American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936

Henry Chandler Cowles with students
Professor Henry Chandler Cowles with students on a botany field trip. Illinois, 1918.

The American Environmental Photographs collection consists of 4,500 photographs documenting natural environments, ecologies, and plant communities in the United States at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.

The photographs in the collection were created between 1891 and 1936 by faculty members and students in the Department of Botany of the University of Chicago. The research and field studies of these Chicago botanists, including Henry Chandler Cowles (1869-1939) and George Damon Fuller (1869-1961), are considered to be among the most influential contributions to the development of modern ecological studies.

The images in the American Environmental Photographs collection were taken on field trips and botanical excursions across the North American continent. These historic documentary photographs demonstrate the character of a wide range of American topography, its forestation, aridity, shifting coastal dune complexes, and watercourses. Comparison of early photographs with later views of the same setting can highlight significant changes resulting from natural alterations of the landscape, disturbances from industry and development, or effective natural resource usage.

Digitization of the American Environmental Photographs collection was made possible by a grant awarded to the University of Chicago by the Library of Congress / Ameritech National Digital Library Competition in 1997. The LC/Ameritech program enabled U.S. libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies to digitize collections of American historical materials for inclusion in American Memory, the Library of Congress online collection of primary source materials in U.S. history and culture. Images from more than 4,500 glass lantern slides, glass negatives, and photographic prints, created by faculty members and students of the University of Chicago Department of Botany between 1891 and 1936, influential in the development of modern ecological studies. These photographs provide an overview of important representative natural landscapes across the nation.