Iowa City – Through The Eyes Of Isaac Wetherby.

In the 1850’s, there were two creative artists connected with Johnson County. Two young men who gave us our first ‘pictures’ of Iowa City. One used a sketch pad, the other – a camera. Allow us here to show you the beautiful fruits of their labor. On this page, we’ll see our fair city through the camera lens of…

In July 1854, photographer Isaac Wetherby arrived in Iowa City, opening a photography shop in a small second-floor office on Clinton Street. It was very customary for photographers of the day to stay in a community for several weeks, renting studio space while advertising for “sitters” to come in and have their photograph taken.

On August 1, 1854, Wetherby’s first Iowa City customer walked up the stairs to his new studio, and from that first day through the end of October, business was brisk. Throughout that first fall in Iowa City, when Isaac wasn’t pre-occupied with customers, he would venture about Clinton Street, experimenting with “non-professional” outdoor pictures near his studio – photos which, at the time, had little market value. But today, these outdoor shots, taken between August and October of 1854, have become Wetherby’s best known photographs, and by far, the most history-laden pictures historians have of early Iowa City. Below are the four rare Wetherby photographs that have survived:

Isaac Wetherby photograph – Clinton Street looking north – fall 1854. Storefronts along Clinton Street north of Washington dominate this 1854 view taken while Iowa City was the capital of Iowa. The space between the taller structures and a two-story white building north (left) of them marks the entrance onto Iowa Avenue east of Old Capitol.
Isaac Wetherby photograph – The State Capitol – August 1854.
Isaac Wetherby photograph –Second Annual Johnson County FairSeptember 1854.
Isaac Wetherby photograph – Clinton Street looking southeast from the steps of The State Capitol – October 1854. Click here to read more about Clinton Street in the 1850’s.

This April 16, 1999 article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette (below) looks at the restoration of Wetherby’s 1854 photograph of Old Capitol.

(M-0142) Here’s a very rare CDV card from Isaac Wetherby’s Iowa City studio featuring a photo of Old Capitol on University Square. When comparing this photo with other Wetherby shots of Old Capitol – fyi: he took the first one in 1854 – we believe this one was taken in the mid-1870’s. A CDV – carte de visite – was a type of small photograph (2.5″ x 4″) used in similar ways as passport photos today and usually featured pictures of individuals. This classic shot of Old Capitol was probably placed on a CDV display card and used as a sales sample for those wanting to buy a larger version of the photograph.
Iowa City historian Marybeth Slonneger wrote a beautiful book on Isaac Wetherby – Wetherby’s Gallery. Read more about Marybeth here.

We stand amazed at these early sketches of Iowa City and offer a tip of the old hat to Isaac A. Wetherby – Iowa City’s master photographer! Click here to read more about Isaac Wetherby.

There is one iconic photo from 1865 that stands out amongst many. Click here to see it.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

University of Iowa Libraries: Iowa Digital Library website

Revived Image, Lyle Muller, The Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 16, 1999, p 40

Walking Through Isaac Wetherby’s Photography Gallery, Marybeth Slonneger, Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 17, 2007, p 19

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