Benjamin West Kilburn was the first child born to iron foundry manager Josiah and his wife Emily Bonney in Littleton, New Hampshire on December 10, 1827. at age 16, Benjamin along with his younger brother Edward embarked upon a three-year foundry apprenticeship in Fall River, Massachusetts. Afterwards, the brothers returned home to join their father's thriving business. On November 16, 1853, Mr. Kilburn married Caroline Burnham, and the couple later had a daughter they named Elizabeth. In 1862, he joined his brother Edward to enlist in the Civil War, and for the next two years served in Company D of New Hampshire's 13th Regiment.
In 1865, Mr. Kilburn and his brother formed a business partnership and opened Kilburn Brothers, a firm that specialized in stereographic views and publishing. At first, Edward was the chief photographer, but soon his older brother assumed the primary role. Most of their rural stereographs featured the White and Franconia Mountains, and soon became popular not only in New Hampshire but throughout the United States. Within the next few years, their landscape views were being sold worldwide, which necessitated construction of a downtown Littleton factory that also included a first-floor sales showroom. Under Mr. Kilburn's leadership, a state-of-the art stereographic manufacturing operation was created that employed mostly female laborers who performed a variety of functions including pasting and cutting prints and albumen paper sensitization. Male employees occupied supervisory positions and also worked as photographers and printers. An even larger Littleton facility opened on Cottage Street in December 1873. This building had a lengthy southern exposure that generated greater natural lighting. This factory produced up to 1,800 stereo views daily, at a cost of $2 for 12 views.
After Edward Kilburn's retirement in February 1875, his brother changed the business name to B. W. Kilburn Company. While overseeing production, Mr. Kilburn continued acting as principal photographer, taking stereographic views of the Mount Washington Steam Railway Company's cog railroad, learning how to manipulate his camera to emphasize the track’s sharp angle. By emphasizing foreground, he was able to achieve impressive three-dimensional characteristics in his stereo views of Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Mexico. At the same time, Mr. Kilburn became a pioneer of photojournalism, photographing such events as the presidential inauguration of Grover Cleveland, the Johnstown, Pennsylvania Flood, the Boer War, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Spanish-American War.
In addition to taking photographs, he also expanded his company's inventory of negatives purchased from his competitors including the stereo views of Yosemite and Niagara Falls taken by Boston-based stereographic manufacturer John P. Soule. At the height of his success, Mr. Kilburn's factory produced 600,000 stereographic views yearly, and by 1904 employed more than 100 men and women. To further enhance the three-dimensional qualities of his landscape views, he invented a gun camera to eliminate the need for a tripod that could be overturned easily in such rugged terrain.
Benjamin W. Kilburn's active lifestyle was halted by a paralyzing stroke that left him permanently disabled until his death on January 15, 1909. The B. W. Kilburn Company closed shortly thereafter, and ironically, most of their their equipment and negatives were sold to its chief competitor, the Keystone View Company. Today, some of Mr. Kilburn’s negatives and ledgers can be found in a collection at the California Museum of photography and several thousand of his stereo views were bequeathed to the Littleton New Hampshire Public Library.
1886 Dry Plate Making for Amateurs (New York: Scovill Manufacturing Company), p. 50.
1883 Granite State Monthly (Boston: John N. McClintock), p. 63.
2012 Kilburn, Benjamin West (1827-1909) and Edward (1830-1884) (URL: http://dating-au.com/kilburn-benjamin-west-1827-1909-and-edward-1830-1884).
1883 The Photographic Times, Vol. XIII (New York: Scovill Manufacturing Company), pp. 477-478.
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