A Mermaid’s Tale

This is the first installment of our two-part blog series highlighting the Nancy Tribble Benda Collection (N2016-1) available at the State Archives of Florida. Benda was one of the first mermaids to perform at Weeki Wachee Springs when it opened in 1947. She later went on to star in WFSU-TV’s educational children’s television show “Miss Nancy’s Store”  from 1966-1967 before working for the Florida Department of Education.

Many young children play dress up and fantasize about becoming a mermaid, a movie star, or a queen. But what if you really could be a mermaid, act in a movie, and be treated like Hollywood royalty? In 1947, teenager Nancy Tribble would become one of the first “mermaids” to work at Weeki Wachee Springs, landing a role on the big screen in Universal Pictures’ Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid.

Nancy with her mermaid tail, photographed during promotion for Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, 1948.

Nancy Tribble was born in DeLand, Florida, in 1930 to Lewis and Hillis Tribble. The family moved to Tallahassee in 1940, where she would go on to attend Leon High School and Florida State University. As a young woman, her hobbies included swimming in the local rivers and springs, spending time with friends, and competing in local beauty pageants, such as the Miss Underwater contest.

Nancy as Miss Killearn Gardens, with Miss Wakulla Springs during the Miss Underwater contest, 1946.

In 1947, Nancy would accept an unusual position as one of the first underwater performers at nascent tourist attraction Weeki Wachee Springs, situated along US 19 near the small and remote town of Brooksville. A year prior, park founder and former U.S. Navy swim coach, Newton Perry, had recognized Weeki Wachee as a good location for his new underwater theater business. In preparing the site for tourism, Perry first cleared the spring of the abandoned cars and rusted home appliances that had been sunk there by area residents. He then experimented with underwater breathing hoses, eventually creating a method of breathing underwater via a hose supplying oxygen from an air compressor. Taking occasional breaths from this hose, the “mermaids” could perform 20 feet underwater for extended periods of time, rather than being encumbered by wearing an oxygen tank.

Brochure advertising Weeki Wachee Springs, 1949 (Series N2016-1, Box 3, Folder 5.)

Six feet below the water’s surface, Perry built an 18-seat theater so that visitors could view performances and experience the beauty of the blue spring. Perry recruited young women from all over Florida and trained them to perform synchronized ballet moves and host underwater picnics while breathing through air hoses hidden throughout the scenery.

Nancy posed with underwater sign at Weekiwachee Spring, 1947.

On October 13, 1947, the first underwater show at the Weeki Wachee Springs theater opened. In a few short years, Weeki Wachee would become one of America’s most popular tourist attractions. Movies began to be filmed at the spring–notably, Universal Pictures’ Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid in 1948. Nancy tried out for the role of the lead actress in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, but that part was given to Ann Blyth. Instead, Nancy was cast as Blyth’s underwater body double and performed the swimming parts for the film. Journal entries left in Nancy’s scrapbook detail her experience of flying to Hollywood to meet the cast and crew.

Upon arriving in Hollywood, Nancy was immediately fitted for her mermaid costume by having a plaster mold made from her body. The tail in question, originally budgeted at $500, ultimately cost $18,000 to fabricate. In her first journal entry documenting her trip, Nancy comically illustrates the plastering process as if describing a scene from a horror film:

Journal entry by Nancy written December 9, 1947, describing her first day in Hollywood (Series N2016-1, Box 4.)

In the center of the room was a white, pillow-covered operating table with fluorescent lights lowered over it. That was for me! Golly. I turned to run but the door was barred…one of the big fellows grabbed me, while the women, who [were] by no means tiny, greased me from head to foot. Then I was thrown face down on the torture table and “plastered.” The stuff was cold and damp but with no sympathy whatsoever, the tyrants covered me from my neck down to my toes with plaster.

Following this plaster incident, Nancy was fitted for her mermaid wig by two makeup artists, who she described as “beautiful witches with long fingernails”:

Journal entry written by Nancy on December 11, 1947, describing the process of being fitted for a wig (Series N2016-1, Box 4.)

What pain, what agony, why, it was awful! Have you ever had anyone drive nails straight into your head? That’s what they did to me, or at least, it felt like it…jabbing in a hairpin here, driving home a bobbypin there…when at last their fiendish thirst was quenched, I was told to go swimming.

Hollywood wasn’t a complete terror, however. Nancy also wrote of the luxuries afforded to movie stars:

Journal entry written by Nancy on December 10, 1947, describing the luxuries afforded to actors and actresses in Hollywood (Series N2016-1, Box 4.)

Have you ever felt like a queen or wanted to feel like one? Well, I have pinched myself until I am black and blue and my dream still doesn’t fade; I feel like a queen. I live in a hotel room with my mother and what a room it is. We have everything from a radio and Kleenex to clean sheets every night. When I wake up, a merry voice says, “Good morning and what would you like for breakfast this morning?”…After eating, free of charge…I go out the front door to a waiting Cadillac or Lincoln…everyplace I go there is always a happy, cheerful voice greeting me or asking if there is anything he can do to make me more comfortable.

Nancy returned to Weeki Wachee to film the swimming sequences of Mr. Peabody and Mermaid. To promote the film, she toured across Florida in full mermaid garb, ushered around inside of a large aquarium.

“Mermaid” Nancy Tribble receives a key to the city of Tampa in 1948.

As shooting for the film wrapped up, and Nancy’s stint as a mermaid winded down, her adventure was actually just beginning. She would soon enter Florida State University, beginning a long and significant career in education and communications. Stay tuned for next week’s blog in our two-part series profiling the life of Nancy Tribble Benda.

External Sources:

Nancy Tribble Benda’s Obituary on Tallahassee Democrat. Retrieved May 11, 2017, from http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/tallahassee/obituary.aspx?pid=175400455

Weeki Wachee’s History. (n.d.). Retrieved May 11, 2017, from http://weekiwachee.com/about-us/history/

Marjorie Harris Carr: A Champion of Florida’s Natural Resources

Long renowned for its natural beauty, Florida remains a popular destination for tourists and nature lovers seeking pristine beaches, lush forests, winding rivers and an abundance of flora and fauna.  Brought up in this environment, young Marjorie Harris (later Carr), was to become a relentless defender of Florida’s natural resources through her groundbreaking scientific research and activism. Carr is best known for her initiative to preserve Paynes Prairie and for her opposition to the construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal Project.

Portrait of Marjorie Harris Carr.

Marjorie Harris was born in 1915 to Clara Louise (Haynes) Harris and Charles Ellesworth Harris in Boston, Massachusetts. The family moved to Bonita Springs, Florida, in 1918, where they resided on a plot of land with an orange grove near the Imperial River. Raised by two naturalists, Harris gained an early appreciation and knowledge of Florida’s plant and animal life. In 1932, she entered the Florida State College for Women (FSCW; now Florida State University). During summer breaks, Harris worked for the National Youth Administration (a New Deal agency). She designed and implemented a naturalist education program for Lee County youth in exchange for financial assistance with tuition, room and board at FSCW.

View of the Welaka National Fish Hatchery, Welaka, Florida, 1960.

Though a passionate and excellent student, Harris would face many obstacles in the professional sphere due to gender bias against female scientists. Harris graduated from FSCW with a B.S. in zoology in 1936. Despite membership in various honor societies and the Florida Academy of Sciences, her applications to graduate programs in ornithology at both Cornell University and the University of South Carolina were rejected on the basis of her gender. Undeterred, Harris found work as a biologist at the Welaka Fish Hatchery, near the St. Johns River in North Central Florida, becoming the first female federal wildlife technician. It was in this position that she developed an intimate understanding of the ecosystems of the Ocklawaha River, a tributary of the St. Johns River that would become a main focus of her environmental activism decades later.

Scenic view of boat on the Ocklawaha River, Ocala, Florida, 1965.

Through her work at the hatchery, Harris met her future husband, herpetologist Archie Fairly Carr, Jr. During their courtship, the couple had some concern that marriage would destroy Harris’ professional career as a scientist. Section 213 of the Economy Act of 1932 enacted workforce reductions of married persons (typically wives)—undermining married women’s tenure in the workplace. After the pair married in 1937, she began a new position as a laboratory technician and field collector at the Bass Zoological Research Laboratory in Englewood, Florida—during which time she concealed her marriage in order to continue her work.

In the fall of 1937, Marjorie Harris Carr entered the graduate biology program at the then all-male University of Florida (UF). She graduated from UF in 1942 and published her master’s thesis, “The Breeding Habits, Embryology and Larval Development of the Large-Mouthed Black Bass of Florida,” in the Proceedings of the New England Zoology Club. In 1945, following the birth of their first two children, the Carr family moved to Honduras. While Archie Carr taught biology at the Escuela Agricola Panamericana, Marjorie took daily excursions into the rainforest to conduct research on local bird life.

During the years that the Carr family spent in Honduras, Marjorie Harris Carr  published several notable ornithological studies. Upon the Carr family’s return to Florida in 1949, Marjorie Carr entrenched herself in community involvement, volunteering as a girl scout leader in Gainesville, then joining the Board of Associates of the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF. While serving on the Board, Carr donated thousands of the specimen skins she had collected in Honduras, greatly enriching the museum’s tropical ornithology collection. Carr’s community involvement served as an entry point into conservation work—first as an officer and board member of the Gainesville Garden Club, and later as a co-founder of the Alachua County Chapter of the Florida Audubon Society in 1960. Within these civil societies, her scientific training and knowledge made her well-positioned to collaborate with University of Florida faculty and government officials on a variety of conservation projects.

View of water hyacinths at Paynes Prairie, Alachua County, Florida, 1970.

Sign for Paynes Prairie wildlife sanctuary, Alachua County, Florida, 1969.

In 1957, as her first major project with Gainesville Garden Club, Carr spearheaded the preservation of Paynes Prairie, a 20,000-acre prairie made famous through the writings of naturalist William Bartram in the late 1700s. As the land was being rented by private owners to cattle ranchers as grazing lands, and having been drained in the 1930s for development purposes, Carr perceived a need to protect the sensitive prairie ecosystem from further damage. Capitalizing on the Department of Transportation’s program to set aside roadsides as preserves, Carr and the Gainesville Garden Club set aside roadside of U.S. 441 through the prairie as a preserve. In 1970, the Florida Department of the Environment bought the rest of the Prairie, establishing it as Paynes Prairie State Preserve. Using Bartram’s writings as a guide, the State proceeded with restoration efforts to revive the prairie’s native species, including the reintroduction of bison to the area by 1975.

Buffalo gathered around a windmill at Paynes Prairie near Gainesville, Alachua County, Florida, 1976.

By far, the longest fought battle of Marjorie Harris Carr’s career was her campaign to stop the construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal. A project designed to connect the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean through mainland Florida for barge traffic, the idea of such a canal had been proposed and rejected repeatedly throughout the years—in the 1930s, as part of an economic recovery program and again in 1942, as a national defense project. The project was finally granted funding in 1963 as a project under John F. Kennedy and was to be completed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Construction of the barge was planned along a section of the Ocklawaha River—near where Carr had cut her teeth as a biologist at the Welaka Fish Hatchery. Concerned about the potential environment impacts of the canal, Carr penned “The Ocklawaha Wilderness,” an essay published in a 1965 issue of Florida Naturalist, articulating the damage that the Canal would cause to the Ocklawaha ecosystem.

Forest debris from the construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, 1969.

In 1969, Carr and members of the Alachua Audobon Society formed Florida Defenders of the Environment (FDE). The organization, composed of hydrologists, geologists, economists, zoologists and activists wrote a scientific report entitled “The Environmental Impact of the Cross Florida Barge Canal With Special Emphasis on the Ocklawaha River System.” The environmental impact statement of the report was influential in the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970. The NEPA required all federal public works projects to evaluate potential environmental impacts before initiating such projects. Finding that the construction of the canal would threaten Florida’s water quality, FDE entered a suit with the Environmental Defense Fund against the Army Corps of Engineers, with the aim of ending construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal. A federal judge issued an injunction halting construction on the project, and on January 19, 1971, President Richard Nixon issued a statement against the construction of the canal, citing potential serious environmental damage.

Governor Claude Kirk presenting award to Marjorie Carr for her environmental efforts as head of Florida Defenders of the Environment, 1970. Her husband, prominent herpetologist Archie Carr at right.

In 1976, Carr and her colleagues spoke before Governor Askew and his cabinet. Following two days of testimony, Askew and his cabinet voted to ask Congress to completely deauthorize the canal. The canal was not fully deauthorized until George H. W. Bush signed SB2740 into law, officiating the demise of the canal project and repurposing the lands comprising the canal’s route to conservation and recreation.

Governor Askew accepting jawbone during club meeting at the Silver Slipper restaurant in Tallahassee, 1971. The gift is for Lt. Governor Tom Adams as part of the S.T.A.B. movement (Send Tom A Bone) by a conservationist who reacted to Adams comment that stopping the Cross Florida Barge Canal was just “throwing a bone to the conservationists.”

Marjorie Harris Carr passed away in 1997 at the age of 82. A year after her death, the Cross Florida Greenway was renamed the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway. A 110-mile corridor encompassing lands formerly occupied by the Cross Florida Barge Canal project, the Greenway provides sanctuary for diverse plant and animal life, and offers a myriad of bicycle and hiking trails to Floridians. Carr’s 27-year battle against the Cross Florida Barge Canal project illustrates individuals’ power to safeguard natural beauty and maintain clean and balanced ecosystems. Through hard work and dedication, Paynes Prairies and the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway stand for future generations to enjoy not simply on Earth Day, but every day of the year.

For further information, interested persons can peruse The State Archives’ record groups on Cross Florida Barge Canal Project and contemporaneous efforts to preserve Florida’s public lands. Check out our research guide in the form of a three-part blog: If You Build It…; Where There’s a Will…; and Land, Land, Everywhere – But What to Do With It?

External Sources:

Bull, R. (January 19, 2001). Failed barge canal project leads to Cross Florida Greenway. Retrieved April 20, 2017, from http://jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/011901/ent_barge.html#.WPk7FmnysuU

Florida Division of Recreation and Parks. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2017, from https://www.floridastateparks.org/trail/Cross-Florida

Macdonald, M. F. (2010). “Our Lady of the Rivers”: Marjorie Harris Carr, science, gender, and environmental activism (Doctoral dissertation).

Marjorie Harris Carr. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2017, from http: //fladefenders.org/histroy/marjorie-harris-carr/

Black Friday: The Life and Death of Florida’s Shopping Malls

For many Floridians, the day following Thanksgiving is something of an unofficial holiday–one marked by the custom of camping out in front of stores in search of the greatest deals on gifts for the holiday season. This Black Friday, we take a look at the history of a familiar, increasingly antiquated structure: the Florida shopping mall.

Interior view showing the atrium and escalators at Mayfair in the Grove Mall in Miami, ca. 1980.

Shopping centers are nothing new. The original “malls” were open-air markets, dating back to the Roman forum or the Greek agora. However, the American shopping mall as we know it today is a product of the rise of consumerism after WWII. The modern shopping mall was originally invented by Victor Gruen, an architect and refugee of Nazi-occupied Austria who came to the United States in 1938. Gruen conceived of the mall as a community center, in which people could socialize, walk, dine and shop just as they did in his home city of Vienna. Gruen is best-known for designing the Southdale Mall in Minnesota. Built in 1956, Southdale was the first fully air-conditioned, enclosed, two-story mall. The space centered around a square, complete with sculptures, greenery and water features. The unprecedented comfort and convenience at Southdale set the stage for the ensuing American shopping mall phenomenon.

Interior of the Winter Park Mall with a fountain, Winter Park, Florida, ca. 1959.

Gruen’s vision of building commercial utopias influenced other entrepreneurs of the era, such as the founder of Publix Supermarkets, Florida businessman George Jenkins. In 1947, Jenkins visited his first shopping center in St. Louis, and ultimately decided to pattern his stores based on this model. Jenkins opened his first shopping center in 1956 in Largo, and soon opened more locations in Sarasota and Winter Haven. The Southgate Center in Lakeland, built in 1957, boasted 16 stores, including a Woolworths, a hardware store, and a shoe store, all anchored by a Publix featuring Jenkins’ latest innovation, the in-store “Danish Bakery.” Equipped with ample parking, a plethora of stores and air conditioning, these shopping centers were the true predecessors to shopping malls in Florida.

Shopping center in St. Petersburg, 1958.

Shopping center in St. Petersburg, 1958.

The proliferation of shopping malls mirrored the rise of the automobile and the post-war white flight from urban centers to suburban neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Congress enacted the Internal Revenue Code of 1954, granting tax deductions to developers equal to one fortieth of the value of their development projects. This would account for the eventual depreciation of the value of the structure (that the developer, hypothetically, would have to re-build in an estimated forty years). These tax reforms were intended to stimulate manufacturing, but they also provided incentive for developers to build the largest, most opulent structures possible in order to deduct proportionally grand sums from their annual incomes. These tax reforms, coupled with the growing buying power of the white middle class, created a veritable gold rush for the construction of shopping malls.

Interior of the Colonial Plaza Mall, Orlando, Florida, 1966.

Malls hit the scene in Florida in the 1960s. The Winter Park Mall arrived in 1959, and featured a garden of tropical plants with a 25-foot champagne glass fountain at its center. Coral Ridge Plaza in Ft. Lauderdale and Colonial Plaza Mall in Orlando were soon to follow, both built in 1962. The Northwood Mall in Tallahassee, erected in September 1969, was the first mall built in the state capital, and offered a variety of clothing retailers, a luxury jeweler, a toy store, several restaurants, and a Publix.

Florida State Senator Mallory E. Horne, center left, with George Jenkins at opening ceremony of Publix at the Northwood Mall - Tallahassee, Florida

Florida State Senator Mallory E. Horne, center left, with George Jenkins at the opening ceremony of Publix at the Northwood Mall, Tallahassee, Florida, 1969.

Florida’s malls matched their national counterparts in size and grandeur, featuring indoor fountains, impressive sculptures, artificial gardens, gleaming chandeliers, and expansive parking lots.

Sculpture at storefront of Mendelson's at the Northwood Mall on opening day - Tallahassee, Florida

Sculpture in front of Mendelson’s at the Northwood Mall on opening day, Tallahassee, Florida, 1969.

Fountain at the Dadeland Mall in Miami.

Fountain at the Dadeland Mall in Miami, ca. 1970.

As malls became a fixture of American consumer culture, they gained a reputation as a place for young people to socialize. With limited spending power, and so often without an alternative place to congregate, teenagers flocked to the malls. There they could take a stroll, chat with friends, and engage in “people-watching”–unknowingly harkening back to Gruen’s original vision of the mall as a type of community center.

Youngsters

Youngsters “people-watching” at Governor’s Square Mall, Tallahassee, Florida, 1984.

Catering to this new wave of teenage patronage, youth-oriented businesses began to arise within the mallscape–including community college outreach centers, as well as national army recruitment centers.

Biscayne College outreach information center in the Palm Springs Mile mall - Hialeah, Florida

Biscayne College outreach information center in the Palm Springs Mile Mall, Hialeah, Florida, 1980.

People at the Miami Dade Community College outreach information center in the Palm Springs Mile mall, Hialeah, Florida.

People at the Miami Dade Community College outreach information center in the Palm Springs Mile Mall, Hialeah, Florida, 1980.

However, the place of the mall in Florida’s consumer society began to diminish by the 1990s. With the arrival of big box stores such as Walmart and Best Buy, as well as the rise of online shopping, malls saw a steep decrease in revenue, forcing many to close their doors forever. The Northwood Mall was later repurposed into an office building, while the Tallahassee, Governors Square, Aventura and many other malls across Florida have weathered the changing face of retail, remaining as palatial testaments to the post-war economic boom in America.

View of man posing with mannequins at Colony store in the Northwood Mall on opening day - Tallahassee, Florida

View of man posing with mannequins at Colony store in the Northwood Mall on opening day, Tallahassee, Florida, 1969.

Do you have a favorite mall in Florida? Were you a teenage “mall rat”? Share your memories with us in the comments section.

Finding Family on Florida Memory

Every October, archives across the United States celebrate Archives Month. This year, the State Archives of Florida is focusing on how archives change lives. Join us throughout the month as we share stories about the impact the Archives has had on staff and patrons like you!

With genealogy as the fastest growing hobby in America, many Floridians seek out resources at the State Archives of Florida to research their ancestors and connect with their past. In the process of digitizing photographs, documents and audio, Archives staff members sometimes make surprising discoveries–including insights into the lives of their own relatives.

Young circus acrobats practicing on a bicycle in Tallahassee. Terry Folmar, center.

Young circus acrobats practicing on a bicycle in Tallahassee. Terry Folmar, center.

Isabella Folmar, Florida Memory administrative assistant, was working as a scanner when she came across the above image of her grandfather Terry Folmar with fellow acrobats Margie Herold and Sandra Brooks.

“I was looking through the Tallahassee Democrat Collection on Florida Memory, and there he was. I remember once, when I lived with my grandparents as a little girl, my grandfather told me about being in the circus when he was a boy. But I had never seen any pictures,” said Folmar.

“This photo is really special to me. I remember sharing it with everyone in my family after I found it. My grandfather appreciated this little window into the past, and asked me to be on the lookout for more photos of his childhood,” she added.

Group of men in front of Moseley's Drug Store, Madison. Dr. Alonzo Lashbrook Blalock, third from left.

Group of men in front of Moseley’s Drug Store, Madison. Dr. Alonzo Lashbrook Blalock, third from left.

Similarly, Photographic Archivist Adam Watson discovered a photo of his great grandfather in a collection of photographs taken in Madison.

“My great grandfather was a doctor in Madison. I had never seen anything but formal portraits of him.  I had heard many stories about him from family and former patients.  I knew that he primarily made house calls but also had an office in the back of one of the drug stores downtown.  In this photo he is apparently hanging out in front of the drug store with his ‘buds.’ It was interesting to see an informal photo of him from head to toe,” said Watson.

“I was surprised at how small and kind of tough looking he was. It was easier now to imagine this man whom former patients told me could often be spotted in front of his house early in the morning,  asleep behind the reins of his carriage after a late night house call–his horse having found the way home.”

Children with Santa mailing letters to Santa from Tallahassee. Charlotte Pullen, top right, held by Santa.

Children mailing letters to Santa from Tallahassee. Charlotte Pullen is held by Santa.

Sound Archivist Ross Brand has uncovered a number of records of various family members in the State Archives, but two regarding his mother, Charlotte, were of particular sentimental value.

“The first thing I found after I started working in the Archives was a photo of my mom as a child mailing a letter to Santa.  In fact, most of her brothers and sisters are gathered around in the photo as well.  I don’t even think my mom had ever realized that it ran in the Democrat!”

Later, while digitizing Florida Folk Festival recordings, Brand found an even more charming record of his mother: “When I heard Thelma Boltin say my mom’s name, I couldn’t believe it.  My mom used to joke that she sang at the Folk Festival when she was in high school, but the fact that it somehow got captured on tape is incredibly serendipitous.”  This was the only recording of the Godby High School Folk Singers, and it just happened to be the year that Charlotte Pullen, as she was known then, was co-leader.  “Hearing not only her speaking voice, but her singing voice, too, was amazing,” Brand said, continuing that he “couldn’t wait to sneak her version of John Denver’s ‘Grandma’s Feather Bed’ onto a mix CD with all of her favorite folk music from the 1970s.”    

Archives are home to historically significant materials that often bear personal meaning to archives staff and the communities they serve. This October, make the most of Archives Month by investigating your family’s history using resources from the State Archives of Florida. Have you found a photograph of a loved one on Florida Memory? Let us know in the comments section!

Out of the blue!: The Ins-and-Outs of Cyanotype Printing

Back in April, a 1920s-era scrapbook of portraits of the Bridge family of Dade City was accessioned into the Archives. This scrapbook was unusual in two ways: first, it heavily features pets as the subjects of its photographs; second, nearly all of the prints are cyanotypes—prints created through an early photographic process, characterized by their brilliant Prussian blue hue.

Fred L. Bridge with his dog in Dade City.

Bridge family dog in Dade City.

The deep, cool tones of cyanotype photography are particularly refreshing to viewers coping with Florida’s summer heat. But, as it turns out, Florida’s summertime UV rays are ideal for the exposure of cyanotype prints! Inspired by the unique and beautiful prints preserved in the Bridge family scrapbook, we decided to research the history behind this unusual photographic process and even learned how to create our own cyanotypes.

A Brief History of Cyanotype Photography

English astronomer John Herschel first discovered the chemical process of cyanotype printing in 1842, when he coated paper with iron salts before exposing them to light to create an image. Herschel used the technique to copy his scientific notes through contact printing—laying objects onto sensitized paper to create an image. The process later became a popular method for copying architectural plans or “blueprints.” Additionally, botanist Anna Atkins applied this same process in creating photograms of algae. Released in 1843, Atkins’s British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, debuted as the first-ever publication illustrated with photographs. Atkins is also credited as being the first woman to create a photograph.

The cyanotype process was infrequently used until the 1880s, when photographers turned to cyanotype printing as a quick and inexpensive way to proof their negatives. Commercially available, pre-sensitized cyanotype sheets became available in 1872, and by the early 20th century were used to produce cyanotypes at home.

Though pre-sensitized cyanotype sheets are still commercially available today, we elected to mix the solution, sensitize the paper, and create a contact print using a large-format negative from the Archives. The method we chose is similar to how  photographers may have proofed their own negatives in 1870.

The Process

First, we selected a large-format black and white negative with simple, clean imagery, little detail, and with a good scale of dark, light and mid-tones, in the hopes that this negative would produce a clear cyanotype image. Given these parameters, we selected William Elsner’s 1934 photograph of a palm-lined road in Florida.

Palm-lined road in Florida by William Elsner.

Then, we set out on mixing the sensitizer, with a kit purchased online. The sensitizer is produced by mixing equal parts of two  solutions: Solution A (a mix of 100g ferric ammonium citrate with 500 ml water) and Solution B (40g potassium ferricyanide with 500ml water). The solutions are mixed in jars that have been covered in paper, to keep them out of the light.

Isabella mixes the sensitizer.

After mixing the solutions in the darkroom, we painted the resulting sensitizer onto watercolor paper, a heavier stock of paper that would stand up well to rinsing the prints later.

To protect the negative from the sensitized paper, we enclosed the negative in clear mylar–the same material used to protect many historical documents in the Archives. After the sensitized paper dried, we tacked the encapsulated negative onto the sensitized paper, and allowed the print to sit in direct sunlight for ten minutes.

Sunlight exposes the image onto the sensitized paper.

As the sunlight exposed the image onto the paper, the sensitized area of the paper turned from light yellow to a deep emerald green. Once the ten minute exposure time elapsed, we took the print inside for washing. After washing the print for five minutes in softly running water, the color transformed into the Prussian blue hue characteristic of cyanotype prints.

Jackie poses with freshly rinsed print.

Jackie poses with the freshly rinsed print.

The final print.

For more information about historic photographic processes, check out our exhibit, Daguerreotype to Digital, which covers the history of photography from 1839 to the present era. Are you a photographer? Let us know about your experiences with alternative photographic processes in the comments section!