William J. Meuer Photoart Collection

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The William J. Meuer Photoart Collection is an outstanding visual history of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and its surrounding community. The collection was compiled by renowned local photographer William J. Meuer who with his brother, Roman, opened the Meuer Photoart House on State Street in 1916. Dating from 1888 to 1935, 25 large bound albums contain nearly 27,000 individual prints. Some are copies of photographs from other sources but the vast majority are originals taken by Mr. Meuer and, occasionally, other photographers.

The albums were essentially catalogs, with the prints affixed to both sides of heavy duty paper stock which could be handled frequently by patrons of the Photoart House. Customers from the university, the local business community, and the general public enjoyed browsing through the collection and ordering copies of interesting images they could share with friends and family. University students, in particular, avidly paged through the albums hoping to find themselves in the camera’s eye. It’s no surprise that in an era when photography in the upper Midwest was still a rather exotic commodity, the Meuers’ photo duplication business did a brisk trade. And, in the teens and twenties when picture postcards were popular, an ample supply of some of the more interesting images was always available at the counter for quick sale to regular customers, visitors and tourists.

The vast majority of the images in the collection relate to the University. Hundreds of portraits of faculty and administrators are featured, including Charles Van Hise, Glenn Frank, E.B. Fred, Charles Sumner Slichter, John R. Commons, George Sellery, Edward Birge, Benny Snow and many other prominent individuals. Lectures and other academic functions of faculty and staff, as well as their social events and town and gown activities are documented. All aspects of UW student life are depicted, including dramatic and musical programs, and intercollegiate, intramural and informal sporting events and recreational activities. An entire album is devoted to the junior proms held in the state capitol during the 1920s. Photographs of other campus traditions including May Fete, Bag Rush, Venetian Nights, Homecoming Bonfire, The Pipe of Peace Ceremony, and The Engineers’ St. Patrick’s Day Parade, appear throughout the collection. The intercollegiate sports portion is extensive, with many individual portraits of student athletes and action shots of track and field events, and football, basketball and baseball contests. Recreational activities such as skiing, skating, sailing and swimming are covered. Commencement and honorary degree ceremonies were a popular regular feature. Celebrity students and alumni represented include Charles Lindbergh, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlins, Fred Bickle a.k.a. Frederic March, Arlie Mucks Sr. and many others. Campus buildings and scenery are beautifully illustrated, sometimes with large prints that entirely cover both facing album pages. At times these larger prints are ‘framed’ by original artwork and graphic designs with stylized decorative lettering. Visits to campus by U.S. Presidents William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson were photographed, and many state politicians including Senator Robert M. Lafollette, and most of Wisconsin’s governors from the era appear attending university sponsored political events and exercises. Madison street scenes and structures and State of Wisconsin buildings are also featured, including historic views of the various state capitols in the city. There are also a few images of rural scenery and events from around the state. William Meuer, himself, appears in one of these images, which recorded his 1918 automobile trip through the forests of Northern Wisconsin with Noble Clark of the College of Agriculture and another friend.

It is very rare to find such an extensive catalog of images from this era devoted primarily to life in a large American public university and its surrounding community. As nearly all of the original glass negatives from the collection are lost, it is imperative that we meet the challenge of preserving this wonderful historical resource for future generations. The University Archives and the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center are proud to present the first eight albums of The William J. Meuer Photoart Collection in digital form. We intend to make every effort to continue this project and hope to eventually digitize the entire collection.