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The Glass Plate Garden: Early Photographs of Central Park

J. S. Johnston, Bethesda Terrace at Central Park (1894) (via Thomas Warren Sears photograph collection, Archives of American Gardens)
J. S. Johnston, Bethesda Terrace at Central Park (1894) (via Thomas Warren Sears photograph collection, Archives of American Gardens)

In thousands of recently digitized glass plate negatives, the natural and landscaped grandeur of gardens past is revealed in freshly sharp detail. The Thomas Warren Sears Archives of American Gardens, named for landscape architect and photographer Thomas Warren Sears, at the Smithsonian Gardens includes over 4,600 glass lantern slides from 1900 to 1966. Documenting gardens both private and public around the United States and in Europe, there are several images that reveal the 19th-century experience of visiting New York’s Central Park.

A few decades after Central Park’s opening in 1857, the park scenes shown below capture well-coiffed patrons strolling the Bethesda Terrace with its angel sculpted by Emma Stebbins in the central fountain, and lounging in the adjacent mall in their top hats and feathered bonnets. The new scans are often over 20MB jpgs (and 140MB tifs), so you can really zoom in close to the finer black and white details. Smithsonian Digitization demonstrated the difference with the new scans in a Tweet, with the old online version above and the new below:

Over 3,000 of the Thomas W. Sears plates were digitized in just nine days, part of the Smithsonian Institution’s new speedy program for putting collections online. According to a January article in Smithsonian Magazine, an effort to digitize 137 million objects across the institution includes a “rapid capture” process involving a conveyor belt and 80 megapixel imaging system. It was first in full-production for the currency in the collections of the National Museum of American History. Digitization program officer Ken Rahaim told the Washington Post that in 2013, the Smithsonian Gardens glass plates were part of a pilot project involving flatbed scanners with a camera.

The online images flying out of the Smithsonian encompass everything from 40,000 Asian artworks at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery to 40,000 bumble bees at the National Museum of Natural History. The consistent quality and increased availability is an impressive model for bringing other museum collections online. Items like the Thomas W. Sears garden glass plates aren’t the type of objects to often be on display with their delicate medium and incredibly specific focus, and especially not in their complete number. But now through the online archives you can promenade through parks, gardens, and private natural oases of yore at your digital leisure.

J. S. Johnston, Bethesda Terrace at Central Park (1894) (via Thomas Warren Sears photograph collection, Archives of American Gardens)
J. S. Johnston, Bethesda Terrace at Central Park (1894) (via Thomas Warren Sears photograph collection, Archives of American Gardens)
S. J. Johnston, "The Mall" in Central Park (1894) (via Thomas Warren Sears photograph collection, Archives of American Gardens)
S. J. Johnston, “The Mall” in Central Park (1894) (via Thomas Warren Sears photograph collection, Archives of American Gardens)
Central Park boating (1903) (via Thomas Warren Sears photograph collection, Archives of American Gardens)
Central Park boating (1903) (via Thomas Warren Sears photograph collection, Archives of American Gardens)
J. S. Johnston, Bethesda Terrace at Central Park (1894) (via Thomas Warren Sears photograph collection, Archives of American Gardens)
J. S. Johnston, Bethesda Terrace at Central Park (1894) (via Thomas Warren Sears photograph collection, Archives of American Gardens)
J. S. Johnston, Bethesda Terrace at Central Park (1894) (via Thomas Warren Sears photograph collection, Archives of American Gardens)
J. S. Johnston, Bethesda Terrace at Central Park (1894) (via Thomas Warren Sears photograph collection, Archives of American Gardens)
Central Park slide (via Thomas Warren Sears photograph collection, Archives of American Gardens)
Central Park slide (via Thomas Warren Sears photograph collection, Archives of American Gardens)
Central Park slide (via Thomas Warren Sears photograph collection, Archives of American Gardens)
Central Park slide (via Thomas Warren Sears photograph collection, Archives of American Gardens)

View more images from the Thomas Warren Sears Archives of American Gardens online at the Smithsonian Institution

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