The historical perspective: A tale of two series, a mystery solved

A stereo viewer used to bring the popular Shute dioramas to life.
Photo courtesy of MV Museum

A stereo viewer used to bring the popular Shute dioramas to life.

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regularly appearing series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by present dates.

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s set of 12 glass-plate photo negatives showing a 19th-century whaling voyage has long been recognized as an unusual and fascinating example of the once-popular form of stereo photography. A 1988 article in the museum’s journal, the Duke’s County Intelligencer, describes how Charles and Richard Shute of Edgartown made the photos in 1868 and how their studio was destroyed in 1872, along with everything in it. One question remained: how can we still have the original negatives if everything was destroyed? The answer is that we don’t. The Shutes recreated them, a difficult and painstaking effort. The museum has the recreated negatives. The evidence is in the photos printed from them.

Charles H. Shute and Son, Photographers

Shortly after his medical discharge from the Civil War in 1863, 19-year-old Richard Shute joined his father’s photography business on Main Street in Edgartown. Their studio produced the standard photography of the day: portraits, comic vignettes, street views, and landscapes. Many were stereo photographs of Martha’s Vineyard views, made for sale to tourists. Stereo photographs were popular from the mid-1800s through the early 1900s. Each card had two slightly different photographs printed side by side. When viewed through a stereoscope, a single three-dimensional picture appeared. People amassed large collections of these cards, and gathering to look at them was a popular parlor entertainment. The whaling series is just a small part of the hundreds of stereo views in the museum’s collection, but its subject is unique to the Shutes.

Introduced in March 1868, the series of 12 pictures showed the drama of the hunt from spotting a school of whales to rendering blubber into oil on board ship. To make the photographs, Charles Shute crafted a meticulous tabletop diorama and moved his model boats, whales, and sailors from place to place within it. Though these photos were never intended to be printed larger than three inches square, a ship model about five feet long was the centerpiece of every scene. The entire diorama was more than eight feet across. The sea looks like it was represented by cloth arranged to resemble waves. After the photos were printed and, probably for an extra charge, some of them had color added by hand.

The result was a set of pictures that, when viewed as originally intended, looked like remarkably realistic whaling scenes. One admirer wrote: “That these views are correct representations is attested by those who have followed the business for years.” Sales were good. The Shutes even received an order from as far away as Le Havre, France.

A devastating blaze and a new beginning

In May 1872, the Shutes lost their studio in a fire that probably started in the darkroom. It destroyed their building and two others on Main Street. The newspaper described the scene as “awfully grand” with flames “shooting up into the air like fiery tongued demons.” Among the thousands of glass plate negatives that burned were the ones for the whaling series. Such a disaster could have ended the business, but instead the photographers set about replacing their stock by recreating their popular views.

For the most part, this was a straightforward process. On May 31, the paper reported that “R. G. Shute has been busily engaged in the past few days in taking new stereoscopic views of various portions of our village, and will soon have a full supply of local pictures. Richard has now gone to the Camp Ground and will stock up with new views as soon as possible. We are glad to see enterprise that fire cannot kill.”

It was more complicated to recreate the whaling photos, and the fact that the Shutes made the effort attests to the value of these pictures to their business. It was also an opportunity to improve them. Charles Shute, who created the diorama, altered the scenes from their earlier versions. It is easy to miss the differences — the changes are only obvious when the pictures are viewed side by side. But the later version is bolder and clearer.

The ship model takes up more space in the new pictures and the “sea” is choppier. The photo that shows whale blubber being rendered into oil now has billowing black “smoke” made of wool. All of this is especially apparent in enlargements from the negatives. Examples from both the original and the recreated series are presented here for the first time.

The ship models look different too. The model in the second series is the Ulysses S. Grant (no actual whaleship ever bore this name). Charles Shute made it to exacting detail, along with whales and other carvings. This model has been in the Smithsonian’s National Watercraft collection since 1875, proving that the Shutes recreated the whaling series less than three years after the fire.

There is no evidence that the Shutes took out a new copyright for the replicated series. Instead, they went on selling their “Stereoscopic Views of a Whaling Voyage,” never hinting that what customers bought after 1872 was different from the March 1868 original. But now we know.

Bonnie Stacy is chief curator at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum on School Street in Edgartown. The Museum is open Monday through Saturday. Go to mvmuseum.org or call 508-627-4441.