It may be a rainy day out there today on Hagley's grounds, but it's always beautiful inside when you've got commercial photographer William H. Rau (1855-1920) keeping you company. This hand-colored lantern slide, titled "Hemlock Forest" was created around 1895 in or nearby Towanda, Pennsylvania.
William H. Rau was born in Philadelphia in 1855. As a child, his older brother George operated a photography studio and, at the age of 13, William became an assistant to the photographer William Bell (1830-1910), who would later become his father-in-law and, in 1876, a business partner. During the 1870s and 1880s, William H. Rau would become best known for his work photographing scenic views from around the world and, during his stays in Philadelphia, a prominent portrait photographer for the city’s elites.
In 1891, Rau was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Railroad as its official photographer to document operations and scenic views along its track lines. The photographs taken during this time were published in an illustrated pamphlet and exhibited in the Pennsylvania Railroad’s building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, where they were so well-received that the Pennsylvania Railroad commissioned Rau for another photographic campaign later that year.
In 1895, Rau received a similar appointment from the Lehigh Valley Railroad. He returned to the rails in his customized passenger car, fitted out with living space, a darkroom, elevated viewing platform, a massive panoramic landscape camera, and other photographic equipment to travel the Lehigh Valley Railroad’s lines.
His journey took him from New York City to the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania and upstate New York, documenting hundreds of landscapes along the way. including the one seen here. Over two hundred images from this commission would later be placed in Lehigh Valley Railroad terminals and public sites along the railroad’s reach.
In later years, Rau would also receive appointments to photograph the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis (1904) and the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland (1905). By the early 1900’s however, Rau’s photographic style, like that of many commercial photographers, had begun to decline in popularity in favor of more modern approaches. Rau died at his home in Philadelphia on November 19, 1920.
This image is part of Hagley Library's collection of William H. Rau lantern slides (Accession 1971.360). While many of the lantern slides in this collection are undated and only partially identified, some can be definitively sourced as originating from this 1895 commission from the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Some of these images would later be included in Rau’s albums of Pennsylvania Railroad scenery. However, these locations did not lie along Pennsylvania Railroad lines at this time, and some are elsewhere definitively identified as part of Rau’s work with the Lehigh Valley Railroad; as such, they are believed to also have been part of that 1895 commission.
To view these slides now in our Digital Archive, click here.