A “Snapshot” into History on National Camera Day

Welcome to the Curatorial blog! I’m Madelyn Rzadkowolski, Meadow Brook Hall’s Curator. I have been at The Hall for 7 years and in this position for 3, where I have enjoyed researching the Dodge/Wilson families, setting up exhibits and taking care of the 75,000 objects in this home. There are often exciting moments in my job and I’m going to start sharing them on our website.

A great example of the type of stories that I would like to tell is perfect for today, National Camera Day. Meadow Brook Hall recently purchased a very special camera that belonged to Matilda Wilson as early as 1925. We have a strict acquisition policy that governs in specific detail the characteristics of objects we can consider purchasing. If an object meets these requirements, I then meet with my directors and the budget department for further discussion and approval. It’s actually very rare that we purchase items for The Hall since we have to raise every dollar that we spend. When we found this camera, the decision to buy it was a unanimous “yes.” In a couple weeks you’ll be learning of another purchase that followed the same process but didn’t go as well.

The camera is a very rare 1923 Voigtländer Stereflektoskop housed in a custom leather case and inscribed with “M. R. Wilson – Detroit.”
The camera is a very rare 1923 Voigtländer Stereflektoskop housed in a custom leather case and inscribed with “M. R. Wilson – Detroit.”

The camera is a very rare 1923 Voigtländer Stereflektoskop housed in a custom leather case and inscribed with “M. R. Wilson – Detroit.” The camera took glass slides and so has a film pack and eleven metal plates for the glass slides. Unfortunately, none of the glass slides from this camera remain in our collection.

The Dodge and Wilson families were avid amateur photographers and videographers. When Matilda Wilson died in 1967, she owned at least seventeen photo and video cameras, including the Voigtländer Stereflektoskop. There were several versions of this stereo camera produced by Voigtländer but this one matches the 1923 edition; because of the inscription, it has to date after Matilda’s 1925 marriage.

There were several important trips in the 1920s where the camera could have been used: the 1925 honeymoon; the 1927 tours across the US and England with architect William Kapp to find inspiration for Meadow Brook; and the 1930 trip with 16-year old Frances and her female cousin to the first session of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, and then on to France, Italy and Greece. Perhaps the camera was a gift from her new husband or a friend, or perhaps it was purchased to create novelty photographs to entertain young Frances and Daniel Dodge. Novelty photos, because this camera is quite unusual.

The Holmes Stereoscope, one of the most popular versions. Photo courtesy of Dave Pape, Associate Professor, University of Buffalo.
The Holmes Stereoscope, one of the most popular versions. Photo courtesy of Dave Pape, Associate Professor, University of Buffalo.

Stereo cameras take 3-D photos. Kind of. They give the illusion of viewing three dimensional depth when looking at a two-dimensional image. How it worked with Matilda’s stereoscopic camera is that she could look at something and take two images of it at the same time: one from the area of her right eye and one from the left. The two images ended up being very similar but were seen from slightly different angles. When placed in a stereoscope, a type of glasses that have a blinder over the nose so that your eyes don’t try to work together to see the image, the two photos would blend together to look three-dimensional. They would have the sort of depth you can see in everyday life. If you remember using a View-Master when you were young, you know what stereo images look like (View-Masters were introduced in 1939 and are still produced today).

Of course, we would love to find some of the stereoscopic images that Matilda shot with this camera. But even having the camera is a marvel. It’s easy to perceive Matilda as this Victorian woman, locked into the expectations of the time and perhaps too serious in her attempts to accomplish great things and earn respect as a woman. I love that Matilda took home movies of the family’s trips, not least because the movies show the family laughing, running, swimming and hugging. And I love even more that she learned how to use this wildly complex and rare camera to make even the smallest moments of her life come alive.

An example of a stereo card; depicting a stereoscope being used, 1901. Photo card by Underwood & Underwood, image courtesy of Library of Congress
An example of a stereo card; depicting a stereoscope being used, 1901. Photo card by Underwood & Underwood, image courtesy of Library of Congress

One of the most exciting parts of my job is discovering new things, particularly when I can make a connection to known facts about the family and The Hall. Every time I’m in Archives, I’m going to pay close attention to the photos, letters, receipts and notes of the family’s travels. Will I find this camera in Matilda’s hand in one of the photos? As much as I hope that I would have noticed it before, I’ve learned many times that there is no guarantee. Sometimes I don’t see what I’m looking at until I’m looking for it. When people contact me for information, asking what seems like an impossible question, I often joke that now that they have asked me I’ll find an answer in the last place that I would expect to.

One final note on this camera. Meadow Brook purchased it from a couple who recognized the inscribed name and saved it from an estate sale some 30 years ago. They were members of Oakland University’s Charter Class and met Matilda and Alfred Wilson several times while attending school. They were the first couple to meet and marry at the university.

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  1. Great article with tons of information. Thanks, Madelyn. How do we sign up to receive notifications of future blog posts?

    1. Hi Jan, We’re happy that you’re excited about our new Curatorial blog! Unfortunately, there isn’t a way for us to send you notifications when we post. For future posts, you can check our website’s home page, Facebook page, and/or Instagram page. Madelyn is planning on posting once a month.

  2. Madelyn, You have a very interesting job. Taking care of 75,000 objects is amazing. Especially discovering a new object for others to see. Would we ever be able to see home movies of this family?

    1. Helene-
      Thanks! I love what I do and am very excited to share a little bit more about what I do via this blog. That’s a great question. We do have a lot of the home videos of the Wilson family and try to show them during different exhibits. We will be showing clips of the children during this year’s Holiday Walk. There are also some historical and modern videos of the family and staff in the documentary film, “Forgotten Harvest: The History of Meadow Brook Farms,” which is available in our Museum Store. Here’s a short clip of that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mD_zInNWXXs.
      Madelyn