1872 D. W. Butterfield Mammoth Plate Photographic View of the Great Fire of Boston

[Great Fire of Boston Burnt District.] - Main View

1872 D. W. Butterfield Mammoth Plate Photographic View of the Great Fire of Boston


Largest photographic view of the Great Fire of Boston.


[Great Fire of Boston Burnt District.]
  1872 (undated)     14.75 x 22 in (37.465 x 55.88 cm)


This is a mammoth plate 1872 D. W. Butterfield albumen photograph illustrating the devastation of the Great Boston Fire. It represents the largest known photograph of the Great Fire - an artifact of the photographer's unique custom built large-format camera.
A Closer Look
The albumen view looks roughly northeast on Boston from Sailor's Home (Fort Hill). It is centered on the burnt district, located in southwest Boston. Some of Boston's historic buildings, including Old South Church, are evident at the outer edge of the devastation.
A Big Image
This image is unique for its great size, measuring some 15 x 23 inches. The size is a product of Butterfield's gigantic camera, which he invented himself and used for this and similar landscape photography. The camera had an extension of some 11 feet and plate size of 40 x 40 inches, enabling Butterfield to produce striking large format images - the likes of which were not otherwise commercially available in the late 1800s. Any large format Butterfield photos likely came from this camera, and all are extremely scarce.
Albumen Prints
Albumen prints were invented in 1847 by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard (1802 - 1872). They are considered the first commercially exploitable method of producing a photographic print on a paper base from a negative. Albumens are characterized by a glossy surface and rich tonal range. They were produced by coating a paper with albumen (egg white) and salt, which is then sensitized with a solution of silver nitrate. Once exposed under a negative and developed, the result is an image wherein the silver particles are embedded in the albumen layer, producing a distinctive clarity and depth. The widespread use of albumen prints spanned from roughly 1860 - 1890, capturing a vivid historical record before being largely supplanted by newer photographic methods.
The Great Boston Fire of 1872
The Great Boston Fire began in the basement of a building on the corner of Kingston and Summer Streets in Boston's commercial district on the evening of November 9, 1872. People first noticed the fire around 7:00 p.m., but an alarm was not sounded until 7:24 p.m. By 8:00 p.m., every fire engine in Boston was on the scene. The fire spread easily due to dry wooden building materials and Boston's narrow streets. The fire jumped from building to building and street to street. It took 12 hours to control the inferno, and fire crews came from as far as New Haven, Connecticut. In the end, the fire was contained thanks to the valiant effort to save the Old South Meetinghouse at the corner of Washington and Milk Streets.

There were several factors that led to Boston's difficulties in containing the Great Fire. Boston boasted the world's first system of telegraph-based fire alarm boxes, which were installed in 1852. However, the boxes were locked to prevent false alarms and keys were only given to a small number of citizens in any given neighborhood. This meant that the first witnesses to the Great Fire had to find one of the key-holders to be able to sound the alarm. In addition, the Boston Fire Department was dealing with an epidemic of an equine flu, which had weakened nearly all the horses it used for pulling equipment. In response, Chief Engineer John Damrell preemptively hired 500 people to manually pull the engines. An investigation after the fire stated that it was believed that this epidemic only delayed deployment by five or ten minutes. A third, and possibly most critical, problem was that Boston's water mains were old and leaked, causing water pressure issues. Boston's firefighters could not get enough water pressure out of the aged hydrants to reach the upper floors or roofs. Chief Damrell had been asking the city for years to improve the water mains but was never successful. Boston began improving the water main system immediately after the Great Fire.
Publication History and Census
This image was taken in 1872, in the immediate wake of the Great Fire of Boston. It is rare. We see two institutional holdings: Boston Athenaeum and Boston Public Library. No market history.


David William Butterfield (July 12, 1844 - November 9, 1933) was a highly successful and prolific American photographer based in and around Boston, Massachusetts, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Butterfield was born in New Boston, Hillsborough, New Hampshire. He developed an early interest in photography and was well-established enough to be invited to photograph President Abraham Lincoln in 1864, when he was just 20. Butterfield was highly successful, with a career that captured some of American's most historic moments, ranging from the American Civil War (1861 - 1865), to the construction of the transcontinental railroad, to the Great Fire of Boston (1872). His work includes both landscape and portraiture, including an important 1864 photo of Abraham Lincoln in the East Room of the White House. His passion for photography did not wane in his elder years and he remained active until his late 80s. Among other things, Butterfield is famous for developing his own mammoth camera, with an extension of some 11 feet and plate size of 40 x 40 inches, used primarily for landscape photography. Butterfield died at his home in Roxbury, Massachusetts. More by this mapmaker...


Very good. Laid on original backing board.


Boston Public Library, 08_02_003694. Boston Athenaeum, C B64B6 Hi.f.1872.