Any student in the world who was serious about becoming a professional photographer sought out photography colleges in the United States. Some photography schools were located in New York and St. Louis. One that gained worldwide attention was the Illinois College of Photography in Effingham, Illinois.
Lewis Horace Bissell had learned the trade of photography while in his teens in Effingham. He partnered with a local photographer to learn more about this amazing profession.
Bissell founded his Bissell Studio on the southwest corner of the square on the second floor of the Gillenwater Hotel building (now Scrubby’s Pub). He specialized in portrait photography of local people mounting his black-and-white pictures on thick card stock.
While operating that business, Lewis decided to establish a photography school in 1893 and enroll students from eventually all 44 U.S. states, 10 provinces of Canada, and 52 foreign countries. Bissell advertised in several photography magazines like Photo Straws, Camera Craft, Photo-era Magazine, Photographic Journal of America, Photographic Times, and The Camera in the early 1900s to attract students. Lewis also published in college catalogs in which he listed the curriculum, tuition costs, leisure activities, close proximity to the train system, living quarter possibilities, etc. Prospective students would request them and decide whether or not they could afford the college.
In a 1904 catalog, there are testimonials of former students and photography magazines extolling the virtues of the ICP. The subjects taught at the ICP included all aspects of photography (32 courses) and photo-engraving (21 courses). Most students chose two or three of these subjects to concentrate on like portraiture, lighting, press work, and photo-engraving. New classes formed on the first and 15th of each month. A popular course was the art of three-color work, which was relatively new in 1904. Upon successful completion of the selected courses, students would receive a graduation diploma enabling them to seek professional work in photographic studios around the world or open their own studios.
Bissell spent over $100,000 ($2,839,000 in today’s dollars) from 1893-1921 on the buildings and equipment to establish the photography college. He purchased Calvin Austin’s home in 1892 to become the home of the ICP. Bissell boasted that “The Illinois College of Photography is the best equipped college of its type between New Orleans and Chicago.” He had Rembrandt Hall built next door in 1894 for the classes taught by the professional instructors. In 1904, Bissell bought the defunct Austin College building to house the photo-engraving studios.
Lewis also advertised that courses were “taught according to the most approved methods, in the shortest possible time, and at the smallest expense”. He described photography as “a dignified, interesting, and paying profession”. Bissell encouraged women to study photography because he thought photography was an excellent way for women to learn a profession that paid well for the time. His ads in magazines described Effingham as ”a delightful, healthful, and economical city.” Bissell also bragged that good positions were secured for ICP graduates. The school’s motto, “The Sun Never Sets on ICP Students: They attend from all over the world”, was a very accurate statement.
Once a student decided to attend the ICP, he/she would send the tuition in advance for three-, six-, or nine-month courses. In a 1904 catalog, the tuition for a six month’s course in photography and photo-engraving was $150 ($4,306) each. An eight month's course in photo-engraving and three-color process was $200 ($5,742). Using the U.S. inflation calculator for 1904, this would be the equivalent of $2,839 in 2019 dollars. Students could extend the course one month for $50 ($1,419) and three months for $150 ($4,258). There were also laboratory fees of $20 ($291) for a six-month course and $10 ($146) for a three-month course. Le Grand Flack, the new owner and operator of the ICP after 1921, maintained that borrowing the money for coursework, lodging and transportation would be worth it after graduation. If one had the ability and was energetic and trustworthy, one could earn as much as $50 per week, which was the equivalent of $714 today. Bissell said the objectives of the ICP were to provide practical training, instruction in the different branches of photography, and teaching of “things rather than words”. ICP instructors made monthly reports about each student’s progress. Students’ home life and social relations were also cared for by the ICP president and the faculty.
After making the decision to attend the ICP, students had to arrange for travel to Effingham. If they lived in a foreign country, passage had to be secured on passenger boats. A 1904 college catalog quoted $269 ($7,723) for a fare from Melbourne, Australia. Once arriving in the United States, they boarded railroad lines that would connect them with Effingham.
Four railroad lines passed through the city: Illinois Central, Pennsylvania, Wabash and Indianapolis Southern. Forty passenger trains entered and departed Effingham daily. The New York Central and St. Louis Limited made only one stop in Illinois, which was Effingham. Students would send the ICP a telegram informing school officials of their arrival time. They were then met at the depot to take them to Garnet Hall (Austin Mansion) for processing. If no one was present there, students could call from the Pacific Hotel at the station with the phone number being 49 for the ICP.
Following their arrival in Effingham, students sought housing with local residents. They had several choices. The first was boarding with private families to include all amenities for $7-10 ($287) per week. Hotels and private boarding houses varied with the room and board at reasonable rates. Phil Crooker used his home as a boarding house located near Bliss Park. David B. and Frances Crews also used their large home on East Fayette Avenue to board students. It later became the Plazona Hotel, owned and operated by Plaford and Zona B. Davis.
Students could also choose self-boarding. They rented rooms furnished or unfurnished and bought their own meals elsewhere. This choice kept living expenses to a minimum. There were also light housekeeping rooms which were completely furnished and especially popular with married students. Some students who attended the ICP sometimes fell in love and got married. I have an original 1904 catalog with a love poem on the last page. Some of the boarding houses also featured convenient dark rooms which students could have access to in the evenings and in their spare time. These boarding accommodations were a great economic boon to Effingham residents.
Many of the ICP students came from foreign countries and spoke little English. They were eager to learn the fine art of photography, so they persevered. With the influx of foreign students from Persia (modern day Iran), India, England, Korea, Japan, Turkey, etc. coming to Effingham, the city suddenly became more cosmopolitan in the Midwest. Many local people had never met people from those countries. Former Effingham Mayor John Thies said his mother boarded a Japanese student. He loved her cooking but had little to say to other classmates or townspeople.
While attending the ICP, students could join several clubs organized by the college. These included the College Camera Club; Engravers’ Club in Rembrandt Hall, Lafalot Club in Garnet Hall; Athletic Clubs to include basketball, baseball, bowling and tennis; college orchestra; and students’ council. Some of these groups met in the auditorium located on the top floor of Rembrandt Hall. Nominal fees were charged for membership in the various clubs. They even found a gym in downtown Effingham for indoor sports like basketball. The ICP baseball team played Austin College’s team.
For those students who had a little extra money, they could take their field cameras and travel with the Vandalia Railroad (later the Pennsylvania Railroad) trains to local communities like St. Elmo and St. Louis. Fares ranged from $1-5 per person, depending on the destination. I have about 25 postcards of St. Elmo taken by ICP students. Most of them are street scenes, buildings, events, etc. Taking pictures along the railroad tracks was a favorite thing to do for many ICP students.
Ed and Clara Mitchell from Pontefract, England, traveled to Forest Park in St. Louis and took photos for postcards. They were in Effingham for nine months 1906-1907.
As conditions for admittance at the ICP, students of good character and behavior were accepted. They were to conduct themselves in a quiet and orderly manner. Students were to demonstrate respect for proper authority and abide by the rules of the college. They were to behave in a manner that could be applied to their roles in society after graduation.
There was some rivalry between ICP students and the Austin College students. The 1863 Civil War cannon on the courthouse lawn used to be on its wooden caisson behind Garnet Hall. One night in 1902, students from Austin College stole the cannon and took it to the Austin College campus. ICP students retaliated by attacking their rivals with fists, baseball bats, hoes, shovels, etc. to get back the cannon. Female students encouraged the male students to fight for their schools. The police were called in to break up the riot. In 1910, the cannon was finally placed on its permanent concrete base on the southwest corner of the courthouse square.
Periodically, there were photographer conventions around Illinois. The eighth annual convention of the Illinois Association of Photographers was held in Effingham at the ICP in 1908. ICP graduates and interested photographers would gather with fellow photographers to talk and learn more about their photography passion. These conventions also contributed to the economy of Effingham with hotels and restaurants benefiting the most. The ICP enjoyed the endorsement of the Photographers Association of Illinois and the International Association of Photo-Engravers as testaments to the quality of instruction at the ICP.
At a recent presentation about the Illinois College of Photography and Garnet Hall (Austin Mansion) on March 28, about 75 local residents gathered to learn more about the history of the ICP, Calvin Austin’s home, the economic impact of the college on Effingham, famous graduates, and successful photographic studios that students established or worked at across the world. Delaine Donaldson, Jane Ries and I presented various aspects of the ICP and its importance of the college. An estimate by Frank Snocker of Mitchell, Nebraska, says that somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 students attended the ICP between 1893 and 1932. The Austin Mansion (Garnet Hall) saw all of these students come to register there since it was the reception hall for the ICP. It is truly an historic place in Effingham. Thanks to Billi Jansen, owner of the Austin Mansion, for partnering with the Effingham County Museum to share the building’s history with interested local and out-of-town people. For more information contact Phil Lewis at 217-342-6280 or email@example.com.
Bissell Colleges of Photography and Photo-Engraving catalog c. 1904
Illinois College of Photography catalog, c. 1922
Fiftieth Anniversary Souvenir of Effingham ILL 1853-1903
History of the Illinois College of Photography- Power Point by Phil Lewis
Frank Snocker’s emails and research on the Illinois College of Photography from Mitchell, Nebraska