A fascinating set of handbills in our collection advertised a photographer working in South Acton in early 1856. N. L. Merrill announced on Jan. 7th that for “positively the last week,” his Daguerreotype Saloon would be operating and could save locals from going to the city to “obtain their likeness.” Pictures could be taken regardless of the weather. Merrill could even take pictures of young children “by the aid of a peculiar instrument.” He also would copy one-of-a-kind daguerreotypes and paintings. A second flyer dated Feb. 1, 1856 stated that bad weather and travel conditions had kept his Saloon in South Acton. For an additional ten days, he would provide likenesses discounted by 25 cents, after which he would move on or close down for the winter.
Who Was N. L. Merrill?
Curious, we consulted Steele and Polito’s monumental work A Directory of Massachusetts Photographers 1839-1900. No N. L. Merrill was listed there. Further research yielded no one of that name operating as a photographer locally, so we had to search farther afield. The only likely candidate for the South Acton Saloon’s owner was a photographer who later operated mostly in Vermont, Nathaniel L. Merrill, usually known by his initials.
Oddly, we were not able to determine exactly where he came from, how he came to be in South Acton, or where he went when the weather allowed him to move on. Though historians have written about daguerreotype studios in major cities, it is very hard to learn about pre-Civil War itinerant photographers. They would have been on the move constantly, and their advertising, by handbills passed around and probably posted somewhere in town, did not generally leave traces for researchers to follow. The fact that N. L. Merrill’s South Acton flyers were preserved long enough to end up in our archives is quite remarkable.
Assuming we are correct about N. L. Merrill’s identity, we were able to learn about his later career. The search took us miles from Acton but revealed the challenges of an early photographer who repeatedly adapted to changing technology and kept moving to find new markets. Digitized records, newspapers, and photographs allowed us to discover at least some of N. L. Merrill’s travels; we suspect that there were more.
The early life of N. L. Merrill was difficult to uncover. The earliest information we found was a newspaper mention that “he was an excellent artist when we knew him at Irasburgh (VT), in 1850.” (Orleans Independent Standard, April 10, 1868, p.2) It seems that he traveled with a portable studio, sometimes referred to as a “daguerreotype saloon car” or a “moveable saloon.” He would presumably stay until the customers dwindled and then move on. Apparently in the course of his travels, he met Prudentia D. Waters whom he married on Jan. 25, 1853 in Johnson, Vermont. Prudentia was born and raised in Johnson, and the couple may have considered that place their home base for at least some of their time together. Unfortunately, the marriage record gives us no information that would help either to pinpoint Nathaniel Merrill’s origins or to distinguish him from many others of the same name. The record said that he was living in Portland, Maine at the time, but a Portland directory for that year yielded no photographer N. L. Merrill. Further research in the area turned up nothing useful. The next evidence of him is the pair of 1856 handbills in our archives. The 1860 census recorded him in Nashua working as an "artist," though that is the only evidence we found of him in New Hampshire.
After 1860, N. L. Merrill is much easier to find because he turned to newspaper advertising and produced paper photographs with his name and location on the mats. In March 1860, the Bellows Falls Times announced that N. L. Merrill was in town with a saloon where he was taking pictures “in a very superior manner.” The enterprising Mr. Merrill had furnished the newspaper with a copied photograph that elicited a great deal of enthusiasm from the reporter. Merrill ran ads at times in the Bellows Falls Times between the summer of 1860 and at least Feb. 1862. By now he had changed technologies and was apparently settling down for a while. He announced:
"MERRILL’S PHOTOGRAPH & AMBROTYPE SALOON, SPRINGFIELD, VT.
The public are invited to call and examine his specimens, the only place in this vicinity where COLORED PHOTOGRAPHS ARE TAKEN. By this process life-like pictures may be obtained from old and inferior Ambrotypes and Daguerreotypes, and warranted to give satisfaction. The negative is always preserved, and persons wishing duplicates can have them at any time by ordering. LOCATED IN THE SQUARE.” (among other ads, this ran in the Bellows Falls Times, July 20, 1860, p. 4)
During the Civil War years, Nathaniel L. Merrill seems to have spent a good deal of his time in Springfield. He was there working as a “Photographist” when he registered for the draft and was taxed for a photographer’s license in the 1862-1865 period.
Some of his portraits from this period have been made available online including this photograph of seven young men taken in December 1864, courtesy of Brad Purinton’s Tokens of Companionship blog:
The Lamoille Newsdealer of July 12, 1865 wrote that
“N. L. Merrill, from Sprin[g]field, Vt., is now stopping at Johnson for the purpose of accommodating the public with any kind of a picture known to the photographic art. He has had a large experience in the business, and will be remembered by some in this vicinity as the man who first introduced a daguerreotype car into this part of the country. – He has erected a temporary saloon, which he terms a “Camp,” on the Common near Denio’s hotel, and commenced business in it on Monday last.” (p. 3)
The camp was apparently well-attended and patrons’ “urgent solicitations” led him to stay in Johnson during August as well. Around this time, N. L. Merrill seems to have bought property in Johnson. He must have sold his Springfield business, because the back of a portrait taken by J. D. Powers of Springfield, Vt., says “We have also N. L. Merrill’s Negatives in preservation, and will furnish copies when ordered.” (eBay offering, August 2022)
Merrill was on the move again. He ran an ad in 1866:
“Mr. N. L. Merrill, the veteran artist, has pitched his ‘camp’ near the American House in this village (Hyde Park) and will remain four weeks for the purpose of supplying the people with Photographs, Ambrotypes, and Melanotypes, of the highest perfection. Copies from old and inferior pictures can be obtained and enlarged and finished in India Ink or colors, also card Photographs for the same. A good assortment of Phot[o]graphic Frames and Albums always on hand. His reputation as an artist is well established in this vicinity. Pictures can be made in cloudy as well as fair weather.” (Lamoille Newsdealer, June 6, 1866, p. 4)
N. L. Merrill moved on to Cambridge Borough, VT a few weeks later. At times, he rented rooms rather than establishing a “camp.” A woman’s portrait recently offered on eBay was marked on the back “N. L. Merrill, Photographer, Rooms over Kinsley & Bush’s Drug Store, Cambridge, VT.” In April 1868, N. L. Merrill leased a photographer’s “saloon” in Barton Landing in northeastern Vermont. He was listed in the Vermont State Directory of 1870 in Johnson, though the 1870 census shows him in Montgomery, Vermont. (The entry listed Nathan Merrill, photographer, married to “Patience.” Presumably he was passing through town and the census taker did not work too hard on the details.) N.L. Merrill also had a studio in Dunham, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec where he was listed in Lovell’s Canadian Dominion Directory in 1871. The Brome County Historical Society holds a portrait taken by him there. In 1872, N. L. Merrill seems to have had a studio in Enosburgh Falls, Vermont, from which he moved on and a different photographer set up shop. A portrait posted online showed that at some point, N. L. Merrill also took pictures in Richford, Vermont.
In the early 1870s, N. L. Merrill seems to have returned to Stowe, Vermont fairly often. According to the back of a portrait available online, he set up shop in Stowe with a company name of “Mt. Mansfield Picture Gallery.” (Another photo for sale on ebay showed the same gallery with a different photographer, so he may have bought out or sold to a photographer named O. C. Barnes.) In December 1872, N. L. Merrill closed his Stowe gallery for a few weeks and went to Rouses Point, across Lake Champlain in New York. The back of a photograph recently listed on ebay confirmed that N. L. Merrill indeed took pictures in Rouses Point. Merrill was in Stowe again in October 1873 but planned to pack up soon “and go where there are more faces.” (Lamoille Newsdealer, Oct. 15, 1873, p.4) In 1874, he reappeared in Stowe In May and September when the Argus and Patriot reported that N. L. Merrill was “again prepared to make those new style photographs.” (Sept. 3, 1874, p. 3) In addition to portraits, he took a series of Stereoscopic Views of Stowe Village, Mount Mansfield, Smugglers’ Notch and a number of nearby waterfalls. An advertisement for his gallery in Churchill’s Building in Stowe mentioned that he stocked frames, albums, brackets, knobs, and cords, along with a collection of stereoscopes and stereoscopic views. Unfortunately, there was quite a bit of competition in the “view” business, so it may not have been profitable for him. We have not found that he did any other series. The New York Public Library has a stereoscope view taken by N. L. Merrill available online, and the reverse side shows his other subjects.
N. L. Merrill returned to Johnson repeatedly; by the 1870s, it was clearly his home base. In Dec. 1876, N. L. Merrill of Johnson was “taking all kinds of pictures at the photographic gallery of Mrs. B. W. Fletcher” in Waterville, VT. (Burlington Weekly Free Press, Dec. 15, 1876, p. 3) An ad in the April 25, 1877 Lamoille Newsdealer announced that N. L. Merrill would keep his Johnson photographic gallery and saloon open a few weeks longer. In July 1879, Merrill did a short stint in South Troy, Vermont, but then returned to Johnson. Nathaniel, “Photographist,” Prudentia, and daughter Mary were living there at the time of the 1880 census. The two photographs below have been made available online by Special Collections at the University of Vermont's Baily/Howe Library. Both have “Merrill, Johnson” printed on the mats. They were identified on the backs with a name, hometown, and “Classmate J. S. N. S.,” referring to Johnson State Normal School; its students would have been a good source of business for a portrait photographer.
We found less frequent evidence of N. L. Merrill’s activities in the 1880s, but he was still at work. He set up a studio in Enosburgh Falls, Vermont in September 1883, but he was listed in the Lamoille County Directory of 1883 and the 1887 Vermont Business Directory as a Johnson photographer. In November 1885, daughter Mary was married to Hannibal Best at the Merrill residence in Johnson. A quit-claim deed dated Nov. 14, 1888 shows that Nathaniel, his wife Prudentia, her nephew Samuel H. Waters, and his wife Juliette sold lands and tenements in Johnson. (Three mortgages had been executed on the property/properties in 1865, 1869, and 1872.) N. L. Merrill was apparently still living in Johnson, however, while taking photographs in Waterville in Sept. 1889. In Feb. 1890, the St. Albans Daily Messenger reported that N. L. Merrill, who had had a photographic business in Johnson for many years, was moving to live with his daughter and her husband Hannibal H. Best in Enosburgh Falls. The News and Citizen reported that he was dangerously ill in mid-February 1891 and that he died in Enosburgh Falls on Feb. 26, 1891. Unfortunately, we have not found a death record or full obituary for him. A burial notice in the St. Albans Messenger on March 5 said that he had been an invalid for years, but according to an advertisement in the News and Citizen, he had been working as a photographer in Johnson as late as January 1890.
Back in Acton
When we first found the flyers for N. L. Merrill’s daguerreotype saloon, we thought that he would be local and that we could easily track down his life story. What we discovered was Nathaniel L. Merrill, a Vermont photographer who had to be on the move constantly in the decades that followed 1856's saloon. We pieced together many of his movements after 1860 from digitized newspapers, records, and photographs, but we were not able to trace his origins. Different records gave his birthplace as Maine, New Hampshire or Massachusetts, and we found no source that mentioned his parents or siblings. Most of his early travels with his daguerreotype saloon in the 1850s are also unknown, including why he came to Acton (assuming our identification is correct). Any additional information would be appreciated.
Clearly by 1856, the people of Acton, and South Acton in particular, could easily have had their pictures taken if they could afford it. One has to wonder what happened to the likenesses taken that winter; we would love to have scans of local pictures taken by N. L. Merrill. The Society and Iron Work Farm have rare pictures taken of local buildings lost to fire in the 1860s. They could have been Merrill’s work, or perhaps there were done by other itinerant photographers who offered their services in mid-nineteenth century Acton.
It is even possible that we could have early N. L. Merrill pictures in our collection. Unlike paper photographs with mats that showed the photographer, location, and sometimes the subject of the picture, early photographs in their metal or leather cases were much harder to label. We have a collection of beautiful early portraits of unknown people done by unknown photographers; it is frustrating that no one labelled them while there was a chance of identifying them. (A selection is here.) Photography was new at the time; perhaps people simply did not imagine that eventually likenesses would survive but people’s memories would not.
If your Acton ancestors’ likenesses or their photographs of local scenes are in your possession, we would be very grateful to add scans (or originals) to our collection. Please contact us.
Sources Used (in addition to standard genealogical resources):
Newspaper References for Nathaniel L. Merrill, photographer:
Photographs by N. L. Merrill available online:
Other N. L. Merrill Photographs, Not Necessarily Available Online Long-Term
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