W. R. Howell
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Howell History


William R. Howell (1846-1890) was only 44 when he died so, unlike famed Mathew Brady, this prolific photographer never received the recognition he deserved. However, as if a late fitting tribute to his work, his pictures are now regularly sold on Ebay over a hundred years later. (This photo of Howell courtesy of Donald White, Howell's great-grand newphew.)


William Roe Howell was born on April 10, 1846 at Goshen, NY. His father, DeWitt, was a wealthy farmer and landowner. His mother, Jane Roe, was the daughter of a lawyer from Blooming Grove, NY. This affluent home included four brothers and a sister. His first love was art but that developed into a professional interest in photography. Howell began his career in photography with a gallery in his home town of Goshen. Around 1863, he moved to New York City and went into partnership with photographers Henry and Robert Johnston. Their studio was located at 867 Broadway.

William R. Howell posing at his New York studio.
Courtesy of Anthony Dale, Howell's great-great grandson
(Click photo for larger size.)

About 1866 the firm's name changed to Johnston & Howell. Howell went into sole proprietorship around 1867. Howell began gaining recognition for his photography around 1870. At the age of 24, photographic journals were hailing him as an "accomplished young artist." His studio was situated at the foot of Broadway in the district called "Ladies' Mile." Here the fashionable upper class shopped and paraded up and down Broadway. This location was ideal for Howell because it drew in a host of celebrities to have their photos done including showman P.T. Barnum, Buffalo Bill Cody and Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer. Howell also opened a studio in Brooklyn on Fulton Street which later was sold to photographer Frank E. Pearsall.

The highlight of Howell's career came in 1873 when he became one of five Americans to be awarded a special grand prize at the World's Fair held in Vienna, Austria. An album of these photos, known as Howell's Album of Studies, sold in the U.S. for $8.00. This album consisted of 24 cabinet card-sized photographs mounted on 8"x 10" cards, bound together in cloth.

howell medals back
The reverse of a Howell photo shows images of the award he won
at the World's Fair in Vienna in 1873.
(Click photo for larger size.)

During this time he was also the photographer for New York College, several of the New York City Ward schools and the senior class photographer for Princeton College (1869-1870 and 1872-1873). He may also have take photos for West Point Military Academy, but that hasn't been confirmed. Howell moved his New York studio around 1878, possibly because the small building he occupied at 867 Broadway was being demolished (the new building at that location was completed in 1882). He relocated to 889 Broadway and to 26 West 14th Street around the same time. It's unknown which studio he occupied first after the move from 867 Broadway. Later, at 26 West 14th Street, Howell partnered with another photographer by the name of Meyer. It's not known who this person was.

Howell seems to have gone into retirement in 1880, most likely for health reasons. The August 1880 edition of Anthony's Photographic Bulletin states that he was retiring in Bloomfield, New Jersey. No Howell photographs have been found with a New Jersey address. Howell opened a studio in Washington, D.C. in 1886 and it remained open for only two years. He then moved back to New York and died December 13, 1890 of tuberculosis at the home of fellow photographer, Lawrence Perkinson, whose own studio was in Harlem at 125 Street. It's interesting to note that Howell was married in 1870 to Fanny Charlotte Scott and had four sons, but they aren't mentioned in any of his obituaries.