Losing Focus: The Keystone Dry Plate Works Building

The history of the building is one of revolutionary firsts for Germantown and the world

What’s been lost and buried in the conversation about the demolition of the Keystone Dry Plate Works building are numerous significant technical innovations this modest brick building contributed to the birth of modern photography, beginning in 1884.

Long before this site was known as a drug rehab center or a manufacturer of push pins, the “Keystone Dry Plate Works” was built by John Carbutt (1832-1905) for the express purpose of being the world’s first commercially successful production plant for photographic dry plates, which revolutionized photography.

For the first time, a dry plate (a glass negative with a dry, prepared emulsion ready to use out of the box) could be loaded into a camera. It was sixty times more sensitive to light than the prior collodion wet plates (which had to be freshly coated wet right before usage). This meant that one could finally take hand-held photos without a tripod.

“Carbutt’s Keystone Dry Plate Factory” opened in 1884

Keystone was not only first to successfully market dry plates, it also led the industry in reliability and quality. John Carbutt was the first to innovate orthographic plates that rendered color tonality relations in black and white – as our eyes actually see them. As a result, portraits were much more naturalistic.

In 1888, Carbutt was also the very first to manufacture “film”, (ahead of Eastman and Kodak) beginning with a carefully sliced block of cellulose. This too immediately revolutionized photography. Within months there were rolls of film in new formats. In 1890, 35mm was also invented here as the standard format for a roll of Kinetoscope (movie) film.

Keystone plate ad (late 19th century)

Edison’s very first movie experiments were with Carbutt’s film. The pioneering stop-action motion studies by Edward Muybridge were all done on Keystone plates.

And that’s not all! Carbutt invented x-ray photography right in this building, which revolutionized medicine. In fact, for the first few years from 1896, Pennsylvania Hospital sent their physicians and patients daily to 113 Berkley St. to have their x-ray examinations. And John Carbutt administered these examinations personally!

Keystone Dry Plate and Film Works building. 1902

Ultimately this took a great toll on his health, as the x-rays were radiating in all directions and he was unprotected. (The dangers of x-rays were unknown in those pioneering days). Carbutt’s health mysteriously declined as he battled tumors. He passed away in 1905.

But no big deal, let’s just take it down and erase world firsts in our own back yard. Sadly, our most important world heritage historic sites don’t matter an iota when it comes to a developer’s bottom line.

John Carbutt. 1885
About Garth Herrick 1 Article
Garth is a professional fine artist in Germantown, who has been fortunate to paint official portraits of many influential people across the nation, including university presidents, federal judges, politicians, presidents of the College of Physicians, the Union League, and two Philadelphia Mayors: Ed Rendell and John Street. His studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts culminated in his winning the William Emlen Cresson, Jr. Memorial Traveling Scholarship in 1984. For more info, visit garthherrick.com

1 Comment

  1. It figures a Heartless, Greedy, Short-sighted Real Estate developer would have no compunction to tearing down a National Landmark. Photographic Dry Plates, which meant you didn’t need two pack-mules to carry your bottles of chemistry and a tent to go photograph the family by a waterfall were invented there. And 35mm film was invented there— for the first motion pictures! This place should be a Museum…. but Condos have to be built right? A crying shame!

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