All over the world, Scots and those of Scottish heritage are today celebrating the birth of Robert Burns, the man widely regarded as their national Bard.
The cottage in Alloway, near Ayr where Burns was born on 25th January 1759 has long been a place of pilgrimage and is still popular today.
The cottage features in this stereoscopic view from 1897, part of my own collection of 3D stereocards that were popular with Victorian and Edwardian audiences.
Its publisher, Excelsior Stereoscopic Tours, was the brainchild of ‘M.E. Wright,’ who is credited as the image’s copyrightholder.
But who was ‘M.E. Wright,’ and how did Excelsior’s stereoviews become so popular that they feature today in museum and photography collections all over the world?
Milford Elsworth Wright was American, born in 1861 in Perry, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie. One of nine children, the 1880 US Census recorded him living in Perry with family members, including his twin Mildred, and working as a ‘farm labourer.’
The story of how Milford became involved in stereo photography and developed a successful career in the ‘views’ business is one that I researched further after coming across him during work for my PhD.
During the 1880s, the firm of Underwood & Underwood (U&U) launched a successful business in Ottawa, Kansas, selling 3D stereocards and hand-held viewers door-to-door, state-to-state.
By the end of the decade, the Underwood brothers, Elmer and Bert, had developed plans to grow their stereo business beyond the United States.
It was a plan that led in time to U&U becoming one of the world’s most successful and influential photography firms.
The plan took a major step forward in 1890 when the company put together a team of salesmen to expand its operations into Europe and beyond.
One of those chosen to make the trip from New York across the Atlantic was Milford E. Wright.
Travelling with Bert Underwood and his wife Susie, the party’s destination was the bustling port city of Liverpool where an office was established in a house (since demolished) in Oxford Street in the Mount Pleasant district.
A flavour of the life of a U&U sales agent following that pioneering Liverpool trip is provided by one of Milford’s colleagues.
Writing later in a U&U company brochure, one JLD Chandler described earning upwards of $50 a month in sales commission, travelling through Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and France as well as to Palestine and Egypt.
Initially, Milford seems to have concentrated on selling stereocards to the UK market.
A few months after arriving in Britain, he was in Wales lodging with a family in Cardiff. The 1891 Census recorded his ‘profession or occupation’ as ‘sailor,’ though this may well have been a mishearing of the term ‘salesman.’
Like other U&U salesmen, Milford became an accomplished stereoscopic photographer himself. ‘Excelsior Stereoscopic Tours’ was the brand he used to market his 3D photographs such as that of Robert Burns’s Cottage.
His exact movements during the 1890s are sketchy, but he made at least one return trip to the United States and a family photograph of him taken during this period suggests that he spent time in Scotland.
By the end of the decade, he had settled in the Lancashire mill town of Burnley where he had a photographic studio, and recorded his ‘profession or occupation’ as ‘publisher of stereo views’ in the 1901 UK Census.
The same year, he married Isabella Davidson from Alloa in Scotland and their growing family soon featured three sons and a daughter.
In contrast to international stereo companies like U&U, whose cards featured cities such as New York and London where they had offices, ‘Excelsior’ stereos featured the Wright family’s home address in Burnley.
With a growing family to provide for, Milford went on the road, selling his ‘Excelsior’ cards with stereoscopes manufactured by H.S. Walbridge & Co. of Bennington, Vermont.
Perhaps the highpoint of Milford’s stereo photography career came in May 1906 in Madrid when he captured the aftermath of an assassination attempt on King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria of Spain on their wedding day.
A bomb concealed in a bouquet of flowers was thrown at the couple’s carriage by an anarchist positioned at an upper-storey window.
Exploding in mid-air, it caused the deaths of more than 25 by-standers as well as horses taking part in the wedding procession.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, Milford took a sequence of images at the scene using his stereo camera and later produced as Excelsior cards.
These included the body of one of the horses lying in a pool of blood that was so graphic, I decided not to re-publish it here.
Instead, I’ve used another shot from the same sequence in which the horse’s body is visible through the legs of the mules in the foreground.
Despite its explicit nature, the dead horse image was reproduced in The Graphic (9th June 1906) by one of its special artists. The full-page illustration was accompanied by the credit ‘photographed by the Excelsior Stereoscopic Tours Company, Burnley.’
Another image from the wedding parade prior to the bomb going off also appeared, again reproduced by a Graphic artist, but was incorrectly credited to another company. A correction duly appeared in the following week’s edition.
While stereoscopy’s popularity began to wane in the years before the First World War, it seems Milford continued to be as photographically active as ever.
In February 1915 when he applied for a new passport at the US Embassy in London, he recorded his occupation as ‘photographer.’
An official noted on his form: ‘Applicant has identified himself many times at this embassy and has received several passports issued to him here.’
When Milford died from the effects of flu and acute bronchitis in December 1918, aged 57, the Burnley Express headlined its report ‘Expert Photographer.’
It reported that ‘he had travelled to many remote places in the world, and his collection of stereoscopic views and lantern slides is a very remarkable one.’
If you have any more information about Milford E. Wright or have Excelsior Stereoscopic Tours cards in your photo collection, I’d be interested to hear from you via the comment box below.
* Thanks to Milford E. Wright’s family, notably his grandson John Milford Wright and great-grandson Edward Wright, for additional information and photographs.
* Update Monday 6th February 2023.
Readers will find responses to this blogpost via the British Photographic History website.
Leave a Reply