Jesse Sumner Wooley

Late in January of 1896, Jesse Sumner Wooley, a well-known photographer from Ballston Spa, New York, took passage to Florida on the S.S. Algonquin. [1] Accompanied by his friends the Reverend G. G. Johnson and A. N. Wiley, the trio travelled to Florida to attend the dedication of a Baptist church in St. Augustine. [2] Equipped with a hand-held Eastman Kodak Bulls-Eye camera, Wooley used his trip to St. Augustine to create a stereopticon or lantern-slide lecture about Florida. Wooley subsequently returned to Florida in the 1920s and 1930s.  The photographs and text which make up this web site are the result of both his trips in 1896 and three decades later.

Wooley Circle Portrait

Jesse S. Wooley c. 1900

Wooley Studio Final

Downtown Ballston Spa with Wooley's Milton Street Studio on the left

Wooley Studio Final

Jesse S. Wooley in an automobile c. 1905.

Studio P copy

Undated portrait by Wooley.

Studio P copy

Example of photo back advertisement.

Wooley Studio Final

Interior of Wooley's Monument Square studio, c. 1900.

Wooley's 1896 lantern slide lecture is remarkable for a number of reasons. To begin with, it provides an important historical record of Florida as it made the transition from a frontier region to a center of agriculture and tourism. In addition, it is one of the few professional lantern-slide/stereopticon lectures to survive intact with its narrative text and photographs. [3]

Baker2 copy

Ballston Springs, a lithograph from Nathaniel Willis's American Scenry, 1838

Wooley was born in the Adirondack town of Wilton, New York on May 23, 1867. It was in Wilton that he first attended school in a one-room schoolhouse. In 1879 his family moved nearby to the Geysers on the outskirts of Saratoga, New York. The following year he went to work for the Saratoga photographers Baker and Record (later known as Record and Epler). Working as an errand boy for the photographers during the summer, he attended school at the Geysers during the winter. Advancing through an informal apprenticeship under Baker and Record, he became an assistant photo printer in 1883.

Saratoga had evolved over the course of the nineteenth century into the country's leading health resort. Limestone springs caused by a geologic fault running through the area created naturally effervescent waters that were believed to have medicinal properties. "Taking the Waters" was seen as an important means of both preventing physical ills and of curing various diseases.

Columbia Spring, Saratoga, New York. Photograph by Baker and Record, c. 1874.


In 1885 Wooley left Saratoga and his job with Baker and Record and went to work at $7.00 per week for T. J. Arnold in nearby Ballston Spa. Ballston Spa, like Saratoga, was a resort town that developed around its natural springs. Eclipsed by Saratoga, it nonetheless provided a ideal home and place of business for Wooley. In July of 1887, Wooley bought Arnold's studio for $1,500. Arnold had decided to open a studio with F. Epler in Saratoga. From the time of his purchase of the studio in 1887 to his retirement at the age of 56 in 1923, Wooley remained the leading photographer in Ballston Spa.

Early on Wooley travelled beyond the Adirondacks in search of photographic subjects. In April of 1889, he made his first trip out of the area accompanied by George Weimer to New York City to take photographs of the celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of George Washington's inauguration as president. The following September, Wooley married Susie Arnold the daughter of a local dentist.

Wooley's Wife

S. Arnold with a Florida souvenir.

Globe (Stoddard) copy

In August of 1893, the photographer and travel writer Seneca Ray Stoddard invited Wooley to conduct a photographic tour of the Adirondacks with him. On their return the two men developed a successful lecture series using the photographs. Through his association with Stoddard, Wooley developed his expertise as a lantern slide or stereopticon lecturer.

Photograph, glass garden globe, c. 1873 by Seneca Ray Stoddard.

Shortly after returning from their Adirondack trip, Stoddard and Wooley ventured off to take photographs of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This and other photographic tours were converted into highly successful lantern slide/stereopticon presentations. Subsequent tours with Stoddard included trips to California, Vermont and down the Hudson River.

In 1894 Wooley purchased a Bessler Stereopticon Projector. Evidence seems to suggest that he had decided to take an independent track from Stoddard. It was at this time that Kent C. Reynolds began an apprenticeship under Wooley. Reynolds, who was a graduate of Ballston High School, did much of the studio's day-to-day work while Wooley went on his photographic tours.

Baker2 copy

Poster for one of Wooley's lantern slide lectures.


Detail from an advertisement for steamer service on the St. Johns River.

A Kodak Bulls-Eye camera like the one Wooley used on his trip to Florida in 1896.

Following his return from Florida, Wooley undertook a tour of Europe in July of 1897. Later that year he accompanied a group through Yellowstone Park in California. Stereopticon slide lectures were developed from each of these trips.  It was in 1897 that Wooley took his last photographic tour with Stoddard--a trip to the Springfield, Vermont area.

Streetcarfixed copy

Wooley left New York for his Florida tour on January 27, 1896. Accompanied by his friends G. G. Johnson and A. N. Wiley, he kept a continuous photographic record of his trip starting at the docks of the Clyde Line beneath the Brooklyn Bridge in New York harbor. Proceeding from New York to Charleston with a short stopover, Wooley arrived at Jacksonville on January 3, 1896. From Jacksonville he went on to St. Augustine by means of the East Coast Railroad and then on by steamer down the Ocklawaha to Silver Springs. Returning to Jacksonville, Wooley then went by boat to Sanford--a trip of approximately 200 miles down the St. Johns River. From Sanford Wooley proceeded to Rockledge on the Indian River, then to Fort Pierce, Lake Worth, West Palm Beach and finally Palm Beach.

W1 copy

Cover for the album "Snap Shots Under Foreign Flags" created by Wooley for his 1897 tour of Europe..

Wooley moved into a new photographic studio on the corner of Milton Avenue and Washington Street in Ballston, Spa in March of 1903. Wooley had the studio specially built for him, including a skylight which allowed portrait photography in natural light.

Wooley's Milton Street Studio

Wooley was a highly successful commercial photographer and businessman. [4] In addition to his photographic studio, he opened a gift and record shop on Milton Avenue.  In 1908 he opened a studio and gift shop at Silver Bay on Lake George. His work was constantly in demand. A profitable sideline for him included the sale of scenic photographic postcards of the Adirondacks area made from his photographs. In addition, at different points during his career, Wooley did photographic work for the Delaware and Hudson Railroad and the Canadian-Pacific Railroad.

Wooley 1930

In 1915 Wooley sold his photography studio in Ballston Spa to Howard L. Humes. He continued, however, to own and operate the gift shop next door to the studio. Until 1923, when he retired at the age of fifty-six, he continued to run the studio and gift shop at Silver Bay.

Jesse Wooley on a trip to Florida in the early 1930s.

Wooley returned with his wife to Florida many times during the 1920s and 1930s. On these trips he took hundreds of photographs--images that provide a remarkably interesting contrast with the pictures that he took for his 1896 Florida stereopticon/lantern slide lecture.

Wooley remained a resident of Ballston Spa the rest of his life. In 1940 he suffered a stroke and died three years later in 1943.

Wooley's 1896 photographic tour of Florida reflects not only the fascination people had with Florida and its unique tropical flora and fauna, but his racial prejudices and biases--ones which evidently were acceptable to his audiences. In reconstructing his Florida lecture, we have deliberately left his racially prejudiced comments and photographs intact. We have done so, because we believe they are important indicators of attitudes and prejudices of the period.

Putting aside the racial prejudices evident in Wooley's lecture, we are left with a remarkable historical record. To our knowledge no comparable set of colored slides and lecture notes from the period on Florida exists.

The colored lantern slides, a select number of which are included in this work, are remarkable in that they give us a sense of what late nineteenth century Florida must have looked like to Wooley's audience. These slides are almost certainly among the very first color photographic images of Florida viewed by the general public. It should be emphasized that they are not color photos, but instead lantern slide images that were colorized for Wooley by A. G. Marshall in New York City.

Their overall effect is remarkable. For people unaccustomed to visiting distant or foreign places, they must have been even more incredible. The presentation of a "magic lantern" slide lecture such as Wooley's "From Ice and Snow to Flowers and Fruit" offered the audience an opportunity to travel to distant places, to view scenic landscapes, strange people, historic buildings and exotic animals from the comfort of a local church or lecture hall. A photographer such as Wooley engaged in the public showing of lantern slide presentations provided entertainment, educational opportunities and a sense of excitement to many individuals who would never "see" these sights except through "actual photographs."

Try to imagine the wonder and amazement of a child or adult seated in a dark hall, ready to experience their first "true" glimpse of "Indians of the Far West," "The Wonders of Europe," or "Travels in the Florida." Remember that each presentation held the same sense of anticipation and excitement. Understand that the technology and the message both held a sense of wonderment and amazement. Appreciate that the seemingly crude projection abilities of this equipment progressed with the same speed as many other aspects of nineteenth century American life. [6]

Richard Balzer has written that the lantern slide lecture followed the pattern of many nineteenth century inventions.

    It was refined and "improved," that is, made more approachable by greater numbers of people. Illuminants were strengthened, allowing for greater public displays and the demise of the itinerant showman...By the end of the century projectors with two, three and sometimes four lenses, either on top of each other of next to each other, would be used...The use of photographic slides greatly expanded the power of the lantern, allowing people to be shown real images of foreign lands and foreign people...The last half of the 19th century brought numerous other changes in the magic lantern. For much of its existence the magic lantern was a device for public entertainment or affordable as a toy for the well-to-do. All this changed with the industrial revolution, when mass production techniques permitted the production of a large volume of cheap lanterns. [7]

In the case of Wooley, the lantern slide lecture also offered the promise of a financial reward, something no struggling photographer treated lightly. The extent of Wooley's financial gains from lantern slide lectures is unknown. It is likely that he had visions of becoming another Seneca Ray Stoddard. He advertised his shows in the New York area, and appeared to devote a great deal of time and attention to presentations. The fact remains, however, that he never emerged as a nationally recognized travel lecturer or photographic figure.

Yet his photographic tour of Florida survives today as one of the most complete records that we have of the content of a stereopticon or magic lantern slide lecture. As such, Wooley's work provides us with not only an important document in Florida history, but a unique insight into an intriguing aspect of late nineteenth century entertainment, education and popular culture..

[Home] [J. S. Wooley] [Tour] [Postcards] [Credits] [Archives]