Wallace Nutting sold more hand-colored photographs during America’s 1900-1940 “Golden Age of Hand-Colored Photography” than any other photographer of his time. It is estimated that between 5,000,000-10,000,000 of his pictures decorated the walls of middle class American homes during the early 20th century. Why was Wallace Nutting so successful? And why are his pictures still being widely collected today? This article represents a basic introduction into the world of Wallace Nutting Pictures.
It was shortly after 1900 that Wallace Nutting retired from the ministry due to ill health (he was a Congregational Minister in Providence RI at the time). As part of his recovery, he began touring the New England countryside by carriage or car, taking photographs of rural New England. Nutting was one of the first to recognize that the American scene was changing. Industrialization was altering the way our country looked and our pure and picturesque landscape would never look the same again. He seemed to feel it his divine calling to record the beauty of America for future generations.
Beginning first in Vermont, then Massachusetts and Connecticut, and eventually throughout the rest of New England, Nutting began photographing country lanes, streams, rivers, lakes, orchards, blossoms, birches, and mountains. Wallace Nutting would take the photograph, assign a title, and instruct his colorists how it should be hand-tinted. Each picture that met Nutting’s high standards of color, composition, and taste would be affixed to its matting and signed by his employees with the distinctive “Wallace Nutting” name. (He hardly ever signed any pictures by himself). Those pictures that did not meet his strict standards were destroyed. Beginning first with outdoor (Exterior) scenes in New England, Nutting eventually traveled throughout the United States and Europe, taking photographs in 26 states and 17 foreign countries between 1900-1935. Overall, he took more than 50,000 pictures, 10,000 of which he felt met his high standards. The balance were destroyed.
It was around 1905 that Nutting began taking his first indoor (Interior) pictures. Supposedly one day while it was raining outside, Mrs. Nutting suggested that he take a more “Personable” picture indoors. So, he set up a colonial scene, near a kitchen hearth, had an employee dress up in a colonial fashion, and took several different pictures. These sold relatively easily which encouraged him to expand more into this area. Nutting’s love of antiques, his passion for the pilgrim period, and his unquestionable desire to turn a profit led him to eventually purchase and restore five colonial homes:
- Webb House, Wethersfield, CT
- Wentworth-Gardner House, Portsmouth, NH
- Cutler-Bartlett House, Newburyport, MA
- Hazen-Garrison House, Haverhill, MA
- Saugus Iron Works (Broadhearth), Saugus, MA
Nutting purchased these homes because he felt each represented a different period of early colonial American style and taste. It was here, along with his own Bulk Nuts homes Nuttinghame (Southbury, CT) and Nuttingholme (Framingham, MA), that the majority of his Interior pictures were taken. Nutting’s desire to provide the most correct and appropriate settings for his Interior scenes led him in his quest to gather one of the best collections of early American furniture ever assembled. He would use the best examples of early American furniture in his Interior scenes and, when he couldn’t find it, he would reproduce it. (We’ll focus on his reproduction furniture in a subsequent article).
Working in Southbury CT from 1905-12, and then in Framingham MA from 1912 until his death in 1941, Nutting sold literally millions of his hand-colored photographs. He claims to have sold around 10,000,000 pictures although, knowing his habit of exaggeration, that number is probably somewhat high.