The Hanford Collection : Photographs of the mill and community

Visitors to Hanford Mills Museum have long enjoyed water and steam powered machine demonstrations presented amidst a carefully preserved tableau of historic buildings and natural features. The Museum is less well known for its extraordinary collection of photographs. The photograph collection preserves a visual record of the life, work, and landscape of East Meredith and its people. The core of the photograph collection is the work of Horace D. Hanford and his son, James Ralph Hanford (also known as J. Ralph or Ralph), taken from the early 1890s to the   early 1920s. The Hanford Collection represents the themes of people and family, life and work, and change over time.

The bulk of what is called the “Horace Hanford Collection” came to the Museum in 1976 as a donation by Ralph Hanford. The donation included 105 dry glass plate negatives that range in size from 3. x 5ó, 4 x 5, 5 x 7, and 6ó x 8ó inches square. These dimensions refer to the size of each glass plate, with each plate bearing a negative image that Horace Hanford would have used to make a photographic print.

An additional donation of glass plate and flexible film negatives came to the Museum a few years later, care of Ronald and Grace Kent. Ron and Grace purchased Horace Hanford’s old house, and discovered a box in the attic containing 65 glass plate negatives, five 3 x 5 inch flexible negatives, and 191 120-size roll film negatives. The glass plate negatives and five flexible negatives were determined to be the work of Horace Hanford, and were added to the Horace Hanford Collection, and the 120-size roll film negatives were grouped into a “Ralph Hanford Collection” category after the subject matter of the photographs linked them to Horace’s son, Ralph.Horace D. Hanford, born in 1870 and the elder photographer of the Museum’s collection, was the third child of David Josiah and Ann Elizabeth Hanford. Horace’s parents purchased the saw mill and farm property in 1860 that forms the nucleus of the Hanford Mills Museum site today. Horace married Mary Hamilton in 1897, and in 1902 their son James Ralph was born. James Ralph graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York, in 1924 and later made his home in Metuchen, New Jersey working as an electrical engineer.

Horace and Ralph Hanford participated in the great transformation of photography from a mainly professional endeavor to a hobby embraced by enthusiastic amateurs across  the country. One of the factors responsible for the change was the development of the so-called “dry plate” negative, where photographers could purchase glass plate negatives pre-treated with a silver-gelatin emulsion. By the time Horace took up the hobby in the early 1890s the dry-plate negative was an established part of a modern photographer’s supplies.

Although still quite expensive even by current standards, people in America’s growing middle class found the cost of a camera and its required equipment reaching prices that were deemed acceptable. In 1896, The Rochester Optical Company sold their 5 x 7 “Standard” model for $12, or around $300 today. Add to this cost the necessity of a tripod, lens (often not included), plate holder, and a focusing cloth, and the cost for a camera outfit would top $19, or well over $400 in 2011. Horace also developed his glass plate negatives and made his own prints, thus adding the cost for developing chemicals, photographic paper, and other supplies to the total.

Given his participation in the bicycle craze then sweeping the land; it is clear that Horace enjoyed immersive “hands-on” hobbies that engaged the mind and body. The act of packing and transporting his camera and supplies to hillsides overlooking the hamlet of East Meredith and his mill property must have satisfied his craving for physical engagement, and the act of framing the shot, manipulating the various settings on the camera, and then navigating the developing and printing process provided abundant mental exercises and calculations for an individual known for his interest in technical matters.

The photographs that Horace and Ralph Hanford made are far more important than a mere roll-call of names and places. Horace and Ralph sought to preserve the memories of the individuals who populated their daily life. By recording sweeping vistas of the hamlet of East Meredith from adjacent hillsides Horace demonstrated a keen sense of the often subtle ways that the world around us changes over time.

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