My family and I lived in a tidy rowhouse situated in an area of South Philadelphia now referred to as Grays Ferry. It was a great place to live and raise children when my older brothers and sisters were born and growing up, but by the time my younger brother was born in the mid-’60s, conditions in the area were starting to deteriorate, and my Dad read the writing on the wall and decided to pull up stakes. He was also sick of driving around the neighborhood for an hour looking for a place to park. So we loaded up the truck and headed for South Jersey. Westville, that is.
Well before my family arrived in Westville, Henry Capewell had a glass factory there. His factory manufactured glassware including flint glass and fine pots. He also held a patent for glass castors that were put under pianos. The castors were sold to “insulate the instrument” and “greatly improve its tone and power.”
Flash forward to about the end of the century, and my Father is volunteering some yard work for an elderly neighbor named Annie. Annie lives alone and has a bunch of “old junk” and wonders if my Dad is interested. Being that Dad lived through the Depression, was in the navy and always figured there would be a use for whatever thing he came upon and refused to throw away, he took the “junk.” Remembering that his newest daughter-in-law, my wife, liked antiques, he decided to unload this latest acquisition upon us. We sifted through the stuff and oohed and ahed over some of the old ephemera like cigarette cards and old programs from plays from the beginning of the 20th century. There were also a load of 5″ x 7″ glass negatives. A big load! We put the stuff in boxes and put it away.
About a decade goes by, and I find myself wondering about those glass negatives. What if something famous was on one of those 200 pieces of glass? I try scanning one, but it’s too big for the scanner’s backlight. I came up with an alternative. I set up a small lightbox; taped out an area for the negatives on it; locked down a digital camera on a tripod and got to work. I shot all 200 negatives and brought the shots into Photoshop where, I cropped, inverted and adjusted each image. I just wanted to get an idea of what was on each slide, but they came out better than I thought!
The first shot I came across was of a Niagara Falls frozen over! Research showed that this was probably from around 1911. I thought, “What else was among the glass negatives?” I blasted through the rest of them.
At the time, I did not know the identity of the photographer. My Father was gone and Annie was, too. There was nobody to ask. I pieced together a story for myself from the photos. I figured the guy in most of the shots was a gentlemen farmer who was well off judging from the clothes and had an expensive (for the time) hobby of being a shutter-bug. He would get arty some times and have family and friends strike unusual poses which I imagine they had to hold due to the slow speed of the plates at the time. He documented his travels and the growth of his family. He took a number of self-portraits by rigging the shutter release up with a length of string. Great stuff. Nothing like a lost photo of a politician or foreign dignitary, but great stuff just the same!
Recently, I was going through the ephemera that my Dad also dumped on us. Among the travel postcards and other bits and pieces, I found an insurance bill addressed to Henry Capewell of Westville, NJ. A little hunting around on the internet, and mystery solved! Capewell is the photographer! I believe Annie was the daughter-in-law of Henry.
Take a look at a big chunk of this gentleman’s work here! It’s great when viewed as a slide show.
If you have any information on Capewell or the people in these photos, please leave a comment to this post. Thank you!