ST. JOHN — The twentieth century saw great technological, sociological and historical changes, perhaps more than any other century before. At it’s opening, ladies wore long dresses that brushed the floor, everyone rode in a wagon and faced disease and death without the benefit of antibiotics.
William R. Gray of St. John recorded it all.
Beginning his work in St. John in 1905 and ending in 1947, Gray’s lens recorded history in a way that words do not. The ladies dresses and hairstyles grew shorter as time went on. Some men were so proud of their vehicles with engines that they were in Gray’s pictures-something where only the style of the vehicle has changed. Then, there was the picture of the men’s football team, complete with striped jerseys, and hair that was flat on top and curled on the sides.
There were young children in christening pictures, enlistment papers, oversized pumpkins, and even a fortune teller along with the studio photos. There are approximately 27,000 glass negatives, nearly all of them in amazingly clear and reproducible condition. Gray photographed families and individuals from throughout Stafford County and from surrounding counties, including the exodusters, or African-Americans who were former slaves.
Gray’s techniques were common when he began in 1905 using techniques that came into use in 1880. The process was called dry plate glass negatives. A silver gelatin emulsion was applied by the manufacturer on one side which was durable and produced the vivid, sharp photos.
Gray continued the work until his death in 1947 both in and outside of the studio at 116 N. Main in St. John. By that time, glass negatives had fallen into disuse, but he continued with the format he was accustomed to.
Efforts are underway to preserve the photo gallery and home as an artists’ studio.
The approximately 3 by 5 inch negatives are stored in the vault at the Stafford County Museum at Stafford and the museum is in the process of documenting, cleaning and storing them in acid-free paper. Gray has 11 ledgers filled with names, dates, and sometimes a description.
These negatives are being cleaned by volunteers. Volunteer Marion Hearn has personally cleaned 8,774 negatives, which involves brushing the emulsion side of the negative with an anti-static brush and washing the other side with distilled water.
One day, Hearn came across a negative of two twin toddlers. After he cleaned the images, he walked over to the ledger to complete the book work. Through an amazing chain of events the names in the ledger were Melvin and Marion Hearn, a picture of himself and his twin brother.
“It was a total surprise,” said Marion. “I didn’t recognize myself. Marion learned that the cost of the photo package was $1 down and $3 for the whole setting.
After the negatives are cleaned, they are scanned and can be found online at http://contentcat.fhsu.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/stafford. About 10,000 photos have been scanned so far and can be searched by subject.
“We’ve been told that although there are larger glass negative collections in the country, ours is probably the largest collection specific to one geographic area,” said Michael Hathaway, curator and director of the Stafford County Historical Society. He estimates each negative is worth $10.