When Jenny Chandler photographed these Brooklyn children playing games about 1900, she also unwittingly provided us with a “cameo” image of herself. The photograph includes her shadow, slightly bent over her camera as she takes the shot. THF 38025
In 1890, 25-year-old Jenny Young Chandler suddenly found herself a widow with a two-month-old baby to provide for. This heart-rending personal loss would take her on an unexpected path--one as a photojournalist and feature writer for the New York Herald, capturing life in Brooklyn, New York and vicinity. Over the next three decades, Chandler’s sensitive, insightful photography would depict people from all walks of life and the world in which they lived--a legacy preserved in over 800 glass plate negatives.
Jenny Chandler was born in 1865 in New Jersey to William Young and Mary Lewis Young. An only child, Jenny was raised by her father and stepmother, Sarah Bennett Young. The family moved to Brooklyn, New York, when Jenny was six, so her father could work as the city editor for the New York Sun newspaper. Jenny followed the normal “career path” for a young lady at that time, marrying William G. Chandler on April 25, 1888. The groom, a neighbor, worked as a sales representative for a picture frame manufacturer. Jenny and William welcomed a son, William Young Chandler, on October 12, 1890. Two months later, Jenny’s husband died of typhoid fever. Chandler unexpectedly needed to earn a living for herself and her child.
When Jenny Chandler embarked on her career, photographs were made by lugging a heavy camera, glass plate negatives and tripod. Understanding how the photo chemicals worked and how light and camera lenses interacted proved to be an exacting task. While photography was growing in popularity as a hobby for young women whose families could afford the equipment, as a profession, it was still considered a male domain. Yet Jenny Chandler mastered the technical details of camera and chemicals, then used her sensitivity and insight as a professional photojournalist to create evocative images of the world around her.
Jenny Chandler’s photographs have an immediacy—a “you are there” quality. She had a remarkable talent for portraying on film the lives of people of diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds. Chandler captured well-off Brooklyn girls and boys playing games, the exuberance of families enjoying the beach at Coney Island, the well-mannered curiosity of students on a museum visit, young girls bent over their sewing tasks, scruffy boys hanging out at the beach, children gathering tomatoes, a fisherman mending his net, shipwrights making wooden boats, and Norwegian immigrant women laboring at their farm work.
In 1922, at the age of 56, Jenny Young Chandler died of a heart ailment. For nearly 10 years, her photographic legacy quietly remained in her Brooklyn home. The subsequent owner of the house, Betty R.K. Pierce--recognizing its importance--contacted Henry Ford hoping “to have Mrs. Chandler’s work preserved in some way.” Mrs. Pierce had read about Henry Ford’s museum and historical village, and thought the photographs particularly related to Ford’s collections. In May 1932, five large boxes containing the carefully packed 800 glass negatives were on their way to Dearborn.
The result of this donation is an amazing document of early 20th century life.
Cynthia Read Miller, former curator, photography & prints, and Jeanine Head Miller, curator of domestic life at The Henry Ford.
Brooklyn and its environs offered Jenny Chandler a varied palette of urban and rural scenes, wealthy and impoverished people, and daily work life and leisure experiences. Below are a few selections from her remarkable collection of photographs.
Coney Island’s beaches and amusement parks offered cooling breezes and leisure opportunities to New York City area residents. THF38292
Children in front of a Gowanus Canal house, Brooklyn, New York. Gowanus Canal was a busy - and polluted - domestic shipping canal. THF38009
Gathering radishes in Ridgewood. Ridgewood - a neighborhood that straddled the Queens/Brooklyn boundary - remained largely rural until about 1900. Buildings in the background attest to the increasing urbanization of the area. THF38392
Norwegian immigrant women laboring at their farm work, about 1900. THF38397
It was so difficult to choose only a few of Jenny Chandler’s photographs! You can enjoy hundreds more of her images in our digital collections.
Jenny Young Chandler (1865–1922) was a 25-year-old widow in 1890, when she began to support herself and her infant son by working as a photojournalist for the New York Herald. Her images were captured on glass plate negatives via a heavy camera, and intimately depict everyday life on the streets of Brooklyn, New York. We’ve just digitized over 200 images from the collection, including this one of marionette-makers at work. Other noteworthy subjects for Chandler include children at play and work, ethnic minorities (such as “gypsies,” now more commonly known as Roma), and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum (which still exists today, though undoubtedly in much different form). See all the Chandler images digitized thus far in our Digital Collections, and check back in as we add more over upcoming months.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.