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Guide to the Frederick H. Smyth Collection of Fire Photographs
1899-1926 (Bulk 1908-1914)
 PR 63

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400


© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Frederick M. Joseph

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on April 20, 2015
Description is in English.

Scope and Content Note

The Frederick H. Smyth Collection of Fire Photographs spans the period from 1899 to 1926 and primarily contains photographs of the New York City Fire Department at work. The collection provides an invaluable look at firefighting technology and equipment in New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Images record the transition from horse-drawn fire wagons to motorized engines. In addition, the collection shows many individual fires, including the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 and the 1912 fire at the Equitable Building. The collection is divided into two series: Albums; and Negatives.

Series I. Albums consists of two disbound photograph albums together containing a total of 378 prints. Each album page measures 10 by 14 inches and holds between one and four prints. Each image was assigned a unique number by Smyth, and described by him on the verso of the page. The numbers correspond to the negatives in Series II, but the prints are not arranged by number in the albums. Many of the photos taken of fires in winter show large ice formations on buildings and fire equipment. These were generally noted as "ice-coated" by Smyth in the image title.

Album 1 spans the period from 1899-1925 and consists mainly of images of fires and fireboats. Notable fires include the National Biscuit Company fire in 1906, Windsor Hotel fire in 1899, the Equitable Building Fire in 1912, Lipton Tea Warehouse in 1909, Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911, Delaware Lackawanna Ferry in 1909, the Casino Theatre in 1925, and the ruins of the 1911 fire at the Dreamland amusement park at Coney Island. Other blazes pictured include: a piano factory on West 49th street, a loft building on Mercer Street, a paper warehouse on Lafayette Street, a pier, a tenement, an oil warehouse, a shanty, a subway explosion, a wallpaper factory, and other locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. The album concludes with many pages of fireboats, particularly those named "Thomas Willett," "New Yorker," and "W. J. Gaynor," some photos taken while the boats were in action.

Album 2 includes similar types of photos from 1904 to 1926 but also incorporates copy photographs of lithographs (most by Currier and Ives) depicting early fires in New York City. Some other copy photography, taken by photographers other than Smyth, is included here along with Smyth's original images. These photographers are noted on the versos of the album pages as: Van Altena, Mr. Phillips, Mr. Henry, and I. Dutcher. Most pictures in this album are of firefighting equipment, portraits of firefighters, parades or award ceremonies, equipment drills, and interior and exterior views of firehouses. Fire Chiefs and Commissioners shown include John Binns, John Kenlon, Edward Croker, Rhinelander Waldo, and Joseph Johnson.

Series II. Negatives includes 405 negatives. Fifty of these are film, the remainder are glass, primarily 5 x 7 inches. Smyth numbered each in the emulsion. The negatives are filed numerically and, as mentioned above, this order does not correspond to the page numbering system in the albums of prints. Thirty images are glass transparencies or autochromes, and therefore do not have corresponding prints in Series I. These are interfiled numerically with the negatives. Please refer to the item-level list following this finding aid, or the database, to see titles of negatives without prints.

When the negatives came to the New-York Historical Society, they were assigned a prefix of 61055 and were housed in the Negative File. All vintage negatives have now been removed from the Negative file. Negative sleeves still show this prefix, but negatives are only referred to by Smyth's numbers in this finding aid.

A database was created to record the album and page number, image number, image title, and address and date in order to facilitate the use of the collection. Printouts of this database follow the finding aid. These lists are sorted by album and page number; by borough and address; and by image (negative) number. The database is also searchable by keyword for subjects.

Arrangement

The collection is organized into two series.

  1. Series I. Albums
  2. Series II. Negatives