Cabinet Card Photographs from the Harvard Theatre Collection

CURATOR’S CHOICE #13: JOHN OVERHOLT FROM THE HOUGHTON LIBRARY, HARVARD UNIVERSITY

John Overholt, Curator at Houghton Library, shines a spotlight on a few examples from the eclectic lot of cabinet card photographs found in the Harvard Theatre Collection, a series of images which are currently making their way onto Wikimedia Commons courtesy of the Wikipedian in Residence scheme.

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This year, Houghton Library hired its first Wikipedian in Residence. Although the project was new for us, the idea certainly isn’t: since the first such position was created in 2010, dozens of libraries, museums, and other institutions have had a Wikipedian. Generally, a Wikipedian in Residence will enhance articles relevant to the institution’s collections, contribute materials from those collections, and foster ongoing cooperation between the institution and the Wikipedia community. You can follow the work of our Wikipedian in Residence, Rob Velella, through the edit history of the account he created for this project, Rob at Houghton.

One of my priorities for the project was to have the Wikipedian work on identifying and uploading public domain material from our digitized collections that could be useful in enriching Wikipedia articles. We decided to start with the rich collection of more than 100,000 cabinet card photographs in the Harvard Theatre Collection, currently in the midst of a long-term digitization project. So far we’re only through the first few letters of the alphabet in the collection of actors’ photos, but even that small slice gives a strong sense of the value and scope of the collection. Unsurprisingly, the collection is primarily made of actors in the strict sense, and the photos of them range from the tastefully classical:

English actor Aubrey Boucicault (1869-1913), headshot in character. Source includes the note: “In Quo Vadis”. TCS 1.3244, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. Date: 1913 or earlier. Photographer: Elmer Chickering from Boston – Source.

to the wild and wooly:

American opera vocalist David Bispham (1857-1920), in character as Alberich in the opera Siegfried. TCS 1.2543, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. Date: 1902. Photographer: Aimé Dupont – Source.

In addition, quite a few other kinds of performers are represented, from authors like Mark Twain:

American author Samuel L. Clemens, known by the name Mark Twain (1835-1910), sitting and wearing a white suit. TCS 1.5265, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. Date: 1910 or earlier. Photgrapher: unidentified – Source.

to impresario of the Wild West, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody:

American showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917). TCS 1.5331, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. Date: 1917 or earlier. Photographer: Newsboy, New York – Source.


From health and fitness advocate Bernarr Macfadden (note that this photo is presented in its entirety, and I have no further information about what may have been happening below the frame):

American proponent of health and fitness Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1915). TCS 1.2397, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. Date: Before 1918. Photographer: unknown – Source.


to, well, whatever the heck this is:

Two performers playing stringed instruments. Labeled “European comic eccentric ‘Bonitas’ family. TCS 1.2790, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. Date: 1918 or earlier. Photographer: Hall, New York – Source.

In fact, not all the subjects are human, such as the chess playing automaton Ajeeb the Wonderful. It should be noted however, that like his more famous cousin the Mechanical Turk, Ajeeb is merely a cover for the quite human chess player inside who secretly controlled his movements.

Chess automaton “Ajeeb the Wonderful”. TCS 1.183, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. Date: 1886. Photographer: Falk, New York – Source.

If you’d like to explore the rest of this fascinating collection, simply search for “TCS 1” in VIA, Harvard’s image access database, or visit us at Houghton Library, which is open to any adult researcher who wants to make use of our collections.


John Overholt is Curator of the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Samuel Johnson and Early Modern Books and Manuscripts at Houghton Library, Harvard University



This post is part of our Curator’s Choice series, a monthly feature consisting of a guest article from a curator about a work or group of works in one of their “open” digital collections. Learn more here.

See this post in all its full page width glory over at The Public Domain Review.

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