Frederick H. Smyth Collection of Fire Photographs
Language of Materials
The collection includes photograph albums and glass plate negatives of New York City fires, firefighters, fire engines and firefighting equipment.
Frederick Hugh Smyth (1878-1949) made a hobby of taking and collecting photographs of New York City fires. Smyth retired as the bursar of the American Museum of Natural History in 1942 after working there from the age of 14. Smyth was a member of the New York Firemen Cycle Club. He was living in South Orange, NJ at the time of his death.
The collection is organized into two series.
- Series I. Albums
- Series II. Negatives
Scope and Content Note
The Frederick H. Smyth Collection of Fire Photographs spans the period from 1899 to 1926 and primarily contains photographs of the New York City Fire Department at work. The collection provides an invaluable look at firefighting technology and equipment in New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Images record the transition from horse-drawn fire wagons to motorized engines. In addition, the collection shows many individual fires, including the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 and the 1912 fire at the Equitable Building. The collection is divided into two series: Albums; and Negatives.
Series I. Albums consists of two disbound photograph albums together containing a total of 378 prints. Each album page measures 10 by 14 inches and holds between one and four prints. Each image was assigned a unique number by Smyth, and described by him on the verso of the page. The numbers correspond to the negatives in Series II, but the prints are not arranged by number in the albums. Many of the photos taken of fires in winter show large ice formations on buildings and fire equipment. These were generally noted as "ice-coated" by Smyth in the image title.
Album 1 spans the period from 1899-1925 and consists mainly of images of fires and fireboats. Notable fires include the National Biscuit Company fire in 1906, Windsor Hotel fire in 1899, the Equitable Building Fire in 1912, Lipton Tea Warehouse in 1909, Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911, Delaware Lackawanna Ferry in 1909, the Casino Theatre in 1925, and the ruins of the 1911 fire at the Dreamland amusement park at Coney Island. Other blazes pictured include: a piano factory on West 49th street, a loft building on Mercer Street, a paper warehouse on Lafayette Street, a pier, a tenement, an oil warehouse, a shanty, a subway explosion, a wallpaper factory, and other locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. The album concludes with many pages of fireboats, particularly those named "Thomas Willett," "New Yorker," and "W. J. Gaynor," some photos taken while the boats were in action.
Album 2 includes similar types of photos from 1904 to 1926 but also incorporates copy photographs of lithographs (most by Currier and Ives) depicting early fires in New York City. Some other copy photography, taken by photographers other than Smyth, is included here along with Smyth's original images. These photographers are noted on the versos of the album pages as: Van Altena, Mr. Phillips, Mr. Henry, and I. Dutcher. Most pictures in this album are of firefighting equipment, portraits of firefighters, parades or award ceremonies, equipment drills, and interior and exterior views of firehouses. Fire Chiefs and Commissioners shown include John Binns, John Kenlon, Edward Croker, Rhinelander Waldo, and Joseph Johnson.
Series II. Negatives includes 405 negatives. Fifty of these are film, the remainder are glass, primarily 5 x 7 inches. Smyth numbered each in the emulsion. The negatives are filed numerically and, as mentioned above, this order does not correspond to the page numbering system in the albums of prints. Thirty images are glass transparencies or autochromes, and therefore do not have corresponding prints in Series I. These are interfiled numerically with the negatives. Please refer to the item-level list following this finding aid, or the database, to see titles of negatives without prints.
When the negatives came to the New-York Historical Society, they were assigned a prefix of 61055 and were housed in the Negative File. All vintage negatives have now been removed from the Negative file. Negative sleeves still show this prefix, but negatives are only referred to by Smyth's numbers in this finding aid.
A database was created to record the album and page number, image number, image title, and address and date in order to facilitate the use of the collection. Printouts of this database follow the finding aid. These lists are sorted by album and page number; by borough and address; and by image (negative) number. The database is also searchable by keyword for subjects.
Materials in this collection may be stored offsite. For more information on making arrangements to consult them, please visit www.nyhistory.org/library/visit.
Taking images of documents from the library collections for reference purposes by using hand-held cameras and in accordance with the library's photography guidelines is encouraged. As an alternative, patrons may request up to 20 images per day from staff.
Application to use images from this collection for publication should be made in writing to: Department of Rights and Reproductions, The New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024-5194, firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: (212) 873-3400 ext. 282.
Copyrights and other proprietary rights may subsist in individuals and entities other than the New-York Historical Society, in which case the patron is responsible for securing permission from those parties. For fuller information about rights and reproductions from N-YHS visit: https://www.nyhistory.org/about/rights-reproductions
This collection should be cited as Frederick H. Smyth Collection of Fire Photographs, PR 063, Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections, The New-York Historical Society.
Location of Materials
Gift of Robert E. Logan in 1958.