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  Thomas Houseworth, Photographer

Born in New York City on June 21, 1828, Thomas Houseworth served as a lens grinding apprentice in his teens. Then, at age 20, he and a friend, optometrist George S. Lawrence, sailed for California to try their luck at goldmining. After two years with no success, the pair opened an optical business in San Francisco, at 177 Clay Street. The first shop of its kind on the West Coast, Lawrence & Houseworth manufactured and imported camera lenses and frames, and Mr. Houseworth soon established himself as one of the most sought-after photographers in the region. Celebrities lined up to have their portraits taken, and soon the business expanded to include stereographs of San Francisco and surrounding areas, specializing in the goldmining towns with which the duo was familiar, and popular tourist attractions. Within a few years, they had amassed more than 1,000 stereo views, the largest collection of its kind in California.

Mr. Houseworth's artistic vision, business acumen, and regional knowledge generated revenues from tourists and prominent local citizens alike, and the firm received numerous awards at various photographic exhibitions. Under Mr. Houseworth's leadership, the diverse operation handled society portraits, celebrity cabinet cards, landscape stereographs, and street photography with equal ease and precision. Their list of staff photographers was impressive, and included George Fiske, William Evan James, Eadweard Muybridge, Louis Thors, and Charles Leander Weed. During the 1860s, Mr. Houseworth competed mightily with colleague Carlton Watkins for the lucrative stereograph market, prompting one author to observe, "Watkins may have offered unparalleled artistry, but Houseworth was the better businessman."

After Mr. Lawrence retired in 1868, Mr. Houseworth focused mainly on corporate growth, opening a large second studio at 317 and 319 Montgomery Street, devoted primarily to publicity portraiture. Now known as Thomas Houseworth & Company, the firm entered the catalog publishing market with such volumes as Catalogue of Photographic Views of Scenery on the Pacific Coast, Oriental Scenery, Tourists' Guide to the Shortest Route to Yosemite Valley, and Pacific Coast Scenery. Moving closer to the profitable tourist trade, Mr. Houseworth relocated to 9 Montgomery Street, where he branched out as an agent for several stage lines. His massive three-story portrait studio opened at 12 Montgomery Street in 1873, and two years later, the newly formed Photographic Art Society of the Pacific selected him to serve as its first president.

Mr. Houseworth's seemingly Midas touch appeared to end when his firm commissioned Eadweard Muybridge to produce massive Yosemite stereographs, only to have them published by a competitor, Bradley & Rulofson, at a significant loss. His business and reputation took a direct hit, which necessitated a permanent shift in professional focus from photography to optometry. Despite being invalided after a bout of influenza, Mr. Houseworth continued to work as an optician and publish catalogs well into his eighties. Thomas Houseworth died at his home on April 13, 1915, at the age of 86. The Library of Congress acquired nearly 1,000 of Lawrence & Houseworth's stereographs in 1867, which is where they still reside.

2017 The Art of Stereography: Rediscovering Vintage Three-Dimensional Images by Douglas Heil (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.), pp. 58-59.

2017 Broadway Photographs (URL:

2010 Calaveras Big Trees by Carol A. Kramer (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing), p. 39.

2015 The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign: The Houseworth Photographs (URL:

2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), p. 715.

2017 Fanny Davenport: American Stage Actress (1880 (URL:

2017 Lake Tahoe: "Nick of the Woods" (URL:

2017 Photograph by Thomas Houseworth & Co (URL:

2000 Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: A Biographical Dictionary, 1840-1865 by Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), pp. 304, 306.

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