Verner Reed, Brunswick Hotel, 1957.

Verner Reed and Historic New England

In 2002, Verner and Deborah Reed gave Historic New England 26,000 negatives encompassing Reed’s work as a freelance photographer in the third quarter of the twentieth century. His photographs include “portraits, landscapes, and images capturing special moments and current events, document[ing] urban and rural life in New England from the 1950s to the ’80s.” This gift greatly expanded Historic New England’s mid-twentieth century’s photography collection.

In 2004, while Verner Reed was still alive, Historic New England mounted an exhibition, and published a catalog of the exhibition, entitled A Changing World: New England in the Photographs of Verner Reed 1950-1972.

By 2022, Historic New England was “Celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Verner Reed Archives”.

Who was Verner Reed?

The following short biography comes from an article by Nancy Wolfe Stead, “The Life and Times of Verner Zevola Reed III” in the Stowe Guide and Magazine, Summer/Fall 2021, p.86-92. Nancy Stead knew Verner Reed personally during his years in Stowe, and recounts from memory numerous episodes of “mayhem, fun, and outlandish enterprise”.

Verner Reed, “furniture maker, sculptor, jeweler, and photographer, was born in 1923 in Denver. . . Verner’s early years were spent in New York, Boston, and Stowe, where his father had built Edson Hill Manor as a wedding present for his wife. Following World War II and a stint in the U.S. Army Air Corps in Burma, China, and India, he became a builder of fine, handcrafted furniture. Marketing his product introduced him to the camera, and photography quickly became his passion.

A chance meeting with a LIFE bureau chief at a 1953 rally in Boston before the impending execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg opened an immense new arena for Verner. He became a freelance photographer for LIFE and, as his skills and interests deepened, he added Fortune, Paris Match, Time, and regional publications such as Vermont Life and various newspapers to his roster. He always worked freelance, refusing to be tied down, and he chose his subjects, exploring and exalting in the streets, neighborhoods, celebrations, losses, and people of his world.”

For more biographical information, see

The images

In Brunswick Hotel, the featured image at the top of the blog post, “Reed clearly relished the simple irony that emerges between the decorum maintained by the sitters and the decrepitude of their environs. Yet, his chosen moment reveals a final twist: these Bostonians recognize their situation; they celebrate long-standing traditions even as they acknowledge changing times.”*

Verner Reed’s work in photography is informed by his times and his surroundings, rooted in New England. It is also clear that he has taken to heart Henri Cartier-Bresson’s definition of photography written in the text accompanying the iconic work, Images à la sauvette / The Decisive Moment (1952). “Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” **

Reed cultivated a photographer’s eye.  In The Photographer’s Eye, based on the Museum of Modern Art’s 1964 exhition showcasing the history of photography, John Szarkowki wrote, “Photography alludes to the past and the future only in so far as they exist in the presnt, the past through its surviving relics, the future through prophecy visible in the present.”*** Verner Reed was always conscious of this elusive aspect of time.

Verner Reed, Northern Vermont Family, 1960.
Walker Evans, Sharecropper’s Family, Hale County, Alabama, 1935.

In 1960, Verner Reed stopped to take a picture of a family in their yard in Northern Vermont. According to the description accompanying the photograph in Historic New England’s collection, “they asked for a minute to tidy up. The mother did not feel that she had enough presentable clothes for all of her children, and made some of them stay indoors–they can just be seen looking out the window.” Twenty five years earlier, Walker Evans had taken a series of pictures of George Burroughs and his family during the Depression in Hale County Alabama. The similarity of these two images is remarkable.

Verner Reed, Boston Arts Festival, 1954.
Norman Rockwell, Art Critic, 1955.

Ever the alert street photographer, Reed captured an image of a man enthralled by the sculpted head of a woman at the Boston Arts Festival in 1954. A year later, Norman Rockwell painted what looks like this man’s twin brother in a similar quizzical state for the cover of the April 16 Saturday Evening Post. The resemblance might be a coincidence, but it serves to highlight that both artists are reaching for that “decisive moment”, in this case in two very different mediums. Reed’s work is more contemplative, not aiming only for a quick laugh.

Verner Reed, Tree Branches, Newport, R.I., 1951.
Verner Reed, Soaped Window, Boston, 1953.
Robert Motherwell, Untitled, 1967.

Tree Branches and Soaped Window, both dated in the early 1950s, provide evidence that Reed was cognizant of what was going on in the art world outside of New England. Painters who came to be called Abstract Expressionists were creating a body of work that was shifting the focus of the art world from Paris to New York. The abstract nature of the patterns created in Verner Reed’s photographs echo Robert Motherwell’s ink, watercolor and pencil drawings in The Mexican Sketchbook (1941) as well as Motherwell’s later starkly defined black and white paintings.

Historic New England and Digital Commonwealth

Historic New England’s mission is to “save and share New England’s past to engage and inform present and future generations.” Like any similar institution, Historic New England’s job encompasses preservation and access. Reed’s gift of his 26,000 negatives gave Historic New England the opportunity to preserve and catalog the images, to mount a number of exhibitions, and to publish an exhibition catalog. Anyone with a Massachusetts public library card has access to the print edition of A Changing World, and can see Verner Reed’s photographs in print.

By comparison, Digital Commonwealth’s mission is to enhance access to cultural heritage materials held by Massachusetts libraries, museums, historical societies, and archives, a bigger piece of the pie. “Access to knowledge and information is core to the purpose and structure of the Digital Commonwealth.” Along with 1850 collections from 235 institutions, Digital Commonwealth provides online access to 89 images in Historic New England’s Verner Reed Photographic Collection, 1950-1972.

Barbara Schneider, Member, Digital Commonwealth Outreach Committee

Retired Head Law Librarian, Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries

*John R. Stomberg, Essay in A Changing World: New England in the Photographs of Verner Reed 1950-1972, Historic New England, 2004. p. 8.

**Henri Cartier-Bresson, The mind’s eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers, Aperture, 1999. p. 42.

***John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye, Museum of Modern Art, 1966. p. 10.

 Richard Schwarz Toy Emporium, 497 & 499 Washington Street, Boston, Mass.
Richard Schwarz Toy Emporium, 497 & 499 Washington Street, Boston, Mass. from Historic New England

Of the many holidays we celebrate at this time of year, Christmas is certainly the best marketed.  Chances are, whether you decry this or embrace it, you can’t escape it.  The images in this post are for the Richard Schwarz Toy Emporium.  First of all, we need more toy emporiums.  (Emporia?)  Who wants to go to a toy store when they could go to an emporium?

If the Schwarz name calls to mind an even more famous toy retailer, you are not mistaken.  Four German immigrant brothers came to America and started their own businesses, all importing and selling toys: Henry in Baltimore, G.A. in Philadelphia, Richard in Boston and F.A.O. in New York City.

Richard’s emporium was located at 484 and 486 Washington Street in Boston in 1895 when Moses King described it as follows:

Among the most fascinating of the stores on Washington St. is the great toy emporium of Richard Schwarz, at 484 and 486, by far the largest concern of its kind in the city.  Everything desirable in imported or domestic toys, games and fancy goods, from the tiniest to the biggest from the lowest-priced to the most costly, is shown here in endless variety. (King’s how to see Boston; a trustworthy guide book ..Boston: Moses King, 1895.)

The adjacent trade cards have the emporium located at 497 and 499 Washington St.  I’m not sure if Schwarz moved or if the street was renumbered, a not unheard of practice in 19th century Boston.  Another 19th century difference to note is that Santa has fewer reindeer pulling his sleigh (more like a sled on one card).  Santa also is dropping packages down the chimney (See left.) while staying on the roof himself, a much more practical approach if you ask me – especially if you’re wearing a black hoodie and carrying a whip like the Santa below.

Richard Schwarz, toy emporium, 497 & 499 Washington Street, Boston, Mass.
Richard Schwarz, toy emporium, 497 & 499 Washington Street, Boston, Mass. from Historic New England

May this holiday season find you and those you love in good health, good spirits and experiencing great joy.


Boston City Council meeting recording, April 15, 2015
Boston City Council meeting recording, April 15, 2015 from City of Boston Archives

We have no newly-added collections this month (the dreaded technical difficulty prevented this), but we do have formats that you may not have checked out yet.  Go to the Explore tab on the Digital Commonwealth home page and select Formats. These are arranged by the numbers, so Photographs are at the top of the list followed by Letters/correspondence and then Documents.

But scroll down and you soon come to Film/video.  Of the 28,400 items here, 23,135 are from the American Archive of Public Broadcasting Collection.  This collection of public media was amassed by WGBH and the Library of Congress to preserve at-risk materials.  There are also tapes from local TV news programs and Boston City Council meetings.

Audio icon
Audio recording icon from Audio recordings (nonmusical) format

Next on the list are Objects/artifacts.  These range from clothing/costumes to furniture to jewelry to samplers.   Some items are unique, like the Aeolian harp from Historic New England or the Native American beaded pouch from the Perkins School for the Blind’s Tad Chapman Collection.

Proceeding further down, we come to Audio recordings (nonmusical).  These are easy to spot by their speaker icon (right).  Most of these are also from the American Archive of Public Broadcasting Collection, but there are several local oral history collections, too.  What about music?  Well, keep scrolling.  That’s listed as Music (recordings).  While some of these also have speaker icons, some are pictured with images of old-fashioned audio cassettes.

Digital Commonwealth: it’s not just pretty pictures.

Written by Anne Berard, Reference& Outreach Librarian, Milford Town Library

Trade card for Hunt's Remedy, the great kidney & liver medicine
Hunt’s Remedy, the great kidney & liver medicine, William E. Clarke, proprietor, Providence, Rhode Island, undated from Historic New England’s EP001: Ephemera collection
Malt Bitters - the purest and best medicine in the world for nourishing and strengthening and for overcoming dyspepsia, debility and wasting diseases. The house that Jack built
Malt Bitters – the purest and best medicine in the world for nourishing and strengthening and for overcoming dyspepsia, debility and wasting diseases. The house that Jack built. from Boston Public Library’s 19th Century American Trade Card
Ayer's Sarsaparilla, Dr. J.C. Ayer & Company, Lowell, Mass.
Trade card for Ayer’s Sarsaparilla, Dr. J.C. Ayer & Company, Lowell, Mass. from Historic New England’s EP001: Ephemera collection

While the earliest advertising cards first circulated in London, Lyon and Paris in the late 17th century, advances in color lithography and printing in the 19th century made them easier to produce and more ubiquitous. Everything from soap, thread, perfume, hats, shoes, coffee, candy and more were marketed in these stylized cards.  Digital Commonwealth has more than 3700 unique images in its collection. Some of the most entertaining and possibly alarming, cards were for tonics and health remedies that might belong in the annals of medical quackery. Blood-purifying agents were all the rage.

Hunt’s Remedy (above, left) claimed that it was“never known to fail” and cured dropsy (edema), liver, bladder, kidney and urinary problems. It was produced by William E. Clarke of Providence, Rhode Island. The graphics show a shirtless man fighting off the Grim Reaper.

Boasting of health and sunny hours, an Ayers Sarsaparilla (above, center) card from 1902 featured a lovely woman in Victorian dress holding a tot on her shoulder. Dr. J.C. Ayers operated in Lowell, MA. Sarsaparilla root is still used today in some herbal medicines to treat psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Touting itself as the “purest and best medicine in the world” for overcoming dyspepsia, debility, and wasting diseases was Malt Bitters of Boston, MA.  (above, right) Their detailed card also promised “stimulation without intoxication.”  Playing off the theme of the House that Jack Built, the card has charming artwork, attractive lettering and tells a complete story.

In time, radio ads were a more modern means to reach a larger audience and trade cards fell out of fashion. Larger companies still produced catalogs and smaller enterprises converted to smaller business cards and matchbooks.

To see the complete collection of 19th Century American Trade Cards, begin here.

Architectural design for Henry Bowen cottage
Design for a cottage for Henry C. Bowen, Esq. from Historic New England General architectural and cartographic collection

The Boston Public Library continues to add to existing collections, although a brand new collection – 32 items from John Sullivan Dwight’s correspondence regarding Brook Farm – snuck in while no one was looking.  Needham Free Public Library added more than 3,500 items to its historical house collection as well.

The largest addition was from Historic New England (HNE) – 139 new collections, over 54,000 items.  Here be treasures: clothing, photos, architectural drawings (left), samplers (below right), quilts, furniture; everyday objects and priceless art. Browsing these collections is almost as good as touring the HNE collections storage facility in Haverhill – or one of the many HNE house museums.  I highly recommend doing both.  Until you can, though, browse these great collections.


Boston Public Library
American Civil War 20th Massachusetts Regiment (Collection of Distinction) – 1 item added to existing collection
Book of Common Prayer (Collection of Distinction) – 1 item
Carte de Visite Collection – 21 items added to existing collection
Colonial and Revolutionary America – 4 items added to existing collection
Colonial and Revolutionary Boston (Collection of Distinction) – 5 items added to existing collection
Early, Rare, and Exceptional Items from Special Collections, Rare Books – 9 items added to existing collection

Needlepoint alphabet sampler
Alphabet Verse Sample from Historic New England Digitized Museum Collections

Incunabula (Collection of Distinction) – 5 items added to existing collection
John Sullivan Dwight correspondence regarding Brook Farm, 1840-1848 – 32 items
Medieval and Early Renaissance Manuscripts (Collection of Distinction) – 17 items added to existing collection
Paintings and Fine Arts Collection at the Boston Public Library – 1 item added to existing collection
Spanish and Portuguese Literature (Collection of Distinction) – 1 item added to existing collection

Historic New England
139 new collections – 54,104 records harvested

Needham Free Public Library
Needham Historical House Collection – 3,583 items added to existing collection