Yet another Universalist: Charles Bierstadt, photographer

The Universalist Charles Bierstadt was a photographer best known for his stereoscopic views of the American landscape. He was also the brother of the famous painter, Albert Bierstadt.

Charles was born in Prussia in 1819. His parents emigrated to New Bedford in 1831, bringing their three sons with them. Charles was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker when he was fifteen; the apprenticeship lasted six years. He and his brother Edward began experimenting with photography during the 1850s. (1)

Charles and Edward had a woodworking shop together at 147 North Water St., where they specialized in “plain and fancy turning and sawing.” (2) Their shop burned in 1859. At about the same time, Albert Beirstadt, their brother, who had already established himself as an artist, returned from a trip to the Rocky Mountains, where he had, among other things, taken landscape photographs. Albert helped Charles and Edward to establish “Bierstadt Brothers Photographic Gallery.” In 1860, Albert took Charles and Edward on a trip to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, where they took landscape photographs which they later printed and sold. (3)

By 1863, Charles had relocated to Niagra Falls, where he remained in business for many years. A contemporary account said of his Niagra Falls business: “He is an expert in stereoscopic views and has in connection with his manufactory a large bazaar where his views and many relics and curios are displayed to advantage.” (4) Over the years, he undertook a number of extended trips to take photographs, including to Colorado, Yosemite in California, and Yellowstone in Wyoming. His wife Lucy C. Bierstadt filed successfully for separation from Charles in 1898. (5)

Charles Bierstadt became a member of the Universalist Church (but not the Universalist Society) in 1858. He was removed from membership in 1867 because he had permanently left New Bedford. (6) He died in Niagra Falls, New York, in 1903.

Works by Bierstadt in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


1. Landmarks of Niagra County, ed. William Pool, Syracuse, New York: D. Mason & Co., 1897, p. 24.
2. 1859 New Bedford Directory.
3. Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: A Biographical Dictionary, 1840-1865, by Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2000, p. 110.
4. Pool, p. 24.
5. Reports of Cases Heard and Determined in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, 1898, v. 29, pp. 210ff.
6. Record book of the Universalist Church, bMS 214/1 (2), in the Andover Harvard Theological Library. Oddly, Charles signed the church roll with a pencil rather than a pen, the only person ever to do so.

8 thoughts on “Yet another Universalist: Charles Bierstadt, photographer

  1. Peggi Medeiros

    Wonderful that you mentioned Charles. I’ve been researching him, his brother, Edward and their sister, Eliza for several years – along with Albert. Eliza was the first woman in America to sell paintings. She began dealing art in New Bedford at the Ellis Studio on William Street (still there) and continued when she moved to Niagra Falls. She sold Charles Henry Gifford’s and Albert’s paintings. The Whaling Museum has a collection of Bierstadt Brothers photographs and I just bought one for $5 on the Internet. Would love to share research with you.

    Best regards,

  2. Peggi Medeiros

    I do have Eliza’s obituaries (reproduced below) and somewhere I believe a have Charles and Edward’s. I found it touching that she was brought back to New Bedford and is with the family at Rural.
    Daily Cataract, June 11, 1896, p:1
    “Mrs Eliza Bierstadt
    In the death of Mrs. Eliza Bierstadt which occurred at the family residence on Third Street yesterday, the city loses one of its most highly respected ladies and one who has during her many years of residence here won the esteem of all. Deceased was born in New Bedford, Mass. August 3, 1833 and has resided in this city for 30 years, the last 15 of which she has been an invalid. To mourn her she leave three brothers, Charles of this city and Albert and Edward of New York and a sister, Mrs. Helen B. Thompson of this city. Funeral services will be held from the family residence at 4 o’clock this afternoon. Rev. R.C. Brownlee officiating. The body will be taken to New Bedford for burial.”

    Niagara Courier – June 13, 1896, p:3
    The death on Wednesday of Miss Eliza Bierstadt, sister of Mr. Charles Bierstadt and Mrs. Helen B. Thompson removes one who had been a resident of this city since 1868 and who will be sadly missed by a very wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Although a hopeless invalid with rheumatism being unable to walk for the last 15 years she retained her interest in outside affairs to a remarkable degree and her bright mind, keen sense of humor and retentive memory made her very attractive and companionable.
    She was born in New Bedford, Mass. August 3, 1833 of German parents, the youngest of a family of five and the only one born in this country. Her brother, Albert Bierstadt who is now traveling in Switzerland, is the well known artist and his artistic taste and ambition always found intelligent sympathy and encouragement in his gifted sister who was for some years during her younger life his constant companion. During her residence in this city Miss Bierstadt made her home with her brother, Charles, and sister, Mrs. Thompson, who have throughout her years of suffering given her the most devoted and loving care. One other brother, Edward, resides with his family in New York. Funeral services were conducted by Rev. Mr. Brownlee at the house on Third street at 4 o’clock Thursday afternoon. The remains, accompanied by Mr. Bierstadt, Mrs. Thompson and her two daughters, Miss Anne and Mrs. Fall of Watertown, Conn. were taken to New Bedford where the internment was made yesterday.“

  3. Dan

    Peggy @ 1 & 3 — Wow, someone else who’s interested in Bierstadt! I got interested in 19th C. American landscape photographers back in college, when I was introduced to the work of William Henry Jackson. It’s great stuff, and it makes the later photo-secessionists look a little pallid.

    Thanks for your second comment. Wow! Great stuff! I wish I had more to share with you about Bierstadt, but it sounds like you know far more than I do. Maybe I’ll just pick your brains….

    Philocrites @ 2 — I happened to find out about Bierstadt when I was researching something else, and happened to see his signature on the membership list of First Universalist Church in New Bedford. So I do not know if anyone else has tumbled to the fact that he was a Universalist.

  4. Peggi Medeiros

    I’d be delighted to information share. My Biertsadt card de viste arrived safely and the next step is to attempt to identify her. Moving into the early twentieth century I’ve discovered that the great Walker Evans photographed New Bedford in 1931 and ten years later Jack Delano, a Farm Security Administration photographer, worked here in January 1941 taking 50 extraordinary photographs of the city, streets, mills and people. They are in the Library of Congress. With two friends as co-curators, we’re doing a summer 2011 museum exhibition, New Bedford Through the Lens and will be doing 19, 20 and 21st century New Bedford photographers including Charles and Edward Bierstadt.

  5. Dan

    Peggi @ 5 — Sounds like a great show. I did not know Walker Evans photographed New Bedford — that’s quite something. I assume you’ll also have the New Bedford Lewis Hines photos, too?

    And have you seen the photos taken in New Bedford in 1961 during the Historic American Building Survey? They’re not up to the level of Evans and Hines, but some of them are excellent examples of architectural photography. They’re online at — type in New Bedford (in quotes), and that will bring them up.

  6. Peggi Medeiros

    Hi Dan,
    I found the Evans photographs while looking for mill photographs and then discovered that in January 1941 Jack Delano, a photographer from the Farm Security Administration was assigned to New Bedford. His work ten years after Evans is extraordinary. New Bedford at night in the fog, mills working through the night to dawn and fully lit, children, churches. Best of all they are all in the Library of Congress and copyright free. We do plan to include Hine and I’m currently looking at 19th century photographers. I did know about the Historic American Building Survey and those photos are real treasures. If you send me your email I’ll send the Evans photographs found so far.

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