In December, David Whitcomb and a friend were on the third floor of a commercial building he had just bought in Geneva, N.Y., when they noticed a water-stained drop ceiling.
Whitcomb, a lawyer who had bought the building to expand his practice, pushed away an access panel and poked his head inside. He saw an attic with a vaulted ceiling and crawled in, thinking he might find a few items to sell at a flea market. What he discovered took him back more than a century to an era when suffragists were campaigning for women's rights and photography portrait studios had started to crop up in U.S. cities.
"Two or 3 feet away from my face were these photo frames," Whitcomb, 43, recalled. "They're gold and they're shining in the darkness."
Whitcomb, who bought the building in Geneva's historic downtown for $100,000, found hundreds of photos in the attic dating to the early 20th century. Among them was a large gilded-framed photograph of Susan B. Anthony in profile, her head lowered over a book, and a broken plate-glass negative of another image of her.
"That's my favorite," he said of the framed photograph.
There were also drop cloths with backgrounds of castles and forests, boxes of Kodak paper that had never been used, portrait stools and a dusty bottle of sodium sulfite, a developing agent. Whitcomb said he believed he may have found a photo of Frances Folsom Cleveland, wife of President Grover Cleveland, but he has not confirmed that yet. All of the photos and the equipment appeared to belong to James Ellery Hale, a successful portrait photographer who in the 1880s moved to Seneca Falls, N.Y., where the first women's rights convention had been held in 1848.
Photographer J.E. Hale took photos of Anthony around November 1905 when she and her sister Mary came from Rochester, N.Y., to see two other famous suffragists.
The discovery, which was reported by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, has drawn interest from the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, a photographer at the Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States, and several other photographers and technology fans wondering if Whitcomb had found old lenses and other equipment.
"It's just wonderful that he found this treasure," said Betsy Fantone, a co-president of the National Women's Hall of Fame. "I can't wait to see it. It's just so exciting. I'm so excited for the rest of the world that we're going to have these pictures."
Their monetary value, however, remains unclear. Whitcomb said that he was working with a local antiques dealer and that the photos had not been appraised yet.
"Other than portraits of particularly famous people like, say, Susan B. Anthony, portraits of sort of unknown people from the turn of the century aren't terribly valuable," said Robin Starr, who leads the U.S. and European works in the art department at Skinner, a Boston auction house.
At the time, photo studios were becoming popular with middle-class families who were finally able to get affordable portraits, Starr said.
"It's not fair to say that there was a portrait studio on every corner, but there kind of was," she said.
A high-quality original photograph of Anthony or another well-known suffragist could fetch sums anywhere from the low hundreds to several thousand dollars at auction, Starr said.
But it is difficult to give a precise figure without seeing the pictures in person, she said.
"I think what makes this really fascinating is the fact that it was hidden away, like a time capsule," Starr said.