MATHEW J. STEFFENS THE COMMODORE
(1854-1928) COPYRIGHT BY THOMAS G YANUL
Among those photographers who flourished in the last third of the19th century were outstanding talents like M.J. Steffens. An immigrant who took advantage of America's burgeoning commercial & industrial wealth. Steffens was an astute businessman, photographer and artisan who by 1872 had established himself on the near s.e.side of Chicago, an area just beginning to attract the very well-to-do of Chicago. It became known as the first "Gold Coast", attracting the wealthiest of the wealthy. The Palmers, Fields, Kimbal, Glessner and numerous others would all build mansions to proclaim their economic successes.
Steffens got in on the ground floor so-to-speak, as the neighborhood would continue its growth of the upper classes into the 1890's.
BACKGROUND - WHAT IS KNOWN [according to published reports]
Steffens was born at Hontheim, Germany June 10, 1852, the son of Jacob and Christine (Thullen) Steffens. Educated in the high schools of Hamburg & Altona, Germany. He emigrated to America as a young orphan, arriving in Chicago in 1867 or earlier, according to the only published account of Steffens' early days.
[ThePhoto-Beacon Magazine, Apr.1894, edited by F. Dundas Todd]
The Photo-Beacon account went on to say:
"as a young orphan, he came to Chicago alone, while still a mere boy. His first, and indeed only employer, was George Pullman of Pullman Car fame, for whom he painted the fancy work on the cars, an occupation which probably had something to do with laying the foundation for the artistic taste that has been a considerable factor in his successful career. Any kind of work well done rarely fails to bring its own reward, and by and by he was transferred to the Pullman shops at Detroit, although not more than sixteen years of age.
"About this time his attention was attracted to photography, and he grew more and more anxious to acquire an acquantance with its practice, but the few who could teach it wanted such large fees, and required him to work without pay so long as to be altogether out of his reach. But belonging to that class that has faith in itself and believing that difficulties were only made to be overcome, he bought a small wet collodion outfit and several guide books, and started in determined to conquer, if it were possible, and conquer he did, although it took many months of persevering work before he could make a decent negative.
"Just about the time that a fair degree of success had crowned his efforts, accounts of Chicago's great fire reached Detroit, and he hurried back to see perhaps the greatest fire on record, reaching the doomed city on the third day of the blaze, and, as if there had been something inspiring in the vitality which enabled it, phoenix-like, to rise from its ashes, he shortly thereafter opened a small gallery on 22nd street. Here he must have done well, as in 1878 he studied for nearly a year in the Academy in Rome, then visited the principal European cities, especially those of France and Italy, returning to Chicago with a vastly increased knowledge of art and new ideas of the possibilities of photography.(The American Academy was not yet opened in Rome -1894- so which "Academy" he attended is as yet unknown)
"His old studio, no longer up to his requirements, was sold, and one more in accordance with his ambition erected in the same street; and there he has remained one of the most prosperous in this or any other country, each year apparently better that its predecessors.
"Mr. Steffens is a quiet, unassuming gentleman, devoted to his profession, but fond of a little relaxation in his steam yacht - his favorite pastime is marine photography - on the beautiful Lake Michigan, within almost a stone's throw of which his establishment is situated.
The above issue of the Photo-Beacon contained eight small illustrations of Steffens' portrait work. For update to early years go here.
STEFFENS FAMILY In 1871 Mathew married Swiss-born Rosette Fischer .
They had three children: Laura (1877-1942), Leo A.(1878-1952) and Romeo Joseph (1881-1941) later known as Richard.
Laura married architect Louis Christian Mullgardt in 1897, divorced 1929.
Leo Steffens took over his father's business when he retired.
Richard Joseph Steffens - ( also took up photography but his career was centered in Vancouver, B.C. beginning in 1920. At the time of his death he operated as the Steffens-Colmer studio(s).
His wife at the time of death was Alice Blakensee Steffens.
NOTE: NEW INFORMATION HAS COME TO LIGHT THAT RICHARD WAS MARRIED TWICE:
HAD A SON, RICHARD JOSEPH JR. (1904-1971) BY HIS FIRST WIFE, MINNA SAWYER.
RICHARD, WHO WAS ACTUALLY NAMED ROMEO AT BIRTH (SWISS NAME), FIRST MARRIED MINNA SAWYER, A RESIDENT OF LANCASTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE, ON OCTOBER 7,1902. RICHARD, ACCORDING TO INFORMATION FROM BROTHER LEO STEFFENS, WAS A SALESMAN FOR THE EASTMAN KODAK CO. AND THATS HOW HE MET MISS SAWYER IN NEW HAMPSHIRE.
A SON, RICHARD JOSEPH STEFFENS JR. (1904-1971) CAME OF THAT UNION. RICHARD AND MINNA WERE DIVORCED SOMETIME BEFORE 1916 - THE YEAR THAT MINNA REMARRIED. THERE APPARENTLY WAS NO CONTACT BETWEEN FATHER AND SON AFTER THE DIVORCE. JOSEPH JR.'S DAUGHTER IS ALIVE AND WELL AT THIS WRITING. HER NAME IS MRS PATRICIA STEFFENS CLARK.
My thanks to Patricia Steffens Clark, greatgranddaughter of Mathew J. Steffens
NOTE: Laura Steffens' husband, Louis Christian Mullgardt, (1866-1942) had a rather auspicious architectural career that began in St.Louis, then Chicago, and culminated in California. His work at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 and residential designs have been documented by noted architectural historian Robert Judson Clark.
What little there is comes from published articles and notes, mostly found in photo journals and magazines of the day. Commodore Steffens was cited because of his activities within the professional photographic business community.
He was often a speaker on technical issues; lighting, chemistry, posing, etc. at local & national photographic association meetings & conventions.
By all accounts he was a forceful, dedicated photographer whose door was always open to visitors. He was an apparent jovial gentleman with a flair for hospitality and congeniality. These same attributes applied to several of the more successful portrait photographers that were his peers and friends such as Strauss of St. Louis and Frank Scott Clark of Detroit. Steffens' title of "Commodore" was bestowed as a former president of a yacht club.He belonged to several such clubs.
M.J. Steffens seems to have gone into semi-retirement sometime around the beginning of WWI, and by 1917 he has moved to a nearby fashionable hotel (the Lexington, 616 Michigan av.) while his son Leo took over the day to day work of the studio. But the neighborhood of the rich and famous of the day was deteriorating by the first world war; the rich having abandoned the south side in favor of a new Gold Coast on the near northeast side. Soon the old studio was given up on 22nd St., and Leo moves the operation to the Fine Arts Building Annex,located in the business district of downtown Chicago on south Michigan av. Leo operates the studio for another decade or so but his business clientele is much different than his fathers, more to the "standard trade" of businessmen, politicians and middle and working class families. M.J. died April 30, 1928.
Steffens' self-confidence and intelligence obviously served him well. To have placed himself in such a socially demanding position as photographer to the very rich took not only professional and technical skill, but social skills to operate sucessfully in that rarified atmosphere. And judging by the notoriety he achieved in his profession, he also had the artistic and technical skills to impress his peers.
Steffens was the first of the "Big Six" portrait photographers that I knew about, long before I every heard of the Big Six. I began researching Steffens some 15 years ago after acquiring some of his personal portfolios that were in the home of a family whose husband had been the official photographer at the Chicago Columbian Expo of 1893. I took carloads full of paperwork out of the Gibson house on E. Cullerton St. A home that Mrs. John J. Gibson had lived in since 1919 ( a widow since 1902) and a stone's throw from Commodore Steffens' old studio. For years Mrs. Gibson had rented on the block adjacent to Steffens' old studio while he was still active there. She had been in Chicago since 1893 helping her husband at the Exposition, and later at their large studio in downtown Chicago, its no doubt she was familiar if not indeed good friends with the Commodore. How or why the materials ended up with Mrs.Gibson is unknown. Part of the material gathered at the Gibson house were two large folders of Steffens photographs and some glass negatives, personal and business.
Some of the original portrait prints are stunning, while others provided clues to his professional/personal connections such as Frank Scott Clark of Detroit and Gustav Cramer of St. Louis.
It has literally taken years to gather just the basics about Steffens. And of course the internet has all but made it possible. HIs son Richard was nowhere to be found for 15 years. He was not buried with other members of the Steffens family, which by the way turned out to be in a cemetery only 10 minutes from my house, and my search took me literally all over the land chasing leads on people named Steffens. Only months ago did I uncover a lead on the internet which was graciously confirmed by a fine Canadian (BC) archivist. His research fleshed out the bare essentials on Richard Steffens' photographic career in Canada. Now all the Steffens children have been accounted for, and only Richard's (Romeo) side has continued to this day. Richard Died 1-23-41 Leo (three wives) had no children. Died 12-15-52, Battle Creek, Michigan.
Daughter Laura,a talented harp musician, married St. Louis architect Louis Christian Mullgardt. They had four children but the family line no longer has direct descendandts. The Mullgardt line continues from Louis's brothers.
. NOTE: Steffens' studio address - 1882-86. Chicago city directories show him at:
2246-49 Cottage Grove Av. - a stone's throw from his later 22nd St. location. These are listings only for advertisers. Its quite possible Steffens was simply not listed in the earlier commercial sections.
THE FAMILY PLOT IN MT. GREENWOOD CEMETERY ON CHICAGO'S SOUTH WEST SIDE BEARS NO STONE OF ANY KIND. A LARGE GROUP OF PLOTS WAS BOUGHT AT THE TIME OF MATHEW'S DEATH IN 1928, ALONG WITH A SPACE FOR A FAMILY STONE. SOMEHOW SON LEO MANAGED TO PUT HIMSELF, HIS THREE WIVES, 1ST WIFE'S FATHER , ALONG WITH MATHEW AND WIFE IN THE GROUND, BUT MUST HAVE RUN OUT FUNDS TO MARK THE RESTING PLACE OF HIS FAMILY. THE GRAVES REMAIN WITHOUT IDENTIFICATION. ONLY A WEEDY, GRASSY PLOT ATTESTS TO THEIR PRESENCE- THE LOCATION RECORDED ON A YELLOWED 4X6" CEMETERY FILECARD.
J. Steffens in "WORKING CLOTHES" (?)
print from original glass neg
ON PHOTO FOR EARLIEST STEFFENS
to early cabinet card view shown below, it would seem the above view
was a second remodelling of what was reported to have originally been
although it is pure speculation, its possible that Steffens' son-in-law,
architect Louis Christian Mullgardt may have designed this half-timbered
did the Strauss Studio in St. Louis.
Comparing to early cabinet card view shown below, it would seem the above view was a second remodelling of what was reported to have originally been a church.
NOTE: although it is pure speculation, its possible that Steffens' son-in-law, architect Louis Christian Mullgardt may have designed this half-timbered remodelling.
Mullgardt did the Strauss Studio in St. Louis.
Dundas Todd was publisher of
TO R -UNKNOWN, S.L. STEIN, GUSTAV CRAMER, M J STEFFENS, F.DUNDAS TODD,
most likely late 1901
see larger image click on photo
(F. Dundas Todd was publisher of The Photo Beacon)
L TO R -UNKNOWN, S.L. STEIN, GUSTAV CRAMER, M J STEFFENS, F.DUNDAS TODD, J.C. STRAUSS
photo most likely late 1901 To see larger image click on photo