“…the great success of Mr. Bell is due to his suavity of manner coupled with high artistic ability, and to the gentlemanly deportment observed by his corps of assistants. The rule is, politeness to everybody.” –Photographic Times and American Photographer, Sept. 1, 1883.
From the 1870s until the 1910s, tens of thousands of people in Washington, D.C. came to the C. M. Bell Studio for a photographic portrait. Residents and visitors alike sat for the camera, including political figures, businessmen, educators, entertainers, church leaders, athletes, foreign visitors and more. Bell also photographed Indian visitors to the capital, sometimes at the behest of government entities such as the Department of the Interior and Bureau of American Ethnology. Otherwise, customers for the studio were mostly white or African American, and included families posed together in their Sunday best, children and family pets, young ladies in their finest gowns, men with impressive mustaches, and babies possibly facing their first cameraman. Some wear the clothing of their chosen profession: military, police, clergy, baseball player. Others are capturing milestone moments such as graduations and weddings.
Through the lens of the C.M. Bell Studio, we can get to know the people in Washington, D.C. face-to-face. In browsing the recently digitized collection of over 25,000 glass plate negatives, I was caught by bemused expressions and elaborate outfits, by dignified poses and candid children’s smiles. Meet some of the faces of late 19th and early 20th century Washington, D.C. in a selection of photos from the C.M. Bell Studio below. At the bottom of this post, learn more about the C.M. Bell Studio and embark on your own exploration of the portraits.
Enjoy your own exploration of the photos of the C. M. Bell Studio Collection in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. The original caption information from the studio was very minimal, with usually just the name of the person who ordered the photographs listed. This means children are often under a parent’s name, for example, and initials are often used in place of full names. Browsing the collection or searching by last name are the most effective ways to explore the portraits.