by Shannon Butler

If your family lived in the Poughkeepsie area during the late 19th century than perhaps one of your ancestors sat for a photograph at Vail Brothers Studios at 254-256 Main Street (in other words, check those photo albums and your attics). Located here in the Local History Department are over 30 boxes containing thousands of photographic proofs made by the Vail Brothers studio during a 20 year period in the late 19th century. These images serve as an excellent example of the fashions and styles of those who could afford to have their likeness made in a time when photography had become an accepted form of art.

The studio got its start in 1868 when 19 year old J. Watson Vail (1849-1922) set up shop at 254 Main St. in Poughkeepsie. His father and older brother were both businessmen in real estate and insurance but J. Watson along with his little brother Alonzo (1855-1929) took up photography instead. At first, the brothers appear to have worked separately, as Alonzo shows up in the directory as being a photographer in his own right. By 1872 J. Watson employed his little brother and soon thereafter they began to refer to the business as Vail Brothers. For 20 years they photographed thousands of people, and in May of 1882 their studio was praised by the Poughkeepsie Eagle News in an article which read “the quality of their work gives them a first class reputation all over the country.” Photography had become a well-known trade by the time the Vail brothers had come along. The first known photograph to contain people was shot by Louis Daguerre in 1838. By the 1870s, people were regularly sitting for photographs.

One of the Vail Brothers specialties was photographing children; at least that is what the Poughkeepsie Eagle News said. With longer exposure times than we have today, one needed to sit still for several seconds in order to get a clear image (Children are notoriously good wigglers). So in many images you will find a child propped up in a chair, or as you will see from the image on the right, the child’s mother would hide behind the chair and wrap their arms around the waist of their child. These photographs are known as “Hidden Mother” images, and sometimes the mother (as in this example) is not hidden all that well. With the studio being so good at photographing children they also had the skill to photograph people’s beloved pets. In the collection there are several images of family dogs like this beautiful terrier. It wasn’t cheap to have a picture made so to pay extra for an image of your dog; one must have had a fair amount of disposable income.

An interesting form of photography that we don’t see too frequently these days is known as “post-mortem.” Since death occurred more frequently at a younger age from sicknesses and lack of proper vaccinations, it is quite common to see images of the dead, particularly children. Parents wanted an image to remember their little ones, so it was considered normal to snap a picture of them in their deathbeds or caskets if they hadn’t had the chance to get them to a photography studio before their untimely demise. In our modern times, we handle death so much differently than out Victorian counterparts. The flip side of this is that today we frequently smile when we sit for photographs (or snap our selfies). However, it is fairly rare to find an image of people with their pearly whites in 19th century photography (that’s why we simply had to show this lovely couple showing off how happy they are).

Sadly, less than 20% of the people in the collection are identified. That being said, we have fascinating scenes like characters dressed up for a play, or some of the earliest images of football (Hey! They aren’t wearing any helmets!). Of course the display of fashion in these images is something to behold. By the early 1900s, J. Watson Vail retired from the business and in 1905 Alonzo joined the insurance firm of Vail, Sutton & Vail. For a brief window of time, the Vail Brothers photography studio gave us a fabulous look at the personalities of Poughkeepsie.

Make sure to check out our pain Main and Market to see some of the folks that have been identified in the Vail Brothers collection.