Today’s blog is by one of our PhD volunteers, Maude Côté-Landry who did some research on a 19th century box which held some of our Fuller artifacts.
When we first started researching the Fuller collection artifacts (almost a year ago now!), Kat and I were proudly looking through our photographs of the artifacts when we made an interesting discovery. We were looking at the box identified as a 19th century cigar box, which had been used to hold our many Egyptian beads, when we noticed the following sentences written on the box: “A preserver de la lumière et de l’humidité” and “N’ouvrir qu’à la lumière rouge.” These roughly translate to “keep away from light and humidity” and “open only in red light.” I’ve never smoked cigars before, but even I could see that those are some really strange warnings for a box of cigars, and we began to suspect that maybe we had something else on our hands. A short amount of googling let us figure out that the misidentified cigar box was actually a film box! At that point, I decided to do some more research on this box in case it held more fun surprises.
It became very clear from the beginning that this research was going to be very different from what I am used to doing. I focus on politics and religion in Archaic Greece (7th to 5th centuries BCE), and I’m used to working with very little information and trying to bring limited pieces of evidence together into some sort of cohesive whole. I can’t describe how exciting it was for me to find an address written on the film box, look up that address online, and immediately find the name of the owner of the store from which the box came, and the exact years during which he worked out of that particular address! The challenge wasn’t so much in finding information about this box, but in deciding what kind of information I wanted and what was most interesting and relevant.
So what did I find out about this film box? The box was produced and sold from Alphonse Liébert’s photography workshop at 6, Rue de Londre, in Paris. Liébert worked out of that workshop from 1864 to approximately 1900, which gives us the range of possible dates for the film box. The type of film inside the box was gelatin dry plate film made with silver bromide. I spent several hours researching this type of photography, trying to understand the process, etc, and came to the conclusion that I don’t know very much about photography OR chemistry!
I was able to find out that this type of film was invented in 1871 by Richard Leach Maddox and produced black and white photographs. It became the dominant type of photographic process used from 1880 to 1960, when it was largely replaced by colour photography. Gelatin dry plates were still occasionally used for black and white pictures after the invention of colour photography whenever people wanted that artsy black and white look. Things got really interesting when I started doing research on Alphonse Liébert, the photographer who produced and sold this particular film box. The man not only had a rocking mustache, he also made a lot of technical contributions to the field of photography. He was one of the first to use electric arc lights for night photography instead of relying on natural lighting, which does not work very well at night. This experimentation led him to establish a night photography studio in 1879.
His hobby as a photographer also got him into some outrageous shenanigans in his younger days. In March 1867, Liébert photographed Alexandre Dumas Sr. with his mistress Adah Isaacs Menken, and the picture created such a big scandal among respectable society that Dumas sued Liébert to forbid the sale of the pictures. The case was rejected by the Parisian court in May, but Dumas appealed the decision and proposed to buy the photographs for 100 francs in exchange for the prohibition of their sale. The appeal was successful, and so unfortunately I can’t find the picture anywhere to include it here for you.
Liébert is also famous for his series of photographs taken of the ruins of Paris during the 1871 Paris Commune’s “Semaine Sanglante” (“the Bloody Week”). The Paris Commune had been a revolutionary government that seized the city of Paris on March 18th 1871 and ruled the city for two months while the city was besieged by Prussia. The Commune refused to recognize the authority of the French government, which had signed an armistice with Prussia, and this led to the suppression of the Paris Commune by the regular French army in a week of intense fighting which became known as the “Bloody Week.” Liébert captured the burned-down buildings and collapsed walls left in the French capital after the week of fighting, and published them the following year. All of these pictures are available online and give a pretty good indication of just how heavy the fighting had been.
The Liébert film box turned out to be full of surprises for me. From the fact that it is definitely not a cigar box to the unexpectedly eventful life of the box’s producer, the history of this artifact gave me fun anecdotes, scandals, cool facts about photography, and a chance to learn more about one more French revolution! Considering that it only ended up in our collection because it was used to hold our Egyptian beads, this film box was a delight to research, and I’m happy that chance brought it into the Fuller collection.