William C. South in Wikipedia? What a great idea!

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You may not have heard of the pioneer of color photography who lived in Downingtown, but it is time that you did.

Jim LaDrew thought so and contacted me about posting information on him on Wikipedia. Years ago I enjoyed working with the good folks who ran the Brandywine Color Labs in Downingtown: brothers Ed, Bob and Jim LaDrew; Melissa did all the copy work and Joan greeted you with a smile. It was a great place in the days of “traditional” photography!

There certainly is plenty of information at Chester County Historical Society on William South, since his archives of photographs and business records are here. It was “only” a matter of submitting a biography to Wikipedia, which Jim was willing to do and spent many hours working through the submission process. It was well worth the effort.  Who knows maybe even some of the mysteries surrounding South will now be solved!

So who is he and what are these mysteries?

William South, born in 1872 in Downingtown, was a successful commercial photographer working for railroad and steamer lines at the turn of the 19th century. As a young person he had aspired to be a water color artist and took a degree in Art and Mechanical Engineering from the Spring Garden Institute.

He was fascinated with the pioneering work of Arthur Louis Ducos DuHauron who created a color photograph in 1868 by superimposing layers of red, blue and yellow pigments. South made improvements on Ducos duHauron’s idea and patented a camera that took three identical images at once through orange, violet and green filters. When these negatives were printed using successive printings with corresponding red, blue and yellow pigments it created a color photograph with a watercolor-like appearance. This he named the Solgram Color Photograph.

He wrote in an advertising booklet titled: “The Solgram” A System of Color Photography: “As there is no process or means of producing pictures, which for truthfulness of reproducing nature can rival a water-color drawing executed by a master, I have made the aquarelle my standard.”

South patented his camera and Solgram Color Photograph process in 1904. He built a factory on St. Joseph’s Alley in Downingtown to manufacture paper and chemicals.

South had difficulty marketing the process because Eastman Kodak did not allow their dealers to sell products by other makers. He unsuccessfully sued Kodak long before the anti-trust laws put an end to the practice.  His Solgram Color Photo Company was declared defunct in 1910.

South opened the Keystone School of Photography to teach commercial photography at the site of his factory.  We know that the school was open in 1910 but are not sure that it was in operation for more than a couple of years. In CCHS collection are color Solgram prints signed with the cyphers of “L J W” and “R E L.” (Note that the initials may not be in the right order.) I would love to know who these photographers were and if they are his students or assistants. We know that South welcomed women as students to the school and two of his assistants were women.

While the school was in operation, South had enough students to run a small school orchestra. It seems that as his photographic career was ending, he transitioned into a musical career. He gave violin lessons and even built violins.

The Archive newspaper of August 24, 1916 notes that he managed the Premier Dance Orchestra of Downingtown which featured 15 musicians. They rehearsed in his Solgram factory building.

South was a gifted violinist and had a large collection of rare violins including Wieniawski’s Stradivarius and a Joseph Guarnerius valued at $50,000. According to the Daily Local News August 4, 1925 he played “The Last Rose of Summer” at the Old Fiddler’s Picnic with perfect technique he left his hearers spell-bound…”

In 1926 “Professor” South gave a talk at the Fiddler’s Picnic on “the influence of the old-time country fiddler upon the civilization of the West.” He is quoted in the Daily Local News, August 9, 1926 as saying, “There is a side other than entertainment, which should be credited to these old-time fiddlers, for in them we have the prescription for bringing about the much desired world-peace.” South was clearly ahead of this time. Later that day he played on a 1730 Petrus Guarnerius, Fil-Andre of Manteau violin playing Pierot’s Serenade.

In 1929 the Daily Local reported that South again played at the Old Fiddler’s Picnic along with two of his students, 12 year old Archie Guenta of West Chester and 14 year old Helen Good of Downingtown.

In the 1990s I met a couple of people who knew William South! Jean Rodgers Harrison said that she met South when she was a child. He came over to their house to play his violin, accompanying her father, Norman Rodgers on the piano. Bill Moulder said that his mother, Josephine Moulder was a neighbor of South’s and would model for him.

What happened to South and his business was debated in a series of newspaper articles appearing in the East Branch Citizen in 1977. The newspaper claimed that he died of a broken heart in a Berwyn nursing home in 1938.

Now a more accurate picture of his life is available. The complete archives of the Solgram Color Photo Company including business records, photographs, patents and advertising materials are available for researchers in the collection of Chester County Historical Society. A guide is available on the website at http://www.chestercohistorical.org/photo-search

If anyone has any information on William South, his musical career or photography school, I would love to hear from you at ppowell@chestercohistorical.org

Many thanks again to Jim LaDrew for suggesting that Renaissance man William South deserves to have his story told on Wikipedia!  Pamela Powell, Photo Archivist CCHS