Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

An autochrome plate depicting an arrangement of Satsuma oranges is contained in MG 453, J. Horace McFarland Company Records, 1880–1912, held by the Pennsylvania State Archives. In 1878 nineteen-year-old John Horace McFarland (1859–1948) became the owner of a printing press in Harrisburg, incorporated in 1891 as the J. Horace McFarland Company. The firm published a number of national magazines on horticulture and gardening as well as colorful commercial seed and nursery catalogues for companies such as Burpee, B. H. Farr, and Rodale.

The plate was likely made for use as an illustration in such a catalogue. McFarland later boasted, “The wonderful Lumiere process of Autochrome photography was first used in America by us. The first plates were imported from France November 15, 1907, in a special shipment to us. Since then color photography has been extensively carried on by us, not only for general commercial purposes, but to provide color notes for our own use. These color photographs are in the shape of transparencies to be viewed by a transmitted light. When held against a white light, direct or reflected, the full beauty and color of the natural object appears. Apart from their natural beauty, they are invaluable as records for scientific purposes.”

Autochromes were praised by photographers for their warm tones and accurate depiction of color. Patented in France in 1903 by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere, the autochrome process involved coating glass plates on one side with a random mosaic of microscopic grains of potato starch dyed red-orange, green, and blue-violet. These acted as the color filter. The glass plate was loaded into the back of the camera with the uncoated side facing toward the lens so that the light passed through the mosaic filter layer before reaching the emulsion coated on the back of the plate. An orange-yellow filter was also mounted on the front of the camera to prevent ultraviolet, violet, and blue light from overexposing the sensitive photographic emulsion. The developed slides could be viewed hand-held or by using a diascope, a viewing device constructed specifically for this purpose. The autochrome was the first commercially viable form of color photography, and remained in use until the introduction of Kodachrome film by the Eastman Kodak Company in 1935.


Willis L. Shirk Jr. is an archivist with the Pennsylvania State Archives.