A Lifetime of Devotion Crosses the Block

by Carol Begley Gray

On August 29, 1996, at the Chichester, NH homestead of Gladys Towle, head colorist for The Sawyer Pictures for fifty-two years, over three hundred lots of Sawyer-related items sold under the hammer of auctioneer Archie H. Steenburgh of Haverhill, NH. Most of the items, including framed prints, loose prints, advertising memorabilia, and two of Gladys' easels, sold at strong prices to a select crowd of 100+ people. The Sawyer Pictures, begun by Charles H. Sawyer in 1904 in Farmington, ME, was a successful business for over 70 years, providing hand-colored photos to stationery stores, jewelry stores and gift shops. The Sawyers eventually relocated to Concord, NH to be in close proximity to the White Mountains, a favorite backdrop for their landscape artistry.

Gladys Towle, who now resides in a nursing home, began coloring for Charles Sawyer in Concord, NH in 1919 at age 16 and became his primary colorist. She retired in 1971 and at the time of her retirement was working for his son, Harold. It has been claimed that her artistry made all the difference in the effectiveness of the finished prints. She did the samples; others followed her coloring instructions. She was in charge of touch-ups too, pain- stakingly retouching minor "mistakes" with cotton swabs.

The history of the Sawyer business is fascinating. While the first studio in Farmington was established in 1904, the business really began in 1903 when Charles Sawyer began snapping photographs of Maine landscapes. Next, using watercolor paints, he "colored" the photos, which he then carefully matted and framed.

Charles disliked the term "tinting".

Some prints were "doctored up", for example to eliminate Profile Hotel nestled among the trees on some of the Echo Lake prints, and the elimination of a telephone pole near a covered bridge in another. He never "staged" a scene, so if a print contains people, cattle, sheep, etc. that is what was happening at that time.

Colored prints from the early Farmington days are distinguished by a flat matting, a pencil signature, and a grey border around the print. Some of these early prints also have copyright dates on them, usually 1905 or 1906. It is somewhere in this time period that colorists were first hired to expand the business, apparently on consignment.

Charles Sawyer maintained a studio on Main Street in Farmington, ME until 1918, before moving on to Concord, NH. After the move, he bought his first car, a Maxwell runabout which enabled him to get around better and expand his photo- graphic ventures to the eastern side of the White Mountains which eventually became his primary focus.

The business in Concord quickly expanded to the point that several employees were hired, including Gladys Towle who had been trained by Charles' first colorist, Miss Nellie Farmer from Farmington, ME. Within a year, Miss Towle's artistic talent ultimately placed her as head colorist in charge of training apprentices and completing samples of prints which the other women copied.

Several of the unsigned prints in the auction on August 29th were initialed on the back, some with Gladys' and others with an "R", an "S" or "Jeanne". Perhaps these were for Gladys to check, since most prints of the same scene are colored almost exactly the same. Many other prints were marked "sample" for other colorists to follow.

In later years, Gladys wrote out several pages of coloring instructions which guaranteed the process would be somewhat consistent. Despite the fact that Miss Towle never regarded her work as an assembly line process, her painstaking care with her coloring enabled her to nearly duplicate the colors of one "Echo Lake" to succeeding "Echo Lakes". Most of the coloring was done downstairs in the Pleasant Street Sawyer address in Concord, NH. Most of the girls worked at easels near a window. Some took work home.

By the early 1920s, thirteen names of colorists appear in Charles' business ledger, many of whom did not live in the Concord area. A Miss Margaret Hennessy took prints home with her to Newburyport, MA. Miss Annie Tracy, who worked from 1920 to 1923, was "sent" prints, and "colored" an unbelievable number of them. In Feb. of 1921, she colored 350 prints for a salary of $25.78. The most that she was paid for a print was 33 cents for an 11"x14" plate size.

In December of 1925, generous bonuses of roughly four times their weekly salary went to four employees including Gladys Towle. She received $100. While most artists were paid by piece work, from company records it appears Miss Towle was on a salary at some point, most often $23, a salary considered good at the time.

The company managed to survive the Stock Market crash and Depression, plus two World Wars, and by 1949 Charles' son Harold and his family were active in the business. Harold was the official manager of The Sawyer Pictures and the pictures took on a different look. Harold's first wife Cornelia B. Sawyer, better known as "Neal" was on the payroll along with daughter Marjorie. Harold's second wife Millicent also colored prints for about nine months but told me the pay wasn't that good since it was piecework, so she sought work elsewhere.

By the early 1950s, the use of glass was discontinued and the prints were coated with a lacquer. Matting the print was also discontinued, making it easier to date the prints. A few men, most likely salesmen, were earning salaries of $3,000 while Gladys' salary remained the highest for the colorists at $2,297; she received $1 an hour where the other girls averaged between 66 and 85 cents an hour.

If payroll records could talk, it might be said that the Sawyer men must have been good to work for. Many of the business employees remained for years up until 1950-51 and the company continued to give Christmas bonuses that averaged three times a weekly salary. However, Gladys Towle usually received more than the other colorists; in fact, Gladys' salary was the highest of the sixteen employees including Harold B. Sawyer!

Charles Sawyer's health was in question by the spring of 1954; apparently he had a heart problem which prompted him to go to the doctor. He asked the doctor if he could take off the storm windows and the doctor told him it would be a risk to do so. Being a stubborn man, he did so anyway and died on June 14, 1954 at the age of 86.

In the early 60s, the Federal Government stepped in and wanted the land and the studio at 55 Pleasant Street was demolished to build a large, modern Post Office in Concord. The business moved to Eastman's Dairy, not more than a mile away. The colorists completed their work at home and the business address for the firm became son Harold's address on 46 Spring Street.

The first Sawyer photos were printed on a platinum paper, thus the term "platinotypes"; later after WW1 it was replaced by satista paper from England and later from Boston. This paper contained only a trace of platinum but a larger amount of silver. Satista was mainly used for watercolors and a bromide paper for oils. It was dipped in water first and then sponge dried. Earlier prints were all watercolors which is why the surviving prints from this early time period are usually more mute and the colors faded.

The prints that surfaced at the Archie Steenburgh auction had been stored in Gladys' large old barn; thus most were nested in cobwebs, dust and dirt. Miraculously, many survived the elements and years of storage and were certainly in desirable shape.

A sampling of the prices realized follows: an unusual small print of Keene Square (lacquered), $90; a miniature "Thunder Hole", $85; "Old Winchester Bridge, $70; a small "Cypress Point, Monterey" in its original box, $90; a large rounded top mirror with a sunset scene, $260; "A Small Cove, Bailey Island", $160; "Echo Lake", $80; "Morning Over Lake Chocorua", $100. Many of the unsigned, unframed prints went for high prices as both collectors and dealers bid for this special collection.

Several prices realized include: "Franconia Range", $160; "White- face", $100; "Sunset On The Sandy River", $60; a sheep print, "In The High Sierras", $100; "Helping Grandpa", an early Farmington print of people and a hay wagon, $270; and "Where The Blue Heron Nests", $190. Miss Towle's heavy desk-style easel with a wrought iron base brought $525 and a framed ad, $90.

Many of the unsigned, unframed prints sold in lots: 4 large 16 x 20s including "A Country Highway" (Weld, ME) and a canoe scene with birches went for $500; six colored winter scenes, $370; and numerous lots of 10 prints each, several of Western shots, sold in the $40 to $100 range. These prices do not reflect the 10% buyer's premium.

Most of these prints were expertly executed in rich, realistic color and will be prized by many collectors. Several of the unsigned but matted prints, like "The Old Wizard Birch, Intervale", "The Tide Stream" and "Sippewissett Hotel, Buzzards Bay", are early and uncommon prints. Let's hope these unsigned prints do not appear on the open market suddenly signed. "Fakes" will do nothing but hurt the now fast moving market of Sawyer prints.

Gladys Towle retired in 1971 from The Sawyer Pictures with a pension provided by Harold. After that, the production of hand-colored Sawyer prints dwindled. In all, she had worked for the Sawyers for 52 years, but before she retired, she completed a master series of pictures for a new line of lithographed Sawyer prints. There were 17 or 18 popular prints that were selected including "Surf at Pinnacle Point"; "Back Cove, Pemaquid Maine" and "Mt. Mansfield, Stowe, VT".

These lithographs, usually in the 11" x 14" size, carry a "Sawyer" signature directly on the print in white.

When Harold died in 1980, the studio closed its doors. A month after his death, Harold Yeaton bought the business from Millicent Sawyer, Harold Sawyer's second wife. It took a fork-lift to remove Charles' safe with all the filed glass negatives and sample books to Mr. Yeaton's cellar. Some of the glass negatives can be found in the archives of the NH Historical Society. The Sawyer Pictures out-lasted all its competitors and left behind a huge volume of expertly-colored prints of comparable quality to Wallace Nutting. The next time you see a Sawyer print, take a closer look and "See America through Sawyer Pictures."

Author Carol B. Gray purchased the heavy wrought iron easle/desk used by Gladys Towle, while Leon Perry of Brownington, VT, a serious Sawyer collector for over 20 years, bought piles of prints.

A book by Carol Begley Gray, "The History of the Sawyer Prints and the First Price Guide", is available at Elm Plaza Antiques in Milford, NH, Needful Things in Amherst, NH and The Hayloft in Northwood, NH. Dealer discounts are available through the author at (603) 888-7220.