While searching for the catalog numbers for mining lamps, a collection manager discovered an impressive photo archive shot in 1884
As a collection manager at the National Museum of American History, I often have access to things no one else gets to see, including the mining collection, one of the oldest at the Smithsonian. Recently, I worked with a team to inventory thousands of objects in the museum's Division of Work and Industry. In the process, I cataloged hundreds of mining lamps.
While searching old records for the catalog number for some of these lamps, the name Dewey kept coming up. It turned out that Frederic P. Dewey was the name of the original curator of the Smithsonian's mining and mineral collections. In 1884, he arranged to have the interior of a Pennsylvania coal mine photographed, an amazing feat for the time. I located, in this museum's library, the original paper that Dewey published about the photo shoot, and about how they managed to light the mine. I also found a large publication about the entire mining and mineral collection which Dewey published in 1891; this is helping to unlock secrets to the Smithsonian's important early mining collections.
Armed with the catalog numbers listed in the 1891 publication, we contacted the Smithsonian's photo services unit, which is responsible for cataloging all the images taken by its photographers. It turned out that the original glass plate negatives were in cold storage -- just where they should have been -- only no one knew how important they were, or exactly what the images were until that moment. I learned that the Smithsonian hired a photographer from the Pottsville area of Pennsylvania, George Bretz, to document the Kohinoor Mine at the Shenandoah Colliery for the 1884 World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans.