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Before Google images: The Kubler Picture Archive at Cooper-Hewitt Library

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.




With millions of digital images at our fingertips, it’s easy to forget the long history of picture collections that proceeded.  Many public and academic libraries across the country collected images from books, magazines, and various ephemera that might have otherwise been sold for scrap.  These picture collections, in physical and now digital formats, continue to meet the needs of artists, illustrators, designers, teachers, students and general researchers.  One such picture collection is the George A. Kubler Collection at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Library.

George Adolf Kubler (1876-1944) was the founder and president of Certified Dry Mat Corporation.  The firm made stereotype matrices, an essential product for rotary press printing of newspapers that was used all over the world.  His passion for printing extended beyond newspapers to collecting and cataloging thousands of prints.  He painstakingly clipped, mounted, filed, and indexed over 60,000 images.  His widow donated the product of his lengthy labor to the Cooper Union Museum Library in 1948.

Niagara Falls image from the Kubler CollectionAn earthquake scene from the Kubler Collection.

The range of topics covered is vast.  Archery, boxing, dry docks, funerals, irrigation, milk peddlers, riots, stenography, volcanoes and wrecks is a random sampling of subject areas included in the collection.  Portraits and city views, occupations and churches, emigrants and historical events may all be found.  Mr. Kubler acquired European and American books and periodicals, dating almost exclusively from the nineteenth century, and removed the illustrations, most of which are wood or steel engravings.  One can consult a list of roughly 400 titles from which the prints came.  It includes many popular works, such as Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Puck, Illustrated London News, and King’s New York City Views, plus obscure volumes such as Zuni and Colorado Rivers by Sitgreaves (1855).

Currently one can only gain access to the prints by using an extensive card catalog that occupies 24 drawers.  The cataloging system is almost exclusively by subject with no regard for artist, engraver, or source of the picture.  Despite these drawbacks, the Kubler Collection has been very useful for picture research, exhibition materials, and answering reference questions.

Card examplesMr. Kubler's card catalog.

To make this collection more accessible, library staff and volunteers have been transcribing Mr. Kubler’s card catalog into electronic format.  Many of these cards are hand written by Kubler himself, posing the added challenge of reading his handwriting.  Luckily many cards are also typed.  Over 17,000 have been entered to date.  The library is also exploring ways to digitize this large visual collection.  In the meantime, please enjoy a large sampling of what the Kubler collection has under the category “Niagara Falls”.  Note: the Flickr slideshow below requires Flash for viewing.


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