Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Photography’s first half-century of development was ex­citing and eventful. The daguerreotype, an image printed directly on a polished metal surface, was per­fected in 1839. A decade later, millions of Americans posed for ambrotypes, tintypes, albumen plates – often re­plete with military uniforms, favored family pets or bagged game. To satisfy the nation’s craving for portraiture, itinerant photographers roamed the country, creating temporary head­quarters in hotels and boarding houses in county seats and large communities. People flocked to these studios to have their likenesses captured.

During the prosperous post-Civil War years, photographers outfitted horse-drawn wagons to serve as living quarters, darkrooms and studios. No longer did rural settlers and isolated villagers have to go to town; the traveling photographic en­terprises allowed them to have their pictures taken in their own tiny settlements or farmsteads.

An item appeared in the April 29, 1886 Port Royal Times typifying the Victorian era fascination and enthusiasm for these delightful photographs:

A photograph car has located at Richvale, where it will remain for about two weeks. We hope that this poetical young lady of Shade Valley will secure a few of her charming portraits and if she will only be kind enough to send one this way she will have secured my kindest regards. Why don’t some artist pitch his tent at Blair’s Mills for a few days? I think they would certainly do a creditable business as this is more of a centre. I will venture to say that the youth and beauty of our village and surrounding neighborhood cannot be equalled anywhere, especially among the gentler sex, and who are ever ready and will­ing to have beautiful pictures taken.

By 1890, advances in technology – particularly the development of dry glass-plate negatives and sturdy but lightweight cam­eras with rapid lenses – made it possible for photographers to offer both city and rural residents “view photographs.” These new “views,” large enough to be hung in one’s parlor or sitting room, combined family portraits and pictures of the home­stead or farm.

Dozens of view companies were organized by entrepreneuring photographers in Pennsylvania. Operators traveled through­out the countryside in buggies outfitted with equipment by the view companies. The photographers shipped the exposed negatives to company headquarters where they were developed, printed and framed. Several weeks later a salesman delivered the handsomely framed views to the customers, always persuad­ing them to purchase additional copies for other members of the family. Notices in small-town newspapers enthusiastically recorded the pursuits of the companies in “photographing homesteads, schools and most anything you wish to have photo­graphed” and customarily commented on the finished product.

The number of view companies working in Pennsylvania during the decades before and after the turn of the century­ – the decades of the photograph’s greatest popularity – is un­known, primarily because most were small enterprises active only a few years. Often salesmen and operators worked sporadi­cally or only part time. And now, regrettably, their products­ – once prized by families and succeeding generations – turn up at country auctions and estate sales described merely as “good picture frames.”

Pennsylvanians also became enchanted with photographic views of themselves and their properties during the heyday of the view companies. In Juniata and Snyder counties, two nearby hamlets with a combined population of less than a thousand residents boasted five large-scale operations: the United States View, Acme View, Excelsior View, National View and American View companies.

The United States View Company was formed by Henry and Newton Graybill with Ellsworth Garman sometime during the late 1880s or very early 1890s. Up to that time, the Graybill brothers were partners with Garman in a small general store in Richfield, Juniata County. Newton Graybill learned the opera­tions of a view company when he worked for F.L. Landon, owner of the Keystone View Company of Allentown, as well as from J. Fisher, a Mount Pleasant Mills photographer.

Interestingly enough, two primary and exceptionally important sources of information regarding the activities of the United States View Company were uncovered recently. Cherished by Martha Graybill, daughter-in-law of one of the owners, a collection of some 400 photographic views and Newton Graybill’s notebook, containing instructions to the company’s operators and salesmen, offer a rare and remarkable insight into the work­ings of a late nineteenth century view company. Graybill’s “Instructions to Operators” not only provides a unique glimpse of the photographic process, but the manner in which sales were attempted. The following excerpts are taken directly from Graybill’s notebook:

When first you approach a gentleman or lady, address them with a reasonable amount of politeness and proceed to make your business known at once. Do not act as though you were waiting for their advice. Just say: “I’m going to make a pic­ture of your place for my own use if you do not object.”

He or she may ask numerous questions on this point. All you have to do is to assure them, and all this time be making progress toward taking the picture. That is, be looking the place over as though to get the best position while talking, and in an unconcerned way, say: “Did anyone ever make a picture of it?” This will let you know if they ever had it photographed or not. If they have, ask to see it. If it is as good as we can make, do not photograph it. If the picture they have is small and poor and they are willing to let you photograph the place, you may do so.

If the one they have is good, the best way to get out of it is to make a blank exposure and say: “Much obliged for troubling you. Good bye.”

When you have decided to make a picture, say to them: “It would improve the picture to have all the family in sight.” Don’t say this in a persuading manner, but as though it was to their option to stand out or not.


While the family is preparing themselves for the picture, the operator should place the camera in position. See that the window shutters are open, or if the windows are nicely cur­tained inside, raise some of the windows so that the curtains will show. Place some chairs on the porch or in the yard to make it appear as though the family was setting out. Rocking chairs with ladies always look good on the porch.

By the time the family is ready, you will have all this done. Place the group as near the centre of the picture as possible. The heads of the family in the best place to be seen. Never sit or stand them all in a row. Some sit, some stand. Some lean against the fence or some other suitable place. Have all hats, bonnets and white aprons taken off, and do not have the men photographed with coats off; shirt sleeves and old clothes show bad taste to the operator. See that there are no strangers and hired help in the group before exposing the plate. Always place strangers and hired help so far to one side of the picture that they don’t take.

Place the group about one third of the way from the house to the camera as a rule. Be sure that everything is focused sharp. Make the exposure as short as possible. Never have your hand on camera or tripod while making exposure.

When you take names, always take the given name in full as he or she are commonly called. Take the name and number of the slide, give them a hand bill and show them a sample pic­ture with a little explanation, such as price, when it will be delivered, and when they will see it, etc. Always be polite and manly, but have a little dignity and business in your movements.


Farm and town houses; views of houses and barns; barns and stock; family groups; mills; factories of all kinds; school groups; railroad groups; groups of laboring men whenever they will allow you to arrange them in a proper way to photo­graph.


Interiors; rented houses; houses they have pictures of; houses under construction, not complete whether new or rebuilding; houses where the people will not stand out, where the people will not put on a coat or take off their hats; views of moun­tains, valleys, ravines, bridges, waterfalls, rocks, rivers; old mills and water wheels not in use; graveyards, monuments, churches; fancy stock such as stallions, bulls, dogs, cats, chickens, hogs, sheep and pets of all kinds.

Never expose a plate on anything outside of our regular work until you have given them to understand that it will cost $1.50 110 matter how small or how few. Your may make cabinet negatives if they are asked for and you are sure you can make them well. Be careful to have them understand the price before taking, which is: Half-dozen – $2.00, one dozen – $3.00, two dozen – $5.00. Take all the old pictures you can to copy and enlarge … Sales are to be made by the salesman. Operators are only expected to make salable views.

Never expose the plate until the family or all that can be gotten are in the group. Many times you will find it necessary to go to the further side of the farm, blacksmith shop, grocery, or school house to get someone of the family in order to get the group together. This is a very important thing and should be carefully looked after always.

Put up for dinner and over night with the farmers. Never put up at a hotel if you can help it. Always give due bills and never pay cash if you can help it. In giving due bills, never ask a man if he will fake a due bill for his pay, but say: “How much is my bill? Well, I’ll just give you a due bill for the amount as that is the way we do. Then when the picture is brought, just present the due bill and if you do not buy the picture, the due bill is good for the cash and the man that delivers the pic­ture will pay you for it.”

While you are saying this, be writing a due bill on the back of a hand bill and hand it to him without hesitation. If he won’t accept it, you can pay him cash. Never put up at a place more than once, as it is in a new place you will secure a sale …

By closely following these directions, you will very greatly oblige

Yours very respectfully,
Newton S. Graybill

Newton Graybill was also an astute businessman and shrewd salesman. Although brief, his “Instructions to Salesmen” advised his employes in matters of both conduct and marketing. He urged tactfulness but always encouraged making a sale:

When you first approach a lady or gentleman, introduce your­self by saying: “I am one of the Keystone View Company, and have a picture of your place I would like to show you if you spare me a few moments to look at it, which will not cost you anything.” Never show if without a frame; the frame and glass must be well cleaned so as to be tasty in even; respect.

Also look the same yourself. Be polite and gentlemanly and carry an air of dignity and business. When you meet a man that has a title, address him as such. Act as though you had something that was valuable and choice.

Always be with the picture until it is sold, then leave as soon as possible. Never leave the picture to be criticized in your absence. Never allow them to take the picture and talk it over by themselves. Follow them up and be in as much of a hurry as would be reasonable.

No matter how poor the picture may be, find some good point in it and call their attention to that. Always ask the highest price first. Have them understand that the picture is of value whether they buy it or not. Do not act as though if you would not sell it that it would ruin the company, but say: “All right, much obliged for troubling you. If at any time you want the pic­ture, write to headquarters for it.”

If you happen to have all extra copy along, hold it at its value as much as the others. Don’t throw it in as though it was worthless. Always sell the picture you have with you before you ask for reprints, and get your pay. Then try reprints at the reduced price…

If the surviving views by the United States View Company are any indication of commercial success, Graybill’s operators and salesmen adhered strictly to their employer’s guide­lines. Most of the extant photographs depict houses in which the families are positioned in front – their hats and aprons removed! The photographs show a wide range of persons who wished to preserve their lives on film. The affluent and people of modest means, town dwellers and farmers were captured.

In addition to covering their major market – views of people and their cherished homesteads – the United States View Company operators, perhaps by dint of their own creativity or marketing ideas, also took a variety of other photographs. They recorded for posterity such things as conventions, school groups, churches, railroaders with their locomotives, hotels, stores and their employees, even ships.

Much like other view companies of the era, the United States View Company was a short-lived endeavor. Newton Graybill formed his own store in 1901, leaving the partnership with his brother and Ellsworth Garman. The United States View Company probably disbanded at that tin1e and the death knell soon sounded for surviving view companies throughout Pennsylvania and the nation.

The evolution of photography continued. By the end of the First World War, the view photographer discovered a new means of transportation and a new product – aerial views. As photographers exchanged buggies for airplanes, photographs changed dramatically with aerial views replacing the tranquil portraits of rural life in America. Some photographers now toured the country in automobiles, sending the photographs directly to customers through the mail.

These photographers left us a chronicle of rural Pennsylvania at the turn of the century. In those decades, traveling photo­graphic view companies not only preserved the Likenesses of generations of rural Americans, but they chronicled a pastoral way of life. Surviving photographic views are records and documents of our forefathers. Excellent examples of architecture long vanished, clothing and dress long disintegrated, and manners and customs long abandoned were captured by those cumbersome cameras.


For Further Reading

Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966.

Taft, Robert. Photography and the American Scene. New York: Dover Editions, 1964.

Welling, William. Photography in America: The Formative Years – 1839-1900. A Documentary History. New York: T. Crowell, 1978.


Jay Ruby is an associate professor of anthropology at Temple Univer­sity in Philadelphia. He serves as co-editor of Studies in Visual Communication and president of the Center for Visual Communica­tion, a research group. Since 1977 he has been conducting ethno­graphic research on visual communication in Juniata County. The author is currently co-producing and directing a documentary for public television on country auctions in that county.