Thursday, October 09, 2008

W. W. Foster Glass Plate Negative Collection at the Virginia Historical Society

I have been racking my brain, trying to figure out some great nugget of genealogical wisdom that I could pass along and make your life easier. That is a pretty difficult thing to do sometimes. Everyone out there says the same thing over and over again, with just a little bit different spin on it. What could I possibly tell you that would make a difference in the way you perform genealogical research? What could I write that would help you solve some age-old mystery and simply make your day? The answer...I don't know. I have so much going on inside of my head and just cannot get it out some times. I did however think of one great resource that could make a huge impact on someone out there...the Foster Collection.

Walter Washington Foster was a photographer in Richmond, Virginia between 1876 and around 1935. His major significance is that he maintained all/most of his glass plate negatives and they were donated to the Virginia Historical Society around 1972. There were roughly 65,000 prints and 100,000 glass negatives in the collection (one sources says there are only 30,000). A lot of these prints and negatives were labeled and can be searched on the VHS website. Some of the items may have scanned images but most have to be viewed at the society.

I discovered the collection several years ago and searched all of my family surnames. Surprisingly I did not find anyone from the Richmond area but I did find my wife's great-great grandparents from Stafford County. Their daughter lived in Richmond and the photos were probably taken during a visit. These were the only known photos of these particular people, at least in our line of the family, so it was a great find.

After finding them in the index, I contacted the VHS and made an appointment to view the negatives. I think they are in deep storage and have to be dug out so it might take a few days. When I arrived, I was taken to a storage room and shown the two glass plates. The images are basically etched on he glass and there is a milky film on the surface of that glass. I was told that the photographer would wipe some type of cream on the glass to cover up wrinkles and blemishes on the faces of the subjects. Who would have thought that the old photos we find were in fact "touched-up"! Great-grandma had more wrinkles than you ever thought.

Just looking at the glass, I could see an absolute family resemblance so I knew I had the right people. The index only had their last name and first initial but their names were so strange, there was no question. My wife and her brother look exactly like the man, Stonewall Jackson Musselman.

From that point I paid to have prints made. Back then I think it was around $20.00 each but now I think it is $32.00 each. It took a few days and I had to pick them up in person. The copies turned out wonderfully and are now truly family heirlooms. I know they are just copies but they are copies off the original negative. They are probably better copies than the "original" copies printed back in the day!

The Virginia Historical Society is pretty tight about allowing reproductions of reproductions. I am not allowed to make copies or publish the photos without paying additional fees. I can understand their need for funding and to control what their holdings are used for in the public media. If you want additional copies, I would order them all at the same time.

Okay, before I give you a link to the index, a few words of advice:
  1. From the main search page, click on the "Search Museum and Photograph Collections"
  2. Click "Combination Search"
  3. In the "Artist/Maker" field type just the word "Foster" (no quotes)
  4. In the "Keywords" box type the last name of a person you would be trying to find. Do not put a first name as most names are only given as a first initial or "Mrs." for women.
  5. Check all of your surnames for anyone in Virginia between say 1880 and 1930. They could have visited Richmond and taken a photo.
  6. If you find someone of interest, contact the VHS and for further information.
  7. If you remove the word "Foster" from the "Artist/Maker" field, you can search all of the photos that the VHS has in its collection (but there are lots)!
  8. If you do find something of major importance, let us know!
The link that you need is here: Virginia Historical Society Museum and Photograph Collections

I think you will have hours of enjoyment and excitement going through the index. Even if you do not find anyone, it is fun exploring a new resource. The Virginia Historical Society has other collections that you can search but this is my focus for today. And best of all...the economic downturn should have little or no influence on your search! Forget Wall Street for a little while and lose yourself in genealogy!

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