Victorian Buffalo - Table of Contents........................Cynthia Van Ness - Table of Contents

Victorian Buffalo:
Images From the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library

By Cynthia Van Ness
Western New York Wares Inc.


Even though photography was invented in 1838, it was not feasible to reproduce it for purposes of publication until the 1890s. For most of the 19th century, then, other means of illustration were employed in books and periodicals, including woodcuts, steel engravings, and lithography.

Featured here are examples of this little-known body of local, nonphotographic Victorian commercial and graphic art, found in 19th century Buffalo publications now held in the Special Collections Department of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library. (The department does not have a picture or photography collection per se.)

While this book includes a few of Buffalo's surviving architectural superstars, the focus is on ordinary, everyday buildings and scenes from Buffalo's past — some of which still survive.

While Buffalo's fascinating history is increasingly appreciated in Western New York, the riches of one of its oldest and largest cultural repositories, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library (BECPL), are known to but few residents. This unsung Buffalo institution, which hired me as a librarian in 1994, is the largest public library in New York State outside of New York City.

In its initial organizational form as the Young Men's Association, it wax the progenitor of three other Buffalo cultural institutions, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, and the Buffalo Museum of Science.

The BECPL, in successive organizational forms, dates back to 1836, and its holdings reflect over 160 years of careful, comprehensive, and, until Buffalo's recent economic difficulties, well-funded collecting on the part of 19th and 20th century librarians and donors.

What makes its collections significant today is a long tradition of acquiring and retaining high-quality, noncirculating materials. Not being able to take home certain old books can be annoying to today's library users, but because the BECPL never loaned out thousands of titles, potentially losing them forever, and resisted trends to weed the shelves of "old stuff," it is frequently the sole owning institution of many out-of-print 18th through 20th century items sought by researchers in town and from around the world.

One of the many subjects that benefited from careful collection and retainage was local history. When a consultant surveyed the Library's holdings and wrote a glowing report on its local history and genealogy collections, the Library responded by establishing a new division.

The Special Collections Department opened in 1994 to collect and make available materials that had been scattered throughout the closed stacks for 30 years. It has become a popular destination for researchers from across North America and overseas, and fields genealogical and historical inquiries from around the world.

I have reported to this department every day since 1995, and I am still delighted to be paid for the pleasures of immersing myself in the printed artifacts o Buffalo's history.

Because my background is neither local (I grew up in Rochester and moved to Buffalo as an adult) nor historical (unless my undergraduate degree in Art History counts), I could not have predicted that this handsome, underrated city would turn out to be the focus of the happiest, most satisfying work I have ever done.

Though I have spent hours — entirely on my own time — researching the names, dates, locations, and architects of the buildings and scenes shown here, I do not presume to be infallible. Precise siting of long-gone buildings is not easy. Architects and builders often worked in anonymity and many businesses left few or no historical traces, all of which can make for short captions. Errors, omissions and, of course, opinions, re mine alone.

A note about dates: the year shown in the caption is not necessarily when a building was erected or a scene occurred but when the illustration was published.

As a non-native, I hope that this book will awaken Buffalo to the extraordinary number and variety of 19th century buildings that, unlike many other cities of our age, we still possess.

I dream of America someday associating Buffalo with great architecture instead of snow storms or sports teams. To achieve this, Buffalo can start by recognizing the riches it already has, and prizing its Victorian heritage the way San Francisco prizes its cable cars.

No book is written in isolation. The following people deserve thanks ....

Cynthia van Ness, M.L.S.
July 1999

Photos and their arrangement 1999 Chuck LaChiusa
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