seeing salt lake citySeeing Salt Lake City
The Legacy of the Shipler Photographers
by Alan Barnett
Foreword by Ted L. Wilson

on the cover:
For 100 years the Shipler family dominated Utah photography. The first to establish a foothold in Salt Lake City was James Shipler, a pioneer in the art who left his Pittsburgh camera shop in 1889 to travel west, never to return. When he died in 1937, the Salt Lake Tribune called him “the dean” of Utah photographers. His son Harry, grandson Bill, and great-grandson Hollis succeeded him in the business.

Fortunately for modern connoisseurs, some 100,000 of the Shiplers’ glass-plate and film negatives survive in the archives of the Utah State Historical Society. Of these, 175 are reproduced here as full-page images, comprising a tribute to the family, and to the city they loved to photograph.

The earliest image harks back to 1903—a view of the Fremont School on Third West, a surrey parked outside awaiting its owner. The most recent photo dates from 1940, a row of Ford coupes outside the Crystal Palace Market on South Temple Street. In between the two is an array of beautiful and informative portraits of Salt Lake City as it emerged to become a regional capital.

seeing slc back cover

As one example of the Shiplers’ legacy, the elevated view of the City and County Building, above, was taken by Harry Shipler in 1913. Notice the depth and clarity, and how the perspective and framing tend to accentuate the Romanesque architecture and lend an inviting quality to the landscaping.

cover flaps:
Seeing Salt Lake City
The Legacy of the Shipler Photographers

by Alan Barnett

One of the pleasures of viewing old photographs is discovering unexpected details in the background. For instance, in the Shipler photographs dating from the first half of the twentieth century, notice the sign above the store front (p.90) that boasts, “We Cure Men” (ah, the days of secret health elixirs), and the shop window ads (pp. 60, 71) for such products as “California Medicated Healing Soap” and “American Beauty Beer.” Or ponder the possible intent of organizations named Modern Woodmen of America (p. 88) or the Women’s Industrial Christian Home (p. 141).

We would expect to see odd fashions as an indication of period. But not the extravagance of the three-foot-wide merry widow hats that women of the 1910s balanced against the wind (pp. 46, 48, 58). It is interesting to see the elegance of the horse-drawn buggies (p. 7) and the pride of their owners and drivers compared to the little motorized carriages (p. 45) that were more of a novelty at first than serious means of transportation.

In these and other images, it was the Shiplers’ talent to create mood and to capture a moment in time that conveys a sense of story. Sometimes in a facial expression, and other times in the pause of a street worker, or in the stopped action of the shutter, or even in the haunting look of a deserted city—all imply activity that is unseen, as well as a hint of human emotion.

For current residents of Salt Lake City, there is further significance as they find themselves glimpsing ghosts of familiar locations—places they pass every day—in bygone buildings and the people who inhabited them. To stand at such a place and to notice the transformation is to seem to be transported into another dimension, to feel the wonder of it.

The most immediate impression that most people have from the photos is the city’s beauty. The architecture is impressive, and the people seem content. By contrast, today’s ubiquitous commercial strip malls and parking lots underscore what has been lost over time in the demolition of many of the grand old edifices. It would be difficult not to notice the decline of the cityscape since its heyday, documented here, or to remain indifferent to historical preservation. But one can also enjoy the photographs for their own sake, and simply appreciate the photographers’ artistry.

about the author: Alan Barnett is Information Services Manager for the Utah State Historical Society. He holds a B.A. in history from Brigham Young University and an M.A. in historic preservation from the School of Architecture at the University of Utah. He was born in Provo, Utah, and now resides in a nineteenth-century home that he is restoring in Salt Lake City.

Ted L. Wilson, mayor of Salt Lake City from 1976 to 1985, is director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah and a former fellow of the John F. Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard. He is the author of The Wasatch Front and co-author with photographer Tom Till of Utah: Then and Now. Among his current civic activities, he is vice-chair of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Jacket design by Ron Stucki.

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Printed in the United States of America

title page:
Seeing Salt Lake City
The Legacy of the Shipler Photographers
by Alan Barnett
Foreword by Ted L. Wilson
Signature Books
Salt Lake City

copyright page:

© 2000 Signature Books. All rights reserved.
Signature Books is a registered trademark of Signature Books Publishing, LLC.

Seeing Salt Lake City: The Legacy of the Shipler Photographers was manufactured in the United States of America and was printed on acid-free paper.

04  03  02  01  00     6  5  4  3  2  1

Barnett, Alan
Seeing Salt Lake City : the legacy of the Shipler photographers / by Alan Barnett; foreword by Ted L. Wilson.

p. cm.
ISBN 1-56085-143-0
1. Shipler family. 2. Photographers—Utah—Salt Lake City—Biography. 3. Salt Lake City (Utah)—Pictorial works. I. Shipler family. II. Title.
TR140.S523 B37 2000


Ted L. Wilson
Mayor, Salt Lake City, 1976-85

[p.v]For weary Mormon pioneers, after nearly four long months on the trail out of Iowa, arriving in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake must have been a wonderful experience. The intermittent waters they feared rolled strong and fell through the valley as permanent streams. The mountains to the east and west stood as ramparts of security. Soils anxiously spawned crops. For the new immigrants, this was truly Zion in all of its heavenly promise. Great Salt Lake City, as their settlement was known for part of the nineteenth century, was founded with a sure sense of joy and optimism.

The city was uniquely settled. Whether Mormon pioneers limping into the city in countless wagons and handcarts, later Irish-Catholic newcomers seeking fortune in surrounding mines, federal troops under orders to quell rumored Mormon insurrection, or thousands of other immigrants, the city was what would be called today a “destination” place. No settlement of convenience, Salt Lake aroused the passions of a targeted community. Together—Mormons, Catholics, and Protestants; farmers, merchants, and miners; Native Americans, whites, Hispanics, and Asians—these hardy settlers cast the mold of a vital and unique American city.

Images shape our view of history; Salt Lake’s past is no exception. It is fortunate that the photographic art was sufficiently developed during the late 1800s to provide the superb pictures of artists like William Henry Jackson, the great Hayden Survey photographer. His early photographs of Salt Lake City, the nearby mountains, and the natural setting give us a sweeping sense of the burgeoning settlement. To savor such images is to gain a deep appreciation for and sense of early Salt Lake City life. To see an open field where there is now a strip mall, to see the original police headquarters where the Federal Building now stands, to see the old Social Hall where there is now a pedestrian under[]pass to a towering office building and like photographs can be an electrifying experience.

As the city was fortunate to have been visited by William Jackson and other photographers during the nineteenth century, we are equally lucky to have the work of the Shipler family of photographers who recorded Salt Lake City life and structures from shortly before 1900 to the 1940s and beyond. While the Shiplers labored, the city made the transition from a pioneer town celebrating capital status in a new state to a nationally known metropolis providing important local and regional services, industry, and cultural life.

Alan Barnett, noted local historian, combed through the more than 100,000 images the Shiplers left and arranged them in an order that yields a clear image of the history of Utah’s principal city. The Shiplers’ work, particularly that of Harry Shipler, was expansive. They photographed social scenes, landscapes, protesters, ethnic havens, schools, churches, union meetings, workers, military scenes, flooding, businesses, sporting events, transportation facilities, hospitals, theaters, and the arts. In fact, their work is so large that the editing job Barnett confronted was nearly overwhelming. His task required considerable patience and a true sense of the flow of the city’s colorful past. The Shipler photographs and Barnett’s careful editing grant us, as viewers and readers, a memorable way of encountering our city’s splendid past, while also adding to our own reflection an additional important dimension.

Try it for yourself. View the Shipler photographs as presented in historical sequence. Then either recall a specific image in your mind’s eye or journey to what is there now and compare it to the image presented in this book. Now consider the two images, past and present. This experience enables the mind to project a sense of the future. For these two perspectives—past and present—lead to a sense of what Salt Lake City’s destiny may be. Your personal image may be accurate or off the mark, but it will be a valid expression of your own priorities.

One way to join in defining Salt Lake City’s future is to use your image of the future with your sense of civic commitment to exercise meaningful input into the public process. What will come of our important historical buildings? Does commercial development proceed in proper ways? Will there be adequate green space? Are we protecting our environment?

I have found that, as a grandfather, such questions occupy new poignancy in my life. I care deeply about Salt Lake City and its quality of life far beyond my allotted years in this delightful community. This is why this book is so important to me: it is not only what is in our history that is essential, it is what I want to be here in our future that resonates in my soul.

Whatever brings you to this book, whether you just choose to wander through the photographs or make them a serious object of study, your personal experience with these engaging pictures will be unforgettable.


[p.vii]Salt Lake City’s uniqueness among American cities is the product of over 150 years of evolution, driven by a variety of human and environmental forces. Its character has developed as each generation adds new layers to the cityscape. The resulting combination of older layers interwoven with the new provides a sense of continuity and reminds us that we are neither the first nor the last to occupy this place.

Salt Lake City was founded in 1847 by Mormon pioneers under the leadership of Brigham Young. For a year or two the settlers lived in the Old Fort, but within a number of years they had built an oasis agricultural town laid out in a grid of large blocks and wide streets. Visitors of the 1850s and 1860s described Great Salt Lake City as a neatly arranged community of widely spaced adobe houses surrounded by gardens and orchards. Many noted the prevalence of irrigation streams and shade trees bordering the streets.

The arrival of the railroad in 1870 connected Salt Lake City to the outside world and brought larger numbers of people to the city, both Mormon converts as well as “gentiles.” Nevertheless, Salt Lake City remained essentially a frontier town until the 1890s when dramatic growth transformed it into a regional urban center.

In 1880 Salt Lake’s population stood at just under 21,000. By 1890 it had more than doubled; by 1920 it had reached nearly 120,000. This tremendous increase resulted in a major rebuilding of the city. Subdivisions spread out from the downtown, and schools, churches, and businesses were built to meet the demands of the expanding population. Technology allowed for the construction of new “skyscrapers” and the city began to take on a skyline. Industry and coal-burning furnaces created air pollution. Electricity brought a web of power lines and streetlights. An extensive streetcar system provided public transportation even as the advent of the personal automobile began to dictate how the city would develop.

Much of what we recognize as historic Salt Lake City today came into being in the early part of the twentieth century. As it did, most of the remnants of the city’s agricultural [p.viii]and frontier-town past gradually disappeared. Between 1903 and 1940, the Shiplers recorded the emergence of a new urban environment. In the process, they photographed not only new things, but also made a record of surviving elements of the older Salt Lake City before they were swept away in the march of “progress.” In a sense, the Shipler photographic collection gives insight into three different cities, a nineteenth-century city that had not quite disappeared, the city that evolved in their own time, and the Salt Lake of today, which still includes pieces from the past. As the city continues to grow and evolve, the legacy contained in the Shipler photographs can help us see Salt Lake City in a new light, providing the opportunity to explore what the city was, how it became what it is, and what it could become.

The Shipler Photographers

Although the Shipler photographers made their greatest impact in Salt Lake City, the family had its roots in the East. James William Shipler was born in the town of Mercer, Pennsylvania, on July 20, 1849, at a time when Great Salt Lake City was a village of log and adobe cabins, not quite two years old. He became interested in photography as a young man and in his early twenties established a photography studio in McKeesport, a suburb of Pittsburgh. After marrying Lizzie Tayler, he traveled to the West and established a studio in Denver. From 1872 until 1889, he divided his time between Colorado and Pennsylvania and then relocated his family to Great Falls, Montana. The Shiplers stayed only about a year before moving again, this time to Salt Lake City, arriving on August 1, 1890. This emerging urban center apparently suited them because, despite their somewhat transient life up to that time, they settled into their new home permanently.

J. W. Shipler

Portrait of J. W. Shipler that appeared in Utah, Her Cities, Towns and Resources.

James immediately set about building his photography business in this new home. He apparently worked in a partnership under the name “Shipler and DeLong,” but the collaboration was temporary and he soon established a reputation of his own. Despite being a newcomer of only a year, he was able to get his work featured extensively in the 1891 publication Utah, Her Cities, Towns and Resources, alongside the work of such respected photographers as C. R. Savage and Sainsbury & Johnson. The book included nearly thirty Shipler photographs of Salt Lake City’s prominent citizens, residences, and notable sites. It indicated that J. W. Shipler had set up his own studio in the Hooper Block on 100 South and provided a fairly lengthy and flattering description of the business, stating:

Coming here from Montana about one year ago, Mr. Shipler has built up a business already acknowledged to be one of the finest [p.ix]in the territory. The high order of work done, the uniform satisfaction rendered to his patrons, together with the unmistakable business capacity, energy and sound judgment which characterizes the management of his deservedly popular establishment, have been the chief features contributing to the positive and permanent success that he enjoys to day.

In 1900 James’s twenty-two-year-old son, Harry, joined him in the business under the name “Shipler and Son.” Although Harry struck out on his own the next year, it is safe to assume that he owed much of his interest and skill to years of training received from his father.

Harry Shipler

Harry Shipler behind the wheel of a new Hudson Super Six Phaeton about 1912.

Harry Shipler was born in Mercer, Pennsylvania, like his father, in April 1878. When the family located in Salt Lake City, Harry was just twelve years old. By the time he turned eighteen, he had found employment at the Salt Lake Tribune and, although the city directory for that year lists him simply as a clerk at the newspaper, he was also an enthusiastic news photographer. On June 19, 1898, when young Harry heard that a fire had broken out in Park City, he immediately set out on his bicycle. He was an avid cyclist and must have been in good physical condition, because he made the journey in about eight hours, pedaling with his camera up the unpaved roads of Parley’s Canyon east of the city. Upon his return, the images he captured were reproduced as line drawings on the front page of the Tribune.

In 1902, after having worked with his father for a time, Harry set up a studio of his own in the Templeton Building on the corner of South Temple and Main Street. Three years later, as his business developed, he moved to 151 South Main and married Jessie Grace Smith. In time the couple would have three sons, George William (“Bill”), Robert Thomas (“Bud”), and James Harry.

The two Shipler photographers continued to maintain separate studios until about 1909, when James W. joined with his son at the Main Street location under the name “Shipler Commercial Photographers.” With the increased popularity of hand-held cameras, the [p.x]Shiplers soon began operating a photo supply shop in conjunction with the studio. James, by then in his sixties, helped with the office management, but began devoting more time to his hobby of fly fishing and Harry became the principal photographer for the studio.

Harry Shipler

Harry Shipler photographing the interior of the First Presbyterian Church, May 15, 1906. He painted his advertising slogan at the bottom of the glass negative.

In 1913 the Shiplers moved the studio across the street to 144 South Main Street, a narrow shop sandwiched between the Pantages Theater and the Kearns Building. The business remained there for twenty years until Harry relocated the store and studio to 46 East 100 South about 1933. By that time, Harry’s son Bill was working as a news photographer and operated out of family studio. For a number of years, the three generations of photographers worked together in this location. James remained an active partner until just a few months before his death on March 10, 1937. At that time the Salt Lake Tribune eulogized him as a prominent sportsman and the “Dean of Salt Lake Photographers.”

The year prior to James’s death, Bill set up his own shop, “Bill Shipler Photos,” at 117 South Main Street. Bill was a native of Salt Lake City, having been born into the Shipler family on October 10, 1906. He would have been exposed to the photography business from his earliest years and undoubtedly received training from his father and grandfather.

George William Shipler

George William “Bill” Shipler in 1949.

After James died, Harry closed the Shipler Commercial Photographers studio and joined his son at Bill Shipler Photos on Main Street. [p.xi]Their partnership continued until 1956, when Bill died unexpectedly from a heart attack. Despite the loss of the studio’s primary partner, the business survived. A fourth generation Shipler photographer, William Hollis, took his father’s place as a partner with Harry. They continued using the “Bill Shipler Photo” name, and Bill’s son, who had apparently been known by “Hollis,” became popularly known as “Bill.”

When Harry Shipler died five years later, on July 14, 1961, at age eighty-three, the Salt Lake Tribune praised his skill as a photographer, declaring:

Harry Shipler probably knew as much about photography as anyone in this state—or a dozen states, for that matter—for he was a pioneer in the art. The principles of photography had, of course, been discovered before he was born, but he was taking excellent pictures long before such refinements as light meters or fast film were available.

Harry Shipler

 Portrait of Harry Shipler taken in 1949.

Following his grandfather’s death, Bill Jr. carried on the business. Just the year before, he had moved the business across Main Street to 118 South, which would be the final location for the Shipler studio. In 1989, nearly one hundred years after his great-grandfather first set up business in Salt Lake City, Bill Shipler was forced to move out prior to demolition of the building and the studio closed permanently.

Shipler family

The Shipler family assembled for Harry and Jessie’s Golden Wedding Anniversary in 1955. Harry is seated in the center; Bill Sr. is standing behind him; “Bud” is standing at the far left; and Hollis (Bill Jr.) is standing at the far right.

The Shipler Photograph Collection

[p.xii]By the time the studio closed, the Shiplers had amassed tens of thousands of images. In 1988, as Bill Shipler prepared to move out of his shop on Main Street, he offered to sell the accumulated photographs to the Utah State Historical Society. The Society recognized the immense historical value of the collection and purchased it for $25,000. Since that time, the society has worked to preserve the images and make them available to the public.

The Shipler Collection at the Historical Society includes over 100,000 negatives created between about 1903 and 1979. These negatives range in size from 35mm to 11 inches by 14 inches, but the majority are 4 inches by 5 inches and 8 inches by 10 inches. The Shiplers captured their earlier images on glass plate negatives, but by about 1920 they transitioned to using the newer film negatives. Over the years, some of the Shipler negatives were broken, lost, or damaged by water. Other images, especially chemically unstable nitrate negatives taken in the 1920s, deteriorated over time and are at least partially lost. Nevertheless, most of the images have survived and together they constitute a legacy of historic documentation that is unsurpassed in the American West.

The Scope of the Shiplers’ Work

Over the years the Shiplers took a wide variety of photographs for a wide variety of purposes. In 1891 Utah, Her Cities, Towns and Resources noted that James had “a beautiful souvenir of Salt Lake City, consisting of twelve favorite scenes executed in blue tint and which are simply perfect in their line,” which indicates that he was re-producing images in quantity for a tourist audience. The images in that same book show that he was skilled in portraiture and his obituary stated that prior to joining his son in business he had operated a portrait studio.

Bill Shipler Sr. and Bill Jr. also did quite a bit of portrait work, as well as photographs of weddings, banquets, and other social functions. The images preserved at the Utah State Historical Society include these images taken after 1938, when Harry and Bill Sr. merged their operations. The photographs surviving from before that time are the product of “Shipler Commercial Photographers” and are noticeably different in subject matter. As a commercial photographer, Harry specialized in undertaking in-the-field photo documentation. Most of the images he took were commissioned by someone—a business, an organization, a government entity, or an individual. He took countless photographs of mining operations for companies like Utah Copper Company, Boston Consolidated Mining Company, and Utah Fuel Company. He was hired to photograph business buildings, schools, churches, apartments, and private residences for owners, architects, contractors, real estate investors, and developers. In some cases, clients hired him to photograph the entire construction process of a building. Most notable of these cases was the Utah State Capitol, which he documented in a series of 150 photographs from excavation to completion.

[p.xiii]Insurance companies and others involved in lawsuits hired the Shipler studio to document accident scenes, damaged property, or disputed land. Shipler photographed various farms in the Salt Lake Valley for use in a landmark environmental lawsuit, in which farmers alleged that heavy pollution from local smelters was damaging their crops. Some businesses commissioned images for use in advertising or, like the Salt Lake Hardware Company, images of products for use in catalogs. In a world before photocopy machines, people brought documents, such as letters, checks, and military discharge papers, to be photographed by the Shiplers. The local newspapers also hired the Shipler photographers to capture newsworthy scenes, and the Shiplers may have taken some photos in hopes of selling them to the papers. In addition, Harry photographed some nature and scenery views, perhaps for his own enjoyment, but also to sell as artwork or souvenirs.

Because a number of photographers in the Shipler family worked together or on their own at various times, it is difficult in most cases to know for certain who took any particular photograph. Family members who worked as professional photographers included James, Harry, Bill Sr., Bill Jr., and Robert (“Bud”). Nevertheless, available evidence provides some general clues as to who took the photographs that are preserved in the Shipler Collection at the Utah State Historical Society. The earliest photos in the collection date from 1902 or 1903, about the time Harry set up his own studio. The Shiplers numbered these photographs chronologically, and the numbering sequence continues essentially unbroken to 1979. This evidence suggests that the earlier images in the Society’s collection are actually the work of Harry and his Shipler Commercial Photographers studio. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, about the time Harry joined Bill Sr., there is a notable shift in the subject matter in the collection. This suggests that when the two photographers combined studios, they continued with the numbering sequence Harry had set up as they added images taken by Bill Sr. and later Bill Jr. While it is possible that some of the images in the collection were created by James, the evidence suggests that for the most part the Shipler collection at the Utah State Historical Society represents the work of Harry, Bill Sr., and Bill Jr. Unfortunately, although various individual photographs taken by James have survived, no comprehensive collection of his work is known to exist.

The Scope of this Book

With over 100,000 images to choose from, selecting a representative sampling of the Shipler Collection for this book was a difficult task. Although the collection includes images from Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, and numerous locations in Utah, the Shiplers’ work showcases Salt Lake City far better than any other place. As commercial photographers, the Shiplers worked outside of the studio, capturing a variety of images of the city. In the late 1930s, they began moving away from commercial work and their work after that time includes fewer images of Salt Lake City. Hence, this book offers a sampling of photographs of Salt Lake City taken between 1903 and 1940. A few of the images reproduced here could have been taken by James W. and some of the later ones may have been taken [p.xiv]by Bill Sr., but most of the photographs featured in this book were likely captured by Harry.

As noted previously, Harry Shipler chose to take some images for his own purposes, but because he was a commercial photographer, most of his images were captured at the request of others. This gives a certain unbiased character to the images he captured. He undoubtedly worked with factors such as lighting, camera angle, and composition in order to lend an aesthetic quality to his work, but his clients’ purposes dictated what he photographed and generally required that the subject be documented accurately. In addition to this neutrality, Harry developed exceptional technical skill in the photographic processes he employed. He produced large negatives, primarily 8 inches by 10 inches, on glass and later on film. These large formats record a high level of detail and Shipler’s images, particularly those on glass plate negatives, are characterized by outstanding crispness. Furthermore, for most of his images Shipler recorded the date and a basic identification, adding greatly to their value as historic sources.

These combined factors resulted in a legacy of historic images both exquisite in detail and expansive in scope, documenting many aspects of the Intermountain West in the first half of the twentieth century. Besides being broad in their choice of subject matter, the Shiplers provide an in-depth look at certain subjects, and Harry in particular documented Salt Lake City as no other photographer has.

The purpose of this book is to highlight the relatively unknown work of the Shiplers using selected examples to illustrate the breadth, depth, and quality of their work. In addition, these images offer a visual record of Salt Lake City’s history, providing insight into the growth and evolution of this capital of the Intermountain West.