William Shew (1820-1903) – Photographer & Daguerreotype Innovator


W.P. & H. Wolfinger

I came across this picture of a pair of distinguished looking brothers named W.P & H. Wolfinger and wanted to research them to tell their story… but my ADHD kicked in and I was distracted by the photographer’s name on the back of the cabinet card instead… Wm Shew’s new Photographic Establishment, 145 Kearny Street, San Francisco. 

What caught my eye were the words Photographic Establishment. Normally, on cabinet cards, the photographer only has the word “photographer” after his name but William Shew went all out and that intrigued me. I had to know more about him.

I came across a blog by Michael Colbruno called Lives of the Dead: Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. Michael has researched William Shew since he is buried in Mountain View Cemetery. I’ve taken the liberty to add a few pictures and some additional information… It’s a great story and history lesson.

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 1846, Shew married Elizabeth Marie Studley and had a daughter they named Theodora Alice, born in Feb. 1848. He also became and active member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.

William Shew's passport application applied for on Jan. 27, 1851

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.”

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. In 1878, his only daughter, Theodora “Dora” married Calvert Meade.

On Oct. 11, 1889, Shew’s wife of approximately 43 years died of typhoid fever along with his youngest grand daughter, Edith Dora Meade. In 1892, at the age of 72, Shew married his second wife Annie Katherine. She was 26.

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.

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One response to “William Shew (1820-1903) – Photographer & Daguerreotype Innovator

  • Donovan Dyer

    I have an old album of family photo’s that was handed down to me. Most of the photo’s have nothing written on them, but most are from the Studio of Wm Shew in San Francisco. No numbers on the back, and I guess no way to trace them?

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