with, and often wrote from the field to anthropologists at the Bureau of American Ethnology and other institutions for information or publications. In addition to fieldnotes and photographs, the team also employed sound recording equipment, making thousands of recordings on wax cylinders. Curtis also often brought a motion picture camera, although few of his films have survived.
The first volume of the NAI was published towards the end of 1907. Already, Curtis was encountering difficulty in finding subscribers to the publication despite great praise in the press and among those who could afford the volumes. Curtis spent progressively more of his time outside the field season promoting the project through lectures and in 1911, presenting his "Picture Musicale"—a lecture illustrated with lantern slides and accompanied by an original musical score—in major cities. After the initial five funded years, only eight of the twenty volumes had been completed. However, Morgan agreed to continue support for the fieldwork and publication continued.
Starting in 1910, Curtis and his team worked among the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nation on Vancouver Island, and in 1913 began to develop a documentary film project featuring the community in Alert Bay. In 1914, Curtis produced the feature-length film, In the Land of the Headhunters. The film showcased an all-indigenous cast and included an original musical score. Screened in New York and Seattle, it received high praise. However after this initial success, it did not receive the attention Curtis had hoped for, and resulted in financial loss.
Meanwhile, Curtis's prolonged absences from home had taken a toll on his marriage and in 1919 Clara and Edward divorced. The Seattle studio was awarded to Clara, and Curtis moved to Los Angeles, opening a photography studio with his daughter Beth and her husband Manford "Mag" Magnuson. Daughters Florence and Katherine came to Los Angeles sometime later. Curtis continued with fieldwork and promotion of the project, and in 1922 volume 12 of the NAI was published. Also in 1922, Curtis was accompanied during the field season in California by his daughter Florence Curtis Graybill, the first time a family member had gone to the field with him since the Curtis children were very small.
Curtis continued to push the project and publications along, yet never without financial struggle and he picked up work in Hollywood as both a still and motion picture photographer. John Pierpont Morgan, Jr., continued to provide funding for the fieldwork in memory of his father, but with the various financial upsets of the 1910s and 1920s, Curtis had a difficult time getting subscribers on board. In 1926, Myers, feeling the strain, regretfully resigned after the completion of volume 18. Anthropologist Frank Speck recommended Stewart Eastwood, a recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, to replace Myers as ethnologist for the final two volumes.
In 1927, Curtis and his team, along with his daughter Beth Curtis Magnuson, headed north from Seattle to Alaska and Canada on a final field season. Harsh weather and a hip injury made the trip difficult for Curtis, but he was very satisfied with the season's work. The party returned to Seattle, and upon arrival Curtis was arrested for unpaid alimony. He returned exhausted to Los Angeles, and in 1930 the final two volumes of NAI were published without fanfare. Curtis spent the next two years recovering from physical and mental exhaustion. Beth and Mag continued to run the Curtis studio in LA, but for the most part, Curtis had set down his camera for good. With the NAI behind him and his health recovered, Curtis pursued various interests and employment; he continued to do some work in Hollywood, including working on The Plainsman, starring Gary Cooper.
In 1933 Curtis was publicly criticized by John Collier, the Commissioner for Indian Affairs for some of the statements he had made on certain Pueblo ceremonies in the NAI volume 16, published in 1924. In September of 1934 Curtis received a letter from Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior regarding the claims published in volume 16, demanding a printed apology to be distributed among the text of the book as well as removal of the offending text from any undistributed copies of the publication. Curtis spent months writing and compiling supporting documentation in his defense, which he submitted to Ickes in January 1935. Also in 1935, the Morgan estate liquidated the North American Indian, Inc. and sold the remaining sets of the NAI volumes and unbound pages, photogravures, and copper printing plates along with the rights to the material to Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat for $1000.00.
Curtis's interest in gold prospecting took a front seat in the mid-1930s. While he scouted for potentially profitable mines in Northern California, his friend Ted Shell and possibly his son Harold sought investors. However, nothing ever fully panned out, though Curtis did design and build a concentrator for separating fine gold from placer tailings. He later sold the patent for ten dollars. Eventually, Curtis settled down on a farm outside Los Angeles, moving later to live with Beth and Mag, where he stayed until his death. In the mid to late 1940s Curtis began to write his memoirs. His daughter Florence visited him regularly and typed as Curtis dictated his recollections, and at some point he completed a draft of a memoir titled "As it Was." He also went through his papers and annotated or tucked notes among the correspondence and other material giving a brief explanation of the item or its context. Curtis died at home in 1952.
Prior to his death, Curtis had been out of the public eye for some years, and the NAI had slipped into relative obscurity. The Curtis studio in Los Angeles continued to sell Curtis's Native American photographs, and Florence gave occasional talks on her father, but it wasn't until the early 1970s that Curtis's work saw a renewed interest. This renaissance took place largely in the art photography market, but Curtis's biography and the NAI were also getting treatment in publications. Florence Curtis Graybill partnered with Victor Boesen to produce two narrative histories of Curtis and his work, and these were followed by many others. Florence continued to publish short works on her father for many years, and stayed in touch with numerous people involved in projects both scholarly and commercial that related to Curtis's work.
Davis, Barbara. Edward S. Curtis: the life and times of a shadowcatcher. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1984.
Gidley, Mick. The North American Indian, Incorporated. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
1868 -- Curtis is born in Whitewater, Wisconsin
circa 1874 -- Curtis family moves to Cordova, Minnesota
1887 -- Moves with his father to Washington territory to be joined by his mother and siblings in 1888
1891 -- With Rasmus Rothi forms Rothi & Curtis photography studio in Seattle
1892 -- Marries Clara Phillips With Thomas Guptill forms Curtis & Guptill Photographers and Photoengravers in Seattle
circa 1895 -- Becomes interested in photographing the indigenous people of the area
1897 -- Guptill leaves, Curtis establishes himself as Edward S. Curtis, Photographer and Photoengraver
1898 -- Meets C. Hart Merriam, George Bird Grinnell, and Gifford Pinchot during climb on Mount Rainier Receives first place award from the National Photographic Convention in the "Genre Studies" for his photographs of Native Americans
1899 -- Joins Harriman Alaska Expedition as official photographer at request of C. Hart Merriam and George Bird Grinnell
1900 -- Accompanies George Bird Grinnell to Blackfoot reservation in Montana for Sundance Becomes interested in a major project to document Native American tribes Travels to Arizona to photograph Hopi communities
circa 1902 -- Travels again to the southwest to photograph Native communities
1903 -- Holds first formal exhibit of Native American photographs in his studio
1904 -- Publicly announces intention to produce major publication on Native Americans Portrait entered in the Ladies Home Journal "Prettiest Children in America" contest is selected for publication and as a result, Curtis is asked to photograph President Theodore Roosevelt's family
circa 1904-1906 -- Conducts fieldwork among Native communities of the southwest
1906 -- Meets with J. P. Morgan, who agrees to finance the fieldwork for Curtis's project Hires William E. Myers as researcher and writer for the project
1907 -- Volume 1 of NAI is published
1908 -- Volumes 2 and 3 of NAI are published
1909 -- Volumes 4 and 5 of NAI are published
1911 -- Volumes 6, 7, and 8 of NAI are published Presents and tours the "Picture Musicale"
1913 -- J. P. Morgan dies, but his son agrees to continue to provide support for NAI Volume 9 of NAI is published
1914 -- Releases film In the Land of the Headhunters
1915 -- Volume 10 of NAI is published
1916 -- Volume 11 of NAI is published
1919 -- Edward and Clara Curtis divorce and the Seattle studio is awarded to Clara Moves to Los Angeles and opens new studio with daughter Beth and her husband, Manford Magnuson
1922 -- Volume 12 of NAI is published Conducts fieldwork in California with daughter Florence Curtis Graybill
1924 -- Volumes 13 and 14 of NAI are published
1926 -- Volumes 15, 16, and 17 of NAI are published William E. Myers resigns as chief writer and ethnologist of NAI
1927 -- Conducts fieldwork in Alaska and Canada for final NAI volume with daughter Beth Curtis Magnuson
1928 -- Volume 18 of NAI is published
1930 -- Volumes 19 and 20 of NAI are published
circa 1930-1950 -- Applies himself to various interests, especially gold mining
1952 -- Dies in Los Angeles at the home of Beth and Manford Magnuson
The National Anthropological Archives holds additional Curtis papers and photographs in MS 2000-18, the Edward Curtis investigation of the battle of Little Bighorn and Photo Lot 59, the Library of Congress copyright prints collection.
The Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University holds Curtis's wax cylinder audio recordings from 1907-1913.
The Braun Research Library at the Autry Museum of the American West holds the Frederick Webb Hodge papers (1888-1931), which contain substantial correspondence from Curtis. The Braun also holds a small amount of Curtis papers and photographs, including some of Curtis's cyanotypes.
The Getty Research Institute holds the Edward S. Curtis papers (1900-1978), which include the original manuscript scores for the Curtis Picture Musicale and film In the Land of the Headhunters.
The Palace of the Governors at the New Mexico History Museum holds original Curtis negatives pertaining to the southwest.
The Pierpont Morgan Library holds the Edward S. Curtis papers (1906-1947), which contain the records of the North American Indian, Inc., as well as Curtis's correspondence to librarian, and later library director, Belle Da Costa Greene. The library also holds a large collection of Curtis's lantern slides, used in his Picture Musicale.
The Seattle Public Library holds correspondence of Curtis to Librarian Harriet Leitch (1948-1951), pertaining to his career.
The Seaver Center for Western History Research at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History holds collection GC 1143, which contains Curtis's field notes as well as manuscript drafts for the North American Indian.
The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian holds NMAI.AC.080, the Edward S. Curtis photogravure plates and proofs, as well as NMAI.AC.053, the Mary Harriman Rumsey collection of Harriman Alaska Expedition photographs.
The University of Washington Libraries Special Collections holds the Edward S. Curtis papers (1893-1983). Additionally, the Burke Museum holds papers and photographs of Edmund Schwinke, which relate to Curtis's work with the Kwakwaka'wakw community.
Artifacts collected by Curtis that were a part of this donation comprise Accession No. 2058745 in the collections of the Department of Anthropology in the National Museum of Natural History.
The papers and photographs were donated to the National Anthropological Archives by Jim Graybill, grandson of Edward S. Curtis, in 2010 and 2011.
Viewing of the photographic negatives and transparencies requires advance notice and the permission of the Photo Archivist.
Access to the Edward S. Curtis papers and photographs requires an appointment.
Processing and digitization of parts of this collection was supported by funding from the Smithsonian Women's Committee and the Small Research Grants program of the National Museum of Natural History.
The collection documents in photographs, scrapbooks, notebooks, correspondence, stock ledgers, annual reports, and financial records, the evolution of the telegraph, the development of the Western Union Telegraph Company, and the beginning of the communications revolution. The collection materials describe both the history of the company and of the telegraph industry in general, particularly its importance to the development of the technology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The collection is useful for researchers interested in the development of technology, economic history, and the impact of technology on American social and cultural life.
Scope and Contents:
The collection is divided into twenty-six (26) series and consists of approximately 400 cubic feet. The collection documents in photographs, scrapbooks, notebooks, correspondence, stock ledgers, annual reports, and financial records, the evolution of the telegraph, the development of the Western Union Telegraph Company, and the beginning of the communications revolution. The collection materials describe both the history of the company and of the telegraph industry in general, particularly its importance to the development of the technology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The collection is useful for researchers interested in the development of technology, economic history, and the impact of technology on American social and cultural life.
The collection is divided into twenty-six series.
Series 1: Historical and Background Information, 1851-1994
Series 2: Subsidiaries of Western Union, 1844-1986
Series 3: Executive Records, 1848-1987
Series 4: Presidential Letterbooks and Writings, 1865-1911
Series 5: Correspondence, 1837-1985
Series 6: Cyrus W. Field Papers, 1840-1892
Series 7: Secretary's Files, 1844-1987
Series 8: Financial Records, 1859-1995
Series 9: Legal Records, 1867-1968
Series 10: Railroad Records, 1854-1945
Series 11: Law Department Records, 1868-1979
Series 12: Patent Materials, 1840-1970
Series 13: Operating Records, 1868-1970s
Series 14: Westar VI-S, 1974, 1983-1986
Series 15: Engineering Department Records, 1874-1970
Series 16: Plant Department Records, 1867-1937, 1963
Series 17: Superintendent of Supplies Records, 1888-1948
Series 18: Employee/Personnel Records 1852-1985
Series 19: Public Relations Department Records, 1858-1980
Series 20: Western Union Museum, 1913-1971
Series 21: Maps, 1820-1964
Series 22: Telegrams, 1852-1960s
Series 23: Photographs, circa 1870-1980
Series 24: Scrapbooks, 1835-1956
Series 25: Notebooks, 1880-1942
Series 26: Audio Visual Materials, 1925-1994
Series 27: Materials for Interfile (Series 1; Series 3; Series 13; Series 15-23; Series 25-26)
Biographical / Historical:
In 1832 Samuel F. B. Morse, assisted by Alfred Vail, conceived of the idea for an electromechanical telegraph, which he called the "Recording Telegraph." This commercial application of electricity was made tangible by their construction of a crude working model in 1835-36. This instrument probably was never used outside of Professor Morse's rooms where it was, however, operated in a number of demonstrations. This original telegraph instrument was in the hands of the Western Union Telegraph Company and had been kept carefully over the years in a glass case. It was moved several times in New York as the Western Union headquarters building changed location over the years. The company presented it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1950.
The telegraph was further refined by Morse, Vail, and a colleague, Leonard Gale, into working mechanical form in 1837. In this year Morse filed a caveat for it at the U.S. Patent Office. Electricity, provided by Joseph Henry's 1836 "intensity batteries", was sent over a wire. The flow of electricity through the wire was interrupted for shorter or longer periods by holding down the key of the device. The resulting dots or dashes were recorded on a printer or could be interpreted orally. In 1838 Morse perfected his sending and receiving code and organized a corporation, making Vail and Gale his partners.
In 1843 Morse received funds from Congress to set-up a demonstration line between Washington and Baltimore. Unfortunately, Morse was not an astute businessman and had no practical plan for constructing a line. After an unsuccessful attempt at laying underground cables with Ezra Cornell, the inventor of a trench digger, Morse switched to the erection of telegraph poles and was more successful. On May 24, 1844, Morse, in the U.S. Supreme Court Chambers in Washington, sent by telegraph the oft-quoted message to his colleague Vail in Baltimore, "What hath God wrought!"
In 1845 Morse hired Andrew Jackson's former postmaster general, Amos Kendall, as his agent in locating potential buyers of the telegraph. Kendall realized the value of the device, and had little trouble convincing others of its potential for profit. By the spring he had attracted a small group of investors. They subscribed $15,000 and formed the Magnetic Telegraph Company. Many new telegraph companies were formed as Morse sold licenses wherever he could.
The first commercial telegraph line was completed between Washington, D.C., and New York City in the spring of 1846 by the Magnetic Telegraph Company. Shortly thereafter, F. O. J. Smith, one of the patent owners, built a line between New York City and Boston. Most of these early companies were licensed by owners of Samuel Morse patents. The Morse messages were sent and received in a code of dots and dashes.
At this time other telegraph systems based on rival technologies were being built. Some companies used the printing telegraph, a device invented by a Vermonter, Royal E. House, whose messages were printed on paper or tape in Roman letters. In 1848 a Scotch scientist, Alexander Bain, received his patents on a telegraph. These were but two of many competing and incompatible technologies that had developed. The result was confusion, inefficiency, and a rash of suits and counter suits.
By 1851 there were over fifty separate telegraph companies operating in the United States. This corporate cornucopia developed because the owners of the telegraph patents had been unsuccessful in convincing the United States and other governments of the invention's potential usefulness. In the private sector, the owners had difficulty convincing capitalists of the commercial value of the invention. This led to the owners' willingness to sell licenses to many purchasers who organized separate companies and then built independent telegraph lines in various sections of the country.
Hiram Sibley moved to Rochester, New York, in 1838 to pursue banking and real estate. Later he was elected sheriff of Monroe County. In Rochester he was introduced to Judge Samuel L. Selden who held the House Telegraph patent rights. In 1849 Selden and Sibley organized the New York State Printing Telegraph Company, but they found it hard to compete with the existing New York, Albany, and Buffalo Telegraph Company.
After this experience Selden suggested that instead of creating a new line, the two should try to acquire all the companies west of Buffalo and unite them into a single unified system. Selden secured an agency for the extension throughout the United States of the House system. In an effort to expand this line west, Judge Selden called on friends and the people in Rochester. This led, in April 1851, to the organization of a company and the filing in Albany of the Articles of Association for the "New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company" (NYMVPTC), a company which later evolved into the Western Union Telegraph Company.
In 1854 there were two rival systems of the NYMVPTC in the West. These two systems consisted of thirteen separate companies. All the companies were using Morse patents in the five states north of the Ohio River. This created a struggle between three separate entities, leading to an unreliable and inefficient telegraph service. The owners of these rival companies eventually decided to invest their money elsewhere and arrangements were made for the NYMVPTC to purchase their interests.
Hiram Sibley recapitalized the company in 1854 under the same name and began a program of construction and acquisition. The most important takeover was carried out by Sibley when he negotiated the purchase of the Morse patent rights for the Midwest for $50,000 from Jeptha H. Wade and John J. Speed, without the knowledge of Ezra Cornell, their partner in the Erie and Michigan Telegraph Company (EMTC). With this acquisition Sibley proceeded to switch to the superior Morse system. He also hired Wade, a very capable manager, who became his protege and later his successor. After a bitter struggle Morse and Wade obtained the EMTC from Cornell in 1855, thus assuring dominance by the NYMVPTC in the Midwest. In 1856 the company name was changed to the "Western Union Telegraph Company," indicating the union of the Western lines into one compact system. In December, 1857, the Company paid stockholders their first dividend.
Between 1857 and 1861 similar consolidations of telegraph companies took place in other areas of the country so that most of the telegraph interests of the United States had merged into six systems. These were the American Telegraph Company (covering the Atlantic and some Gulf states), The Western Union Telegraph Company (covering states North of the Ohio River and parts of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Minnesota), the New York Albany and Buffalo Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company (covering New York State), the Atlantic and Ohio Telegraph Company (covering Pennsylvania), the Illinois & Mississippi Telegraph Company (covering sections of Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois), and the New Orleans & Ohio Telegraph Company (covering the southern Mississippi Valley and the Southwest). All these companies worked together in a mutually friendly alliance, and other small companies cooperated with the six systems, particularly some on the West Coast.
By the time of the Civil War, there was a strong commercial incentive to construct a telegraph line across the western plains to link the two coasts of America. Many companies, however, believed the line would be impossible to build and maintain.
In 1860 Congress passed, and President James Buchanan signed, the Pacific Telegraph Act, which authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to seek bids for a project to construct a transcontinental line. When two bidders dropped out, Hiram Sibley, representing Western Union, was the only bidder left. By default Sibley won the contract. The Pacific Telegraph Company was organized for the purpose of building the eastern section of the line. Sibley sent Wade to California, where he consolidated the small local companies into the California State Telegraph Company. This entity then organized the Overland Telegraph Company, which handled construction eastward from Carson City, Nevada, joining the existing California lines, to Salt Lake City, Utah. Sibley's Pacific Telegraph Company built westward from Omaha, Nebraska. Sibley put most of his resources into the venture. The line was completed in October, 1861. Both companies were soon merged into Western Union. This accomplishment made Hiram Sibley leader of the telegraph industry.
Further consolidations took place over the next several years. Many companies merged into the American Telegraph Company. With the expiration of the Morse patents, several organizations were combined in 1864 under the name of "The U.S. Telegraph Company." In 1866 the final consolidation took place, with Western Union exchanging stock for the stock of the other two organizations. The general office of Western Union moved at this time from Rochester to 145 Broadway, New York City. In 1875 the main office moved to 195 Broadway, where it remained until 1930 when it relocated to 60 Hudson Street.
In 1873 Western Union purchased a majority of shares in the International Ocean Telegraph Company. This was an important move because it marked Western Union's entry into the foreign telegraph market. Having previously worked with foreign companies, Western Union now began competing for overseas business.
In the late 1870s Western Union, led by William H. Vanderbilt, attempted to wrest control of the major telephone patents, and the new telephone industry, away from the Bell Telephone Company. But due to new Bell leadership and a subsequent hostile takeover attempt of Western Union by Jay Gould, Western Union discontinued its fight and Bell Telephone prevailed.
Despite these corporate calisthenics, Western Union remained in the public eye. The sight of a uniformed Western Union messenger boy was familiar in small towns and big cities all over the country for many years. Some of Western Union's top officials in fact began their careers as messenger boys.
Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century the telegraph became one of the most important factors in the development of social and commercial life of America. In spite of improvements to the telegraph, however, two new inventions--the telephone (nineteenth century) and the radio (twentieth century)--eventually replaced the telegraph as the leaders of the communication revolution for most Americans.
At the turn of the century, Bell abandoned its struggles to maintain a monopoly through patent suits, and entered into direct competition with the many independent telephone companies. Around this time, the company adopted its new name, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T).
In 1908 AT&T gained control of Western Union. This proved beneficial to Western Union, because the companies were able to share lines when needed, and it became possible to order telegrams by telephone. However, it was only possible to order Western Union telegrams, and this hurt the business of Western Union's main competitor, the Postal Telegraph Company. In 1913, however, as part of a move to prevent the government from invoking antitrust laws, AT&T completely separated itself from Western Union.
Western Union continued to prosper and it received commendations from the U.S. armed forces for service during both world wars. In 1945 Western Union finally merged with its longtime rival, the Postal Telegraph Company. As part of that merger, Western Union agreed to separate domestic and foreign business. In 1963 Western Union International Incorporated, a private company completely separate from the Western Union Telegraph Company, was formed and an agreement with the Postal Telegraph Company was completed. In 1994, Western Union Financial Services, Inc. was acquired by First Financial Management Corporation. In 1995, First Financial Management Corporation merged with First Data Corporation making Western Union a First Data subsidiary.
Many technological advancements followed the telegraph's development. The following are among the more important:
The first advancement of the telegraph occurred around 1850 when operators realized that the clicks of the recording instrument portrayed a sound pattern, understandable by the operators as dots and dashes. This allowed the operator to hear the message by ear and simultaneously write it down. This ability transformed the telegraph into a versatile and speedy system.
Duplex Telegraphy, 1871-72, was invented by the president of the Franklin Telegraph Company. Unable to sell his invention to his own company, he found a willing buyer in Western Union. Utilizing this invention, two messages were sent over the wire simultaneously, one in each direction.
As business blossomed and demand surged, new devices appeared. Thomas Edison's Quadruplex allowed four messages to be sent over the same wire simultaneously, two in one direction and two in the other.
An English automatic signaling arrangement, Wheatstone's Automatic Telegraph, 1883, allowed larger numbers of words to be transmitted over a wire at once. It could only be used advantageously, however, on circuits where there was a heavy volume of business.
Buckingham's Machine Telegraph was an improvement on the House system. It printed received messages in plain Roman letters quickly and legibly on a message blank, ready for delivery.
Vibroplex, c. 1890, a semi-automatic key sometimes called a "bug key," made the dots automatically. This relieved the operator of much physical strain.
Materials in the Archives Center
Additional moving image about Western Union Telegraph Company can be found in the Industry on Parade Collection (AC0507). This includes Cable to Cuba! by Bell Laboratory, AT & T, featuring the cable ship, the C.S. Lord Kelvin, and Communications Centennial! by the Western Union Company.
Materials at Other Organizations
Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware.
Western Union International Records form part of the MCI International, Inc. Records at the First Data Corporation, Greenwood Village, Colorado.
Records of First Data Corporation and its predecessors, including Western Union, First Financial Management Corporation (Atlanta) and First Data Resources (Omaha). Western Union collection supports research of telegraphy and related technologies, and includes company records, annual reports, photographs, print and broadcast advertising, telegraph equipment, and messenger uniforms.
Smithsonian Institution Archives
Western Union Telegraph Expedition, 1865-1867
This collection includes correspondence, mostly to Spencer F. Baird, from members of the Scientific Corps of the Western Union Telegraph Expedition, including Kennicott, Dall, Bannister, and Elliott; copies of reports submitted to divisional chiefs from expedition staff members; newspaper clippings concerning the expedition; copies of notes on natural history taken by Robert Kennicott; and a journal containing meteorological data recorded by Henry M. Bannister from March to August, 1866.
Artifacts (apparatus and equipment) were donated to the Division of Information Technology and Society, now known as the Division of Work & Industry, National Museum of American History.
The collection was donated by Western Union in September of 1971.
Collection is open for research.
Gloves must be worn when handling unprotected photographs and negatives. Special arrangements must be made to view some of the audio visual materials. Contact the Archives Center at 202-633-3270.
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.