New Orleans 1867

How an early photographer captured a shaken city

November/December
The Masonic Hall on St. Charles Street, where slaves were sold before the Civil War.

Credit: Courtesy of Merrell Publishers, London

"Our city is in a state of utter hopelessness," New Orleans Mayor Edward Heath declared in 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War. During the war, New Orleans and its great port had fallen faster and farther than any other city, from nearly unrivaled commercial success to scarcity. "Who would have believed that prosperous, gay, bragging New Orleans would come to such grief and poverty!" novelist John W. De Forest wrote. "Business gone, money gone, population gone."

That winter, the New Orleans city council had on its agenda some urgent postwar issues: ruined wharves, hospital shortages, and hungry orphans. In this troubled context, city boosters made a surprising proposal. They called for New Orleans to take part in the great globalizing event of the day, the Paris World Exposition, hosted by Emperor Napoleon III. The fair was an opportunity, backers argued, to advertise New Orleans to the world and to honor the country that had held such strong ties to the city, commercially and culturally, for 150 years.

The city's hope for recovery lay in part with its image abroad. New Orleans needed to reassure France and other former European economic partners that the city had not been destroyed in the war and remained a good place for doing business. To this end, the city turned to photography, ordering 150 large photographic views of New Orleans for exhibition in Paris. It was an ambitious and costly project, the first known municipally sponsored photographic survey of an American city. But it was not without its critics on the council. "What was the good of sending a gilt-edged portfolio to the Emperor Napoleon, who is sitting in purple and fine linen," one councilman asked, "while children and women here at home are crying for bread?"

To carry out the project, councilmen chose a 38-year-old Prussian-born photographer, Theodore Lilienthal. During the war years, Lilienthal had operated a successful portrait studio; by 1866 he was recognized as the leading local publisher of city views. For the Paris exposition, Lilienthal undertook a broad survey of the city, encompassing the Vieux Carré (French Quarter) and upriver neighborhoods and suburbs; the back swamps, Bayou St. John, and villages of Lake Pontchartrain; the west bank shipyards; and even the sugar lands of Plaquemines Parish, 15 miles downriver.

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