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A lake steamer  approaches the Madison dock on Lake Monona, ca. 1905 (WHI Image ID 83151)
A lake steamer approaches the Madison dock on Lake Monona, ca. 1905 WHI 83151

One Family's Love Affair with Photography

A Madison family's penchant for photography captured candid views of family life, their love for a menagerie of pets, parades and other festivities on the Capitol Square, university life and a number of Madison landmarks — all from the late 19th through the early 20th century. Now nearly 200 of those photographs taken by William and Clara Middleton and their son Forest are available online and constitute another in a series of photographic galleries within the Wisconsin Historical Society's Wisconsin Historical Images collection.

Photography as a Family Affair

Will, Clara and Forest Middleton with Tootsie the family dog
Will, Clara and Forest Middleton
with Tootsie the family dog

Photography was a collaborative activity for members of the Middleton family. They were all photographers. All told, the Society's archives includes more than 200 Middleton family negatives and prints. The small family appears to have been very close and because they were all involved in photography, some images in the collection cannot be attributed with certainty. Materials provided by the collection's donor John Peters, heir to the Forest Middleton estate and a retired Historical Society librarian, help identify the creators of many of the photos. Peters provided biographical information and excerpts from the diary Forest kept from 1903 through 1915. In a diary entry February 6, 1909, Forest reported that he "helped Ma take some pictures of Tootsie (the family's fox terrier) and the cat dressed up and in a baby carriage." He also made diary notes regarding the purchase of negatives and supplies for developing and printing.

Interior Photography with Available Light

In 1908 Clara Case Middleton won second place in a photography competition held in conjunction with the Jubilee Celebration of the founding of the University of Wisconsin. With her entries she submitted a short article describing her photographic technique. A copy of that article is included in the archived material. She was particularly proud of her interior photography, and provided an example. Using only the light that entered her south-facing front window, she had produced an image of her dining room. As the Middleton's flat had no side windows, and the dining room was behind the front parlor, this was difficult without electronic flash. The dining room's rear wall was 45 feet from the front window. Working on a bright day, she used, "… the smallest stop in the camera and gave an exposure of three minutes and twenty seconds." The room appears well lit, and details are quite sharp.

Family Pets as Photo Fodder

Fortunately Clara was able to work in brighter rooms and with considerably shorter exposure times, two to six seconds, when photographing her pets. And there were many pets in the Middleton household. Clara wrote in her 1908 article of: "… a blue jay - two robins - two bunnies - a fox terrier and a guinea pig. These pets could be handled freely without manifesting the least degree of fear or nervousness." She also wrote, with regard to photographing animals, "Here success may be defined by three words — time, patience, and perseverance." The collection includes delightful evidence that the photographer possessed those traits in abundance. There is a series of photographic postcards of Tootsie, the fox terrier, as a nurse, caring for her patient, Tommy the cat. Another photo features the young robins and an egg scale.

Life on Madison's Capitol Square

Living as they did on East Mifflin Street, the Middletons could enjoy the Capitol Square as their front yard. From their third-floor front windows, they were able to capture scenes of parades as they turned the corner from North Pinckney Street onto Mifflin. On the ground, they took photos of dogs performing on the square, and of the dome of the state Capitol that burned in February 1904, illuminated by incandescent bulbs. The collection also includes photographs of the smoldering remains of that building the morning after the fire.

Madison and University Landmarks

There are views of buildings on the University of Wisconsin campus as well as Madison landmarks. One image captures an electric street car crossing the Harrison Street viaduct on the Wingra Park line. Visits to the country and recreation in and around Madison provide subjects for other photos. Later photographs document Forest's life at the University of Wisconsin and his courtship of his wife, Leonore Belle Judkins.

A Brief Family Biography

Clara Case was born in Whitby, Ontario, in 1852 and was teaching school in Dane County, Wisconsin, when she married William "Will" Elwell Middleton in 1890. Will was 14 years her junior and a native of Trenton, New Jersey. The Middletons lived in a third-floor flat at 22 East Mifflin Street in Madison. Will worked variously as a farmer, restaurateur, cook, janitor and proprietor of a leather goods store on State Street.

The couple's son, Forest, was born February 17, 1892. Clara Middleton was in poor health most of her adult life and died in 1910. Forest married in Lenore Belle Judkins in 1918. He served in the Navy during World War I. Beginning in 1920, he and Leonore taught English in Japan and were living there when the Great Kanto Earthquake struck September 1,1923. They were evacuated to Seattle and subsequently returned to Madison. In 1934 they made their home in Shorewood Hills, in the landmark Joseph Statz stone farmhouse. Forest spent most of his career as a court recorder for the state of Wisconsin; Leonore ran a gift shop, The Mouse Around Shop.

Will remarried and retired to Orlando, Florida, with his second wife, Emma, in 1931. He died in Florida in 1955. Leonore died in 1969; Forest died in 1990 at the age of 98.

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