A few years ago I found myself in possession of a photographer’s ledger book, more correctly it’s an account book, that was discovered at a flea market somewhere in Georgia. The person who found it offered it to me, for a price, and I absolutely could not refuse it. I knew how much information could be in there of use to Georgia’s family genealogists, as well as to photograph and business historians.
After I examined the ledger closely, I determined it very probably belonged to Gainesville, Georgia photographer N. C. White Jr. (1870-1965). The date span written on the ledger’s cover is “March 18, 1918 – Jan. 1, 1921” but in the ledger itself the end date is Dec. 21, 1920.
There is no actual “belongs to” name written in or on the ledger, but there is little doubt in my mind that I am correct in my assumption. There is a small 1919 booklet for the “Gainesville Lodge number 219, F. and A.M.” pasted onto the back of the first free page of the ledger, and Nathan C. White is listed as a member of that fraternal organization. I imagine this booklet was referred to as a business “contact” tool.
After I acquired the ledger, I began to acquire some N.C. White and N.C. White & Son photographs. Those acquisitions caused me to revisit the ledger and all the material I had gathered on this pair of photographers, father and son. Nathan senior (1828-1913) worked under the business name of Nathan C. White and later the two became known as N. C. White & Son. They were, I think, the busiest of the Gainesville studio photographers I have documented thus far. More of their images seem to be in circulation than those of their competitors, only two of whom were in Gainesville for any length of time.
The accounting ledger most definitely belonged to a very busy studio photographer who had clients from all over the surrounding area, and as far away as Atlanta and Athens. Many patrons are listed from the “city,” meaning Gainesville, as well as from other Hall County towns. This photographer also took photos of many of Gainesville’s Georgia Baptist Female Seminary students and professors (later called Brenau College).
Those who came to this studio from other counties in north Georgia came from cities and towns including Braselton, Pendergrass, Toccoa, Cornelia, Helen, Blairsville, Buford, Hartwell, Ballground, Cumming, Dawsonville, and Dahlonega. It is also known that N.C. White advertised in Dahlonega’s North Georgia College Cyclops as “The Leading Photographer.”
I honestly believe that possible ownership of this ledger by another photographer is pretty slim. A well-known photographer who predates White’s 1886, possibly 1885 arrival in Gainesville, was Early Rogers. He came from nearby Forsyth County, worked as a drug store clerk over in Tennessee around 1870, and worked as a photographer in Gainesville from 1876 -1884, calling his studio “Rogers’ Art Gallery.
Rogers immigrated to Texas by about 1890, where he died in 1917. He made many outdoor stereo views while he was still in Georgia, including some of Dahlonega gold mining, and other north Georgia scenes. Rogers’ family members say he photo-documented the growth of train travel in his part of Texas, but census records for him in Texas only record that he was farming there. David Haynes’ Catching Shadows (TX State Historical Society, 1993) cites an Early Rogers, photographer, recorded in the Texas State Gazeteer and Business Directory for 1890-92 and this is likely he, although Haynes did not at the time the book was published, recognize him.
It is possible that N.C. White (Sr.) bought out Rogers’ studio and it appears one superseded the other. I need to work with this idea and delve into the north Georgia newspapers, city business licenses, etc. at some point in the future.
N.C. White was born in Danville, Virginia, March 14, 1828, where he worked as a clerk in 1850. He was working as an “artist” in Mississippi by 1860, but was living in Tennessee before 1870, where he became a photographer by 1880.
Census records are sketchy and often incorrect for him, but I know he enlisted in the Confederate Army in Tennessee, and was taken prisoner at Shelbyville on June 27, 1863. As a POW he was sent to Nashville, then to Louisville, then to Sandusky, Ohio where he was exchanged at City Point, Virginia on February 24, 1865. I hope he was then sent home to Tennessee.
In the 1870s White became an active participant in the governing of Dyer County, Tennessee when he served as court Recorder in 1873, and was elected an Alderman for the 1874 term. He came to Gainesville, Georgia around 1885, and his name appeared in state business directories by1886.
In the later 1880s he advertised as N. C. White’s Art Gallery. In 1893 he took his son on as a partner and they became N. C. White & Son. His son was twenty years old by that time, and very probably worked with his father for several years prior to that name change. After N.C. White (Sr)’s death in 1913, his son continued working as a photographer and kept their photo studio open for over the next twenty years.
Although both he his son are noted as Photographers on the 1910 census (father is “taking pictures” and son is “photographer own account”), Dad was 82 years old and I assume that Nathan Jr. had already been running their studio alone for some time. The business lost little continuity from father to son, and soon the “junior” N. C. White’s photographs of Gainesville sites were appearing in various publications.
Although N. C. White is recorded on the 1920 census as working as a superintendent in a hosiery mill, we know his photo studio was still functioning. That year it is obvious he was supporting his elderly mother Helen, and one of his sisters, Mary Lou. He may have needed the job to bring in more funds to run the studio and support the two women, and keep his head above water financially. I have found that many, many photographers had more than one business or occupation, so his other job does not surprise me. He was 65 in 1930, and still working, and he lived another thirty years so was apparently in good health.
Photographs belonging to Hall County Library, as well as images reproduced in the Vanishing Georgia Collection show the damage the 1936 tornado did to Gainesville. Several of these photos were taken by Nathan C. White, and you can see them on the Digital Library of Georgia site. At least one of these photos shows the damaged N.C. White studio and the damaged area around it. This was a deadly tornado, and 203 people were killed.
Soon after this close call, Nathan married. Although they do not seem to be on the 1940 census, on July 5, 1938, when he was 68, he married 35-year-old Viola Blanche Lockhart, in Hall County.
The two working photographers who were contemporaries of N.C. White, Jr. are N. E. Merck and W. J. Ramsey. The 1918 Gainesville city directory listed all three as all working there at the same time. Both Ramsey and White were still working as Gainesville photographers as late as 1940, but Nobel Merck ceased to work as a photographer before then. By 1939 Ramsey’s son Otto also ran a photo studio in Gainesville.
I have never seen a studio photograph by Noble E. Merck and the only one I have in my own collection is a rather indistinct outdoor industrial scene which apparently includes a Merck relative (FYI Merck’s father was a brick mason). Noble E. Merck was a Georgia native, and in 1900 he was a 29 year old tailor working in Gainesville. By the time the 1910 census was taken, he was a photographer, and listed as an “artist, photos” working for himself. In 1920 he was noted by the census taker as a “photographer” and he was still working for himself.
I have no record for Merck in 1930, but I do not believe he was working as a professional photographer. He stayed in Gainesville and by 1940 he was a “hernia specialist,” and by 1956 he was a “surgical truss maker,” so it seems he put that tailoring ability to an interesting and different use!
Wiley J. Ramsey worked as a photographer by 1910, until at least 1940. Born in Georgia, he documented downtown Gainesville sites for postcards, and also took studio photographs. The two I have by him are printed on postcard stock and one might call these “real photo postcards,” even though this pair is of his later studio photos, dated about 1930. I have not yet seen any of his earlier studio photographs, but I have seen a reproduction of an older tintype that he did. Photographers did enlargements and copying as part of their services, from almost the very beginning of “the art.”
Do you see mom peeking out from behind baby?
Written in this ledger by N.C. White Jr. is that “A.J. James” ran his studio for six months, from Aug. 23, 1919 to Feb. 14, 1920, while he was away. I can certainly tell the difference in their handwriting! As of yet, I find no trace of an A. J. James, but I did find that there were other photographers named James working in Gainesville. A portrait photographer by the name of R.C. James was working for himself in Gainesville in 1920, according to that census.
This James may be related to the photographer with a photo studio, Alfred F. James who I found on the 1930 census living in Gainesville with his mother Mary. Both these men named James were born in Indiana and both parents of each man were also born there. R.C. James was born in Indiana about 1875, and Alfred was born there about 1880-83, so the men could be brothers.
I believe that Alfred is the one I found the 1900 census who was born in about 1881, and was living with his parents Mary and Charles in Leopold, Indiana, and was working as a school teacher. There is no R.C. in the household, but if he was a brother, he would be living away from home by that time. But the two may be cousins, or even uncle and nephew. Yet more research to do – eventually.
Alfred James was in Gainesville through 1935, and I assume he worked as a photographer, because he was working as a photographer elsewhere by 1940. Next door to him in 1930 Gainesville was another photographer by the name of Edmund C. (Charles) Zoeller, also born in Indiana, and his wife Minnie and son Ed (Edmund, Jr.). The son was probably actually born in Georgia, but the census taker decided all three were born there. The son’s birth makes it clear that he and his wife were living in Georgia by 1922.
Zoeller lived in Detroit in 1920, but not as a photographer. The two men must have been related, possibly brothers-in-law. They were both living in Louisville, Kentucky in 1940, where Alfred James was still a photographer, and E. C. Zoeller had his own business as an electrician.
Perhaps “White’s” notation was a mistake. It could be that the 1920 census record I have found on an “R. C. James” is incorrect. To make things even more curious, a colleague reported to me that she had seen a marked photo for a “James Studio” in Gainesville, Georgia. Yes, I agree that a research visit to Hall County is in order – sigh, so much to do, so little time.
I would certainly like to transcribe all the information that is in this ledger, but that is easier said than done. Ideally, each page will be scanned and digitized, either before or after I donate this ledger to a caring repository. This is a truly wonderful piece of Georgia history and American photo business history. I am so glad it found its way to me!
© E. Lee Eltzroth and Hunting & Gathering, 2013, revised 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to E. Lee Eltzroth and Hunting & Gathering, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.