You're looking at some of the very first color photographs of North America! A fascinating new photography book called An American Odyssey opens the archive of the Detroit Photographic Company to reveal America in brilliant color from the late 1880s to the early 1920s. Several thousand black-and-white negatives were reproduced in color by a photolithographic technique invented in Switzerland, called the Photochrom process.

Graphic designer, photographer, and collector Marc Walter owns one of the world’s largest collections of vintage travel pictures, or more specifically photochroms, and co-authored the book, An American Odyssey, with documentarian Sabine Arqué. The 612 page book takes us back in time, showing us rare and remarkable images of America's past including some of its most iconic landmarks.

As it states in the introduction of An American Odyssey, "Here, then, is the Grand Canyon in color more than ten years before the invention of Autochrome by the Lumière brothers. . . . The Grand Canyon had been discovered in the early 1850s and, by 1895, had already been photographed during the scientific expeditions organized by the American government in 1860–70: Timothy O’Sullivan, J.J. Fennemore, William Bell, William Henry Jackson, and John K. Hillers had already brought back monochrome pictures of the canyon. But the colors of the Grand Canyon—the reds, browns, ochers, and white of its strata burned by the sun were unknown to all but a select few. The colors of what Henry Miller termed 'the land of the Indian' . . . were for the first time revealed to the world by the photochroms of W. H. Jackson."

Can you believe that the first photo above, of Mulberry Street in New York, was taken around 1900? How I'd love to own this book!

Sunset from the Battery, New York, photochrom.

Grand Canyon, view from O’Neill’s Point, Arizona, photochrom.

Memorial Arch, Hartford, Connecticut, photochrom.

Arch Rock, Mackinac Island, Michigan, photochrom.

Portland Head Light, Maine, photochrom.

Mount Lowe Railway, on the circular bridge, California, photochrom.

Apache Chief James A. Garfield, photochrom.

Cape Horn, Columbia River, photochrom.

Chinese pharmacy, Chinatown, San Francisco, photochrom.

Mariposa Grove, "Three Graces," Yosemite National Park, California.

Anonymous, A Monday washing, New York, photochrom.

William Henry Jackson, Zuni Pueblo Indians, the Rain Dance, New Mexico, photochrom.

Tachen website
via [LIFE, The Atlantic Cities]

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  • Some more information on Detroit Publishing Co.
    1. Most of the images are not postcards, but larger prints that ranged in size from 3.5 x 7 to 11 x 14. These prints were not printed in the US, but were printed in Switzerland. You can identify them by the gold type. This group used many more plates and had up to 20 different colors with add to the richness and depth. The postcards typically used fewer than 12 plates. The color often shiften from the beginning to the end of a run. Colors were often changed with a new run.
    2. Although William Henry Jackson worked for Detroit Publishing Co, there were at least eight other staff photographers and many other local photographer's works were purchased and used. Jackson's photos were primarily of the Rocky Mountain Region. Attributions to the photos have been an issue since the negatives of the west were given to the Colorado Historical Society.
    3. The postcards and prints were sold by mail, in postcard stores, and in the specially equipped train cars the photographers traveled in. They were often commissioned to take photos for hotels and businesses.
    4. The postcards and prints were sold as educational tools and people collected them. Many of the postcards were never mailed, but were put into albums or used as calling cards.
    5. Features of the photos were often changed or modified. It's not unusual to have the same postcard in three or four variations.
    For more information go to: You can view them at the Library of Congress website or at the Yale university website http://beinecke.library.yale.e....... For a good history on the process go to the Henry Ford Museum:

  • These are not true color pictures shot with color film. They appear to be black and white prints that have been hand colored. Whatever the means, the color was added artificially after the fact. they are color and are somewhat interesting but they are definitely not the first color pictures of America. In my humble opinion!

  • fantastic!

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