Northern Survey Company of Albany, NY
A few years ago, in the papers of my grandparents, Arthur and Mabel (Hamm) DeGarmo of Schuylerville, Saratoga County, New York, I found a mounted old family photograph, identified on the mat as being published by the Northern Survey Company, Albany, NY.
This old photograph also has hand-written notes on the back, identifying the folks lined up in front of their home: "Clarks Corners / Gramma Spicers Home / Bert DeG, Art DeGarmo, Grandma, Grandpa Chauncey, Great Grandmother Spicer, Grant Spicer".
Using this evidence along with the family genealogy I'm able to fill in the details:
Grandma Spicer is Eliza Arnold Gurny Spicer (1819-1900) seated to the left, wife of Eber Spicer (1813-1884) not pictured. Her daughter, Jane Eliza Spicer DeGarmo (1838-1916) is seated to the right of her husband Chauncey Arthur DeGarmo (1939-1928). Their son (and my grandfather), Arthur Chauncey DeGarmo (1874-1939) stands with a cat on his shoulder, and his older brother Burton Jacob DeGarmo (1864-1939) stands between his parents with a dog. Grandma Spicer's grandson, E. Grant Spicer (1881-1953), son of her son Jacob Lindley Spicer is on horseback. The Spicer's lived in Moreau and Gansevoort (Saratoga County) during the 19th century. Calculating ages of those pictured, I can date the image to circa 1890.
My friend Rachel Clothier, Corinth Historian, also has a circa 1890 family photograph, identified on the mat as published by the Northern Survey Company of Albany, NY. It has the following notes: "Cora Aldrich Young + Baby Maud Young Clothier / RD / Anne Clothier's Great Great Grandmother," and she, too, can provide further details:
Baby Maud is Maud Young Clothier (1891-1975), daughter of Cora Aldrich Young (1864-1914) and Fred T. Young (1860-1947), who in 1892 and 1900 were living in the Town of Corinth. In 1909 Maud Young married Harrison H. Clothier (1888-1975). All four are buried in the Corinth Rural Cemetery.
When we compared these photographs a number of years ago, I found out that Rachel had been collecting Northern Survey Company images, and had another 15 examples in her private collection. Most of these were only identified with the company name on the mat and neither of us knew anything about the company. Of course we were both very pleased with our family treasure (and she with her collection), but as historians, we had questions about the company behind these photographs and their subjects. Who were the photographers, and when and where did they do this work? Could we find more examples in public and private collections? With a bit of research, what could we know about the Northern Survey Company of Albany, NY?
Sharing old family photographs with a colleague sparked the idea that ultimately led to an original exhibition, Old Homesteads and Good Residences: 19th Century Photographs of the Northern Survey Company of Albany, NY, in the Folklife Gallery, May 15 to November 15, 2019.
Clues from a variety of sources like newspapers, family genealogies and city directories helped answer our questions, allowing us to flesh out the company's history and activities around the region.
The Northern Survey Company of Albany, NY was established in 1878 and stayed in business for two decades until about 1900. Its owner and manager, Corydon Waterman Higgins (1847-1904), sent itinerant photographers across New York State, western New England, and even into the Midwest, to take photographs of houses, farms, businesses and public buildings. Prints were developed from Higgins' own dry plate glass negatives at the Albany offices, and then salesmen were sent back to the communities to find customers.
These photographs are identified by the company name, "Northern Survey Co., Albany, N.Y." printed boldly on their mats. Other than a number and surname notation by the company on the back of the mats, most are unidentified as to individuals or locations.
Northern Survey Company photographs have been collected by other private collectors, museums, libraries, and other repositories in New York and New England. With a lot of inquiries and searching the internet, focusing on images taken in Upstate New York, we found photographs and repositories willing to share their images and information for use in our exhibition. Where we could, we added more information for a number of the otherwise unidentified photographs, based on any clues found on the photographs themselves, and aided by the research resources of the Folklife Center.
Today we're announcing our next steps for extending the life of the exhibition and allowing greater public access to these 19th century photographs. Our partners for the exhibition have also agreed to allow us to upload all the photographs and information we've accumulated on the Northern Survey Company of Albany NY to the New York Heritage Digital Collections website. We've also prepared an introductory video linked to our YouTube channel. After a lot of planning and work, the site is now ready, and we've begun to upload the 135 scanned images in our possession. And we intend to add more images as we find more willing partners with Northern Survey Company photographs to share. (see the link to NY Heritage at the end of the article).
This has all been possible thanks to our amazing partners: the New York State Museum, the Farmers Museum at Cooperstown; Brookside Museum; Old Fort Museum; and private collectors Walter Richard Wheeler, Rachel Clothier, Lisa Dougherty, and Todd DeGarmo.
We encourage others to join us in this venture.
For more information:
• View our video to learn more about the Northern Survey Company of Albany, NY:
• See the collection: Northern Survey Company of Albany, NY on the New York Heritage Digital Collections website at https://nyheritage.org/collections/northern-survey-company-albany-ny.
• Read about it: Walter Richard Wheeler's article, "Itinerant Farm Survey Photographs - The Northern Survey Company" in The Society for the Preservation of Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture Newsletter, April-June 2017, Volume 20, Number 4-6, pp. 9-15.