History comes sharply into focus in the photographs.
The images of city life are crisp: Businessmen in derby hats hustle up and down the sidewalk. Police patrol the streets on foot. Parked near the white marble buildings, a row of black Model Ts stands out in clear contrast. In the interior shots of banks and office buildings, brass railings shine like new.The railings were brand new, actually, when many of these photographs were taken. Back then - in the early 1900s - you didn't open a business without a photographer to record the event.
If you lived in Salt Lake City, the photographer you hired was undoubtedly named Shipler. Either James W. Shipler or his son Harry; or, later, one of Harry's sons, Bill or Bud; or Bill's son, Bill Jr., or . . . well, you get the picture.
For nearly 100 years the men of the Shipler family have chronicled the commercial life of the Salt Lake Valley. They took 100,000 photos. Approximately 30,000 of the early photo negatives are glass.
In August, the Utah State Historical Society bought the entire Shipler collection for $25,000. The collection boosts the society's total number of photos to 400,000. It also enriches immeasurably our understanding of Utah's business beginnings. Historians are elated.
"Here's a photo of the New-house Building under con
struction in June 1909," says photo librarian Susan Whetstone. Men in suits and hats mingle with a group in workshirts and suspenders. Lumber lies in neat piles. No one is lifting a hammer. "The workers were on strike at the time," she says. "We had few strike photos before we got this collection."
Jay Haymond, director of collections and research, is pleased by the beauty as well as the historic value of the photos. He says, "You just never get used to the crispness of a contact print made from one of those 8-by-10-inch glass negatives."
James W. Shipler started Shipler Photography Co. in 1890 in Great Falls, Mont. In 1902, he moved the business to Salt Lake City.
Bill Shipler, the current owner, worked with his great-grandfather and his grandfather (Harry) in their Main Street shop during the 1930s. He remembers "J.W." not as the local father of commercial photography, necessarily, but as "a great fly fisherman."
Shipler offered the prized family collection (at a price historians felt was extremely reasonable) because he was moving his business.
Haymond says, "We've called Bill Shipler several times over the years to ask about the possibility of getting his collection. The answer was always a solid and unequivocal, `No.' Then out of the blue he called us!"
Haymond wasted no time in asking for donations to cover the cost of the acquisition. (So far the society has received $5,000.) The glass negatives are now in the society's safe. The public can share in the Historical Society's excitement by obtaining one of the prints, for $5 each.