Viewbooks : Window into America

Window into Disaster

Disaster viewbooks are a small, but compelling, category within Avery's collection. They chronicle the major disasters of the late 19th- and early 20th-century all across the American landscape. Fires, floods, tornadoes and earthquakes -- the toll of each disaster is carefully documented through photographs and written descriptions. But disaster viewbooks are as much about the damage done as the recovery effort. In true viewbook fashion, many disaster viewbooks spin speedy rebuilding efforts into advertisements for the industrious nature of the affected town and its inhabitants.


The Great Tornado at St. Louis and East St. Louis : May 27th, 1896. Cover.

The great tornado at St. Louis and East St. Louis: May 27th, 1896. St. Louis, 1896.

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Issued by the Graf Engraving Company only six days after the disaster, The great Tornado at St. Louis and East St. Louis is evidence of how quickly photographer, engraver and printer could work together to produce a viewbook. This speed hints at another motive particular to the disaster viewbook – controlling the national narrative. From the inside cover: “The Wholesale and Principal Retail Districts of St. Louis Practically Untouched by the Storm… This announcement is made to correct erroneous impressions created by sensational statements in several newspapers published in different Cities and States.” On the opposite page blares the headline, “A story of terror, ruin and desolation.” While this viewbook does not dispute the extent of the disaster, it does want to make clear that St. Louis is still open for business. It is the city’s own terror and ruin, and so it is their story to tell.



The flood : November 3 and 4, 1927; Montpelier Vermont. Cover.

Joseph G. Abair. The flood: November 3 and 4, 1927; Montpelier Vermont. [Montpelier, Vermont?],1928.

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Click here for item information The flood : November 3 and 4, 1927; Montpelier Vermont.

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This viewbook cover uses the outline of the state of Vermont, turned sideways by natural disaster, as a literal lens into this pictorial tour of a flood that overwhelmed Montpelier in November 1927. Images of a flooded Main Street, destroyed houses and the interior of a badly-damaged Congregational Church are a jarring visual record of the damage wrought. But it is the text of this particular viewbook that provides a clue as to why a town would want to not only record but also distribute this record of disaster:

It was a bad Saturday, that November 5, and we were shut off from all the world. Were the streets of Montpelier filled with wailing men and women bemoaning their fate? They were not. Montpelier people are not constructed that way. The sun was not two hours high in the Heavens before all our folks were digging out and almost without a single exception they were smiling and saying, “Good morning.”

As much as it is a record of destruction, this viewbook is also a record of rebuilding. While the images show the extent of the flood’s damage, the text is mostly focused on the town’s response, and on how the moral fiber of the people of Montpelier will help them recover and rebuild.



San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. building card

San Francisco earthquake and fire. [San Francisco, Calif.], [not before 1906].

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Click here for item information San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. numbers card

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Sixty views of the San Francisco earthquake and fire have been assembled here as a pack of stereographic cards. Each card has two views of the same scene, taken at slightly different angles. Viewed together through a stereoscope, the images become a single view in three dimensions. While most of the cards show scenes of destruction – warped streets, collapsed buildings – the card itemizing the damage is very typical of disaster viewbooks.

Columbia University Libraries / Butler Library / 535 West 114th St. / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-7309 /