Thursday, September 24, 2015

Railway Men, Unite!

Some of William Miner’s convention badges
In the 19th century, railroads were the biggest business in the United States. W.H. Miner, Co., was just one of the hundreds of companies running railroad lines, building locomotives and railcars, and manufacturing the parts that went into building those cars. Because of the huge scale of the railroad industry, and its vast geographical range, “railway men” began very early on to create organizations that would help coordinate their activities. These associations worked to create standardized rail gauges, time zones, traffic signals, and  freight rates, and in many cases were the driving force behind the legislation of new safety features, like air brakes and automatic couplers.

Since there were so many different aspects to the railroad industry, it’s no surprise that there were dozens of specialized associations, from the American Association of Baggage Traffic Managers to the Association of American Dining Car Officers to the Railway Signal and Communications Suppliers Association. William Miner was a member of a number of railroad organizations, and the collection of pins in the Miner Room serves as a memento of the meetings and conventions he attended.

William Miner was a member of the Railway Supply Manufacturers’ Association, the American Railway Master Mechanics Association, the Master Car Builders Association, and the Car Inspectors and Car Foremen’s Association. The ARMMA took as its object “the advancement of knowledge concerning the principles, construction, repair and service of the rolling stock of railroads,” while the MCBA’s goal was “to procure uniformity in car construction, secure the most economical results in the interchange of traffic between the railroads of the country.” To this end, in 1879 the MCBA published The Car-Builder’s Dictionary, which defined and illustrated every part used in the construction of railway cars (the book is still being updated and is now known as The Car and Locomotive Cyclopedia).

1908 Convention scenes, published in the July issue of
Railway Master Mechanic magazine
There was a good deal of overlap in membership and goals among these organizations of car builders, and they frequently held joint conventions. These meetings were as much about pleasure as they were business, and as such were generally held in resort towns such as Mackinac Island, Michigan; Saratoga Springs, New York; and Atlantic City, New Jersey. Photos of the 1908 Convention of the MCBA and ARMMA, held in Atlantic City, show the attendees enjoying the delights of the Boardwalk (sadly, William doesn’t appear in any of them, though we know he was there). The members also had the opportunity to hear reports on a variety of exciting topics, such as mechanical stokers, brake shoes, the apprenticeship system, and the “best system of washing out and refilling locomotive boilers.”

William returned to Atlantic City at least one other time, in June 1922, for the Railway Supply Manufacturers’ Association’s annual convention, which was held in conjunction with the meetings of the American Railway Association Mechanical Division, the Air Brake Appliance Association, and the Air Brake Association. As the Railway Review reported, “It is expected that the combined meeting will constitute one of the largest gatherings of railway men ever held.” The Pennsylvania Railroad offered a special train from Chicago to Atlantic City for attendees.

Young’s Million Dollar Pier, ca. 1911
A key part of this event was the displays by railroad supply companies (including W.H. Miner), exhibiting their products. This exhibition was held at the Million Dollar Pier, one of Atlantic City’s biggest entertainment complexes. Originally built in 1906 by Colonel John L.Young, the Million Dollar Pier was 1700 feet long and contained (in addition to the Exhibit Hall) a theater, aquarium, roller skating rink, and the World’s Largest Ballroom. While William would have frowned upon some elements of Atlantic City’s nightlife—illegal liquor and gambling—he undoubtedly enjoyed the opportunity to meet with business acquaintances and make some new customers for W.H. Miner, Co. Perhaps Alice joined him on this excursion, and they strolled the Boardwalk together, taking in the sights and sounds of the east coast’s most popular leisure destination.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Shades of the Past: Silhouette Artist John Miers

Silhouette by Miers, said to be a portrait of
Margaret Ruskin
We generally associate the silhouette with an image cut out of black paper, but in the 18th and early 19th centuries, there were many other methods for producing “shades” or “profiles.” Indeed, since black paper was not commercially available until the late 1820s, many artists preferred to paint silhouettes on paper, ivory, glass, or plaster. The master of painting on plaster, and one of the most prolific and accomplished silhouette artists of the period, was John Miers.

The Alice’s collection includes one silhouette by Miers—the profile of a young woman with a fashionable short haircut. Alice T. Miner purchased this silhouette from the antique dealer T.H. Telford of Grasmere, probably during the trip she made to England in 1937. Telford identified the sitter as Margaret Ruskin, the mother of critic John Ruskin. There is some doubt about the accuracy of that identification, but it is nonetheless a charming portrait and a very fine example of Miers’s work.

An early Miers silhouette, ca. 1783-84
John Miers was born in 1758 in Leeds, England, the son of a coach painter. By 1781 he had set up his own business painting silhouettes, and between 1783 and 1788 traveled to various towns in Scotland and the north of England to offer his services. On October 26, 1784, Meirs placed this advertisement in the Manchester Mercury:

“J. MIERS Begs Leave respectfully to inform the Ladies and Gentlemen of MANCHESTER, That he has invented a new Method of taking the most exact Likenesses in Miniature Profile. He has succeeded beyond his most sanguine Expectations, in remedying the Defects with which the common uncertain Method of reducing Shades have universally been attended; and has been honoured by all who have seen his Performances, with the most flattering Encomiums, for giving the true Proportion and most animated Expression of the Features.” The cost was a “trifling” 5s. to 7s. 6d. (To put that in perspective, 5 shillings was a respectable week’s wages for a working man in the 18th century.)

A “Method of taking Profiles,”
Lady’s Monthly Museum,
October 1799
What exactly Miers’s remarkable method entailed is not recorded, but since he advertised that the sittings took only two or three minutes, it must have involved a machine of some kind. A variety of devices existed to trace profiles and then reduce them in size, generally using a pantograph. Miers boasted that his method was unique, because “in proportion as the Profiles are reduced, they invariably acquire increasing spirit and animation, a circumstance directly opposite to every other previous invention.” This made his likenesses ideal for “wearing in rings, pins, lockets, bracelets, faux montres, &c.”

In 1788, John Miers and his family (which eventually would grow to eleven children, many of whom became artists themselves) arrived in London, and in 1791 they moved to 111 Strand, which was to remain their home and place of work for many years. The Strand was the home of many fashionable shops as well as government buildings, and Miers drew his clientele from the well-to-do middle and upper classes, and even nobility and royalty, including King George III.

The label on the back of “Margaret Ruskin’s” portrait indicates that it was made during this early London period, between 1791 and 1809. After 1800 Miers produced few profiles, and most of the portraits made after that time were probably executed by his equally talented assistant, John Field (1772-1848). It is likely that the silhouette in the Alice’s collection was made by Field rather than Miers himself.

John Miers left a fortune of £20,000 upon his death in 1821, so he was obviously very successful as an artist and businessman. Miers offered his customers silhouettes in a wide range of sizes which could be adapted for various purposes. Once a likeness was made, it could be infinitely reproduced. He even offered the option of copying other artists’ silhouettes, and if one wished, having them updated by being “dress’d in the present Taste.”

A view of the Strand, ca. 1800

An excellent resource for learning more about British silhouettes (and the source of the information about John Miers in this post) is Profiles of the Past.