Sunday, March 15, 2009
William Shew (1820-1903) – Photographer & Daguerrotype Innovator
William Shew was born on a farm in Waterton, New York on March 1820. At the age of 20 he read an article by the inventor Samuel F.B. Morse about the daguerrotype process and, along with his three brothers, moved to New York City to study with Morse. His brothers Jacob, Myron and Trueman were also photographers, but not attained the stature of William Shew. Morse would become more famous as the inventor of the telegraph.
After completing his studies, Shew worked briefly in upstate New York before becoming the supervisor at John Plumbe’s gallery in Boston. Three years later he opened John Shew and Company in Boston, where he manufactured his own dyes and created daguerrotypes with wooden frames, thin vaneer backings and embossed paper coverings. In 1849, he married his wife Elizabeth, who bore their only child, Theodora. He also became and active member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.
In 1851, he sold his business and sailed on the steamer Tennessee to San Francisco, where he joined his brother Jacob who arrived in 1849. It is believed that Shew set up a gallery shortly after arriving in San Francisco, which may have been destroyed by the 1851 fire that swept the city. After the fire he set up “Shew’s Daguerreian Saloon,” which is pictured above.
The wagon drew the attention of the neighboring Alta California newspaper, which wrote, "A good deal of curiosity has been expressed in regard to the object and intention of the big wagon which fills up a large portion of the plaza, and which was yesterday being covered with a frame. Some suppose that 'the elephant' which so many people come here to see was to be caged up in it and exhibited to greenhorns at a quarter a sight. . .It seems, however, that it is to be a traveling daguerreotype establishment, with which the proprietor intends to travel around the city and country, taking views and portraits."
That same year, John Wesly Jones hired Jacob and William Shew to take dagurrotypes for the California portion of his moving panorama “Great Pantoscope of California, the Rocky Mountains, Salt Lake City, Nebraska and Kansas.” In 1852 the brothers expanded the business, selling portraits and pictures of buildings, as well as daguerrotype materials.
During this period he continued his interest in the anti-slavery movement and is believed to have hosted the first Free-Soil convention held in San Francisco on October 8, 1852. His interest in politics expanded beyond slavery and Shew went on to serve on the San Francisco Board of Education and he hosted meetings of the Temperance Society at his office. He also became an active member of a number of photographic associations and societies.
By 1854, he was operating his business at the corner of Montgomery and Sacramento in San Francisco, later moving to a “fire-proof building” at Clay and Montgomery. His brother, who had been his shop supervisor, opening a competing business named Hamilton & Shew located directly across the street. William Shew expanded his business to include photographs and ambrotypes (positive photographic images printed on glass).
In 1864, he entered a competition at the Mechanics’ Institute Exhibition where he displayed pictures of Thomas Starr King, Edwin Sumner, Gen. John Sutter and Sam Houston.
By 1902, the octagenarian was still operating his studio. A year later he died and was buried at Mountain View Cemetery. His wife continued to operate his studio after his death. Tragically, most of his work was destroyed in the 1906 fire and earthquake. However, many of his works can still be found in history books and major collections, including at the Smithsonian Institution, California Historical Society, Bancroft Library in Berkeley and the Wells Fargo Bank Historical Room.
TOP PHOTO: Pensacola Sailor Photograph by William Shew, c. 1860s, Photograph of Pensacola Sailor; backstamp by “William Shew’s Photographic Establishment.” The image was taken in San Francisco. The Pensacola was commissioned in 1859 and was part of the Navy’s West Gulf Blockading Squadron under Farragut during the Civil War, later joining the Pacific Squadron as their flagship. Image was hand-tinted by Shew.
SECOND PHOTO: Shew family plot photo by Michael Colbruno
THIRD PHOTO: William Shew's traveling studio sits next to the Alta California newspaper office in the midst of construction following the fire of June 22, 1851 in San Francisco.
BOTTOM PHOTO: William J. Shew Daguerreotype. Untitled (Mother and Daughter). c. 1850. Gift of Ludwig Glaeser; Currently housed in the NY Museum of Modern Art.
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Posted by Michael at 7:08 PM