Sunday, September 17, 2017

John Mathers -Photographer of the Early Oil Region

Cherry Run, Taken in 1864

A Passion for a New Art

Much of the world’s first oil boom was captured in the photography of one John A. Mather, an English immigrant whose love for his art allowed such a vivid picture of Crawford County’s history to be preserved. Though Mather did not travel to the US to pursue photography initially, he was enthralled by the prospects of the budding practice when he met a traveling daguerreotypist. This early photography was a dangerous art, with corrosive and hazardous chemicals needed to develop even a single photograph. But such is the burden of the artist, and Mr. Mathers bore the potential dangers of his trade well.

The 1860's in Titusville

He traveled Titusville throughout the 1860s, capturing the people, machinery, and filth that made the oil boom such an interesting time in history. He recorded everything, traveling the oil choked fields and dangerous areas to capture his little snapshots of reality. To facilitate his trade, he created two mobile studios; one in a wagon pulled by oxen, and the other a flat boat which paddled up and down Oil Creek. He would sell prints to the residents of Titusville, and well owners and other oilmen would hire him to photograph their equipment. These pictures would then be used to encourage potential investors to support the business. It could even be said that his photographs assisted in bringing wealth to the region, as visual evidence of the region's oil wealth and industry certainly served to encourage investment in the region.

Drake's Well

Purely by Luck

John Mather’s passion for photography is one of those rare events in history where everything went perfectly, as the oil boom would barely last past the end of the 1860s. A single decade was plenty of time for Mather to immortalize the oil boom period in chemicals and paper. Without his diligence and ingenuity, it is likely the period would have faded from the annals of history. The Civil War raged as Mather plied his trade, in the wake of such a colossal event, it is miraculous that such a large record of the first oil boom exists.

Benninghoff Run

Saved for Posterity

Mather must have recognized this, as later in life he worked with journalist Edwin C. Bell to annotate his many photographs. While this was likely Mathers trying to alleviate financial stress, the work these two did together allows for the situation of the oil boom to be accurately remembered. There are no unrealistic assumptions about the time period or area, as so much was recorded. Sadly, much of Mather’s work was lost before the end of the century to the various floods and fires that plagued Crawford County during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Still, enough of his work remains. One of the few happy instances where the truth is known, speculation is not needed, and Crawford County can take comfort that such an important and interesting piece of its history has been preserved.


Bell, Edwin C., and John A. Mather. Mather’s Historic Oil Regions of Western
Pennsylvania. Titusville, 1895.

Black, Brian. Recasting the Unalterable Order of Nature: Photography and the First Oil
Boom. Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, 64, 2. Spring 1997.

David, Stephanie, and Brennen French. “John A. Mather’s Photographic Studio.” NW
PA Heritage, accessed March 2, 2017.

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