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Guide to the New-York Historical Society
Theatrical Portrait Collection
circa 1800-1985 (bulk, 1850-1920)

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

New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Rick Hunter, March 2003; migrated to ArchivesSpace by Joseph Ditta, May 2020.

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on June 30, 2020
English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Historical note

The Theatrical Portrait Collection represents an era of collecting that has largely disappeared. Institutions such as the New-York Historical Society are the beneficiaries of a fashionable recreational hobby that built reputations and filled auction rooms with enthusiastic buyers. When the stage was the most popular form of entertainment throughout the nation, the hobby of collecting photographic portraits of actors blossomed. To feed this growing interest, many New York photographers, particularly the Sarony, Falk, and Mora studios, began to specialize in theatrical portraits. Houseworth & Company of San Francisco was another nationally known studio that specialized in this market, selling "Houseworth's Celebrities," as their portraits of theatre stars were known, to collectors by mail order.

New York resident Gertrude Bushfield Weed (1877–1927) and her husband, Raphael (1873–1931), were two such avid theatre collectors. They eventually amassed over 2,000 images acquired from mail-order establishments, theatrical acquaintances, and auction houses, where they purchased other significant collectors' holdings. Raphael Weed gave the "Gertrude Bushfield Weed Collection of Theatrical Portraits (Players of the New-York Stage)" to the New-York Historical Society after his wife's death, and those carefully labeled images form the backbone of the Theatrical Portrait Collection.

At the New-York Historical Society, the Weed collection was enhanced by theatrical portraits donated by others, including George C. D. Odell (1866–1949). Odell's portraits date from the 1870s and 1890s, and were used to illustrate his fifteen-volume  Annals of the New York Stage (New York: 1927–49), describing performances and performers in New York from 1798 through 1894. In addition to the photos, Odell's volumes relied heavily on newspaper articles and other primary sources and were, for many years, the definitive history of the early New York theatre scene.

Another donor, Harold Seton (1883–1951), a noted writer on theatre history, gave the New-York Historical Society in the late 1920s and early 1930s approximately 350 individual theatrical portraits. Included in that number were photographs originally collected by Mrs. Charles B. Hillhouse in 1878 and subsequently acquired by Seton. In addition, in 1935 he gave a group of fifty "old flashlight group photos of New York stage plays" and stills of silent picture stars.

Approximately 400 portraits dating from the 1860s to the 1890s were donated in 1929 by Robert Goelet (1880–1966). Goelet had acquired pictures collected by Joseph Norton Ireland (1817–1898), whose  Records of the New York Stage from 1750 to 1860 (New York: 1866–67) was the definitive history of the theatre until the publication of Odell's  Annals.

The remainder of the Theatrical Portrait Collection consists of various donations, often covering the same time period. Many portraits in the collection were formerly owned by singer Emma Thursby (1845–1931) and were given to the New-York Historical Society by her sister, Ina. They are mainly images of people with whom Thursby worked; her personal and family photographs can be found in the Print Room's Emma Cecilia Thursby Photograph Collection (PR 126). Gifts of the devoted collector E. B. Child (1846–1946) document a number of Gilbert and Sullivan productions in which Child appeared as an amateur performer; his acting career culminated in his 1896 performance as Bunthorn in "Patience" at the Metropolitan Opera House. During his lifetime, Child became a first-nighter at practically every opening on or off Broadway. He also gave the New-York Historical Society his collection of silent film movie stills.

A notable group of portraits of a single performer are those of Jenny Lind, which were given by Leonidas Westervelt (1875–1952), an American playwright and renowned collector of theatrical books and manuscripts. The remainder of his Jenny Lind material, as well as his collection of circus material, is available in the New-York Historical Society's Library and in the Print Room's Cased Image File (PR 012).