Matsuri festival in Yokohama with a large float

Harvard Library, Cambridge MA, Hollis Images , access Widener Library EGS10 KH 1755, inventory number EGS10.23 , ‘Festival scene, possibly in Yokohama, showing large float ‘. (Link)

The major visual source for this essay is titled ‘Festival scene, possibly in Yokohama, showing large float’.[1] This image is from the book “Photographs Relating to Japan, 1898, Vol. 3” and can be found in HOLIS Images. Images from Harvard University’s archives, museums, libraries, and other collections are included in this picture catalog.[2]

Photos of daily life in Japan during the late nineteenth century are featured in the picture book ‘Photographs related to Japan, 1898, vol. 3’. Street scenes, landscapes and gardens, Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, and cultural activities are depicted in these photographs. The majority of these images were taken in Yokohama, Tokyo, Nikko, and Hakone.[3] The other two picture albums have essentially the same sort of images, although they are in different locations.[4]

This specific visual source was chosen because it can give us insight into Yokohama’s late 19th century culture.


According to the description, the visual source ‘Festival scene, possibly in Yokohama, showing large float’ is a hand-colored albumen print from 24 to 19 cm mounted on page 23 of the album “Photographs Relating to Japan, 1898, Vol. 3.”

Albumen print is the technology used in the fabrication and reproduction of these images. Between 1855 and 1890, albumen print was the most prevalent type of photographic print. The photographic chemicals are bonded to a sheet of paper while creating an albumen print. This is accomplished by exposing a negative with a sheet of paper coated with protein combined with ammonium or silver chloride.[5]

The photo is included in the third and final album in the series ‘Photographs Relating to Japan.’ All three picture books include a grand total of 109 images shot between 1880 and 1898.[6] These albums are part of E.G. Stillman’s Japanese Collection. Ernest Goodrich Stillman donated this collection to the Widener Library (1884-1949) in the latter stages of his life.[7]

External source criticism

The photographer of this image is unknown. One explanation for the omission of the author is because commercial studios and retailers, which primarily created for the international market, utilized photographs from third parties without acknowledgment, original captions, or catalog numbers. For these reasons, identifying the photographer of a 19th-century Japanese image might be tricky.[8]

The person who acquired the visual source can be identified; his name is Ernest Goodrich Stillman. Stillman was an American philanthropist and research physician who became an ardent collector of Japanese art, literature, and photography after spending a month in Japan in 1905. That’s why it appears to be a memento.[9]

The date confirms that Stillman purchased the photograph somewhere. The photo is dated at approximately 1890, which is 15 years before Stillman’s trip to Japan, according to the accompanying material. As a result, it is possible to argue that Stillman never witnessed the scenario represented in the photograph and must have purchased it somewhere. [10]

It is not apparent where he purchased it or where the scene takes place. The only information provided in the caption is that the photograph was taken in the maritime city of Yokohama. [11] Yokohama was also the port of entry for Stillman in 1905. And it was here, at the time, that he had visited a number of curio stores.[12] As a result, it is conceivable that Stillman purchased the photograph when he arrived in 1905.

What does the source show us

The photograph depicts a festival scene that, as the title of the photo indicates, may have occurred in Yokohama. The composition of the shot confirms that the fesival is the most important element. The viewer’s attention is instantly pulled to the photo’s center. Here a lantern-laden float being pulled by an ox is shown. There are also a couple of people with drums standing on this float, while there is also a person or puppet standing on top of the roof. Many Japanese cities had their own Shinto festival or matsuri at the period, and it’s possible that this is one of them.[13]

The surroundings of the float shows that the street is crowded and that some people are watching as the wagon drives past them. There is also a group of children wearing headbands among the throng. This gang has gotten ahead of the wagon. Maybe they were there for the festival. This might be because the youngsters are arranged in two rows and can be seen grasping a rope.

This photo’s original author is unknown. However, as previously said, there is a strong probability that it was created by a commercial photography studio. As a result, it might be argued that this photograph was created with a commercial goal in mind, namely to sell as many photographs as possible.

The photograph in question was taken about 1890. In terms of the photo’s historical background, it should be noted that it was taken during the Meiji period (1868-1912). This time comes after a 230-year period of seclusion. In reaction to American threats of war, the isolation was ended in 1853.[14] The subsequent instability led to the restoration of imperial power and the start of the Meiji era. This was a time of rapid industrialisation, militarism, and overall modernization of society in Japan. During this time, Japan rises to prominence as one of the world’s major powers.[15] The element of modernization can be recognized in the image. On the left side of the float some men with umbrellas, top hats, and boaters hats walk by.


Similar pictures can be found in other albums in the E.G. Stillman collection.[16]Furthermore, many Japanese cities had their own Shinto celebration, therefore one will definitely discover photographs from other Japanese cities.[17] This was also a photograph of a commercial studio, thus there is a strong probability that this and maybe additional photographs were taken more often.

The drawback of this resource is that it does not offer a specific location. This makes it more difficult to utilize. Furthermore, it is likely that this photograph depicts an idyllic world. The remainder of the city is not depicted, just one street is visible. This may give you the false impression of the time. After all, it was a time when Japan was industrializing and modernizing, yet you can’t see that in the photograph. Nonetheless, the image show how people dressed and how house looked like in Yokohama during the second part of the nineteenth century.

For the reasons stated above, this resource could be used to answer the research questions “how did Yokohama’s public space change during the Meiji period (1868-1912)” and “what was the impact of industrialization and modernization on Yokohama’s Shinto matsuri festival during the Meiji period (1868-1912)”. This photo cannot answer that question on its own, thus it must be compared to many contemporary sources depicting similar circumstances.

[1] Harvard Library, Camebridge MA, Hollis Images, toegang Widener Library EGS10 KH 1755, inventarisnummer EGS10.23, ‘Festival scene, possibly in Yokohama, showing large float’.

[2] Harvard Library, ‘What am I searching?’, (29 december 2020).

[3] Harvard Library, Camebridge MA, Hollis Images, toegang Widener Library EGS10 KH 1755.

[4] Hollis, ‘[Photographs relating to Japan, 1898]‘, (29 december 2020).

[5] Camilla Ricci, Simon Bloxham en Sergei G. Kazarian, “ATR-FTIR imaging of albumen photographic prints”, Journal of Cultural Heritage 8 (2007) 4, 387-395, aldaar 387-388.

[6] Hollis, ‘[Photographs relating to Japan, 1898]‘.

[7] Harvard Library, ‘Ernest Goodrich Stillman’, (29 december 2020).

[8] Harvard, Widener EGS10 KH 1755, inv EGS10.23, ‘Festival scene, possibly in Yokohama, showing large float’.

[9] Harvard Library, ‘Ernest Goodrich Stillman’.

[10] Harvard, Widener EGS10 KH 1755, inv EGS10.23, ‘Festival scene, possibly in Yokohama, showing large float’.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Harvard Library, ‘Ernest Goodrich Stillman’.

[14] Graeme J. N. Gooday en Morris F. Low, “Technology Transfer and Cultural Exchange: Western Scientists and Engineers Encounter Late Tokugawa and Meiji Japan”, Osiris 13 (1998), 99-128, aldaar 102.

[15] Ibid., 99-102.

[16] Harvard Library, ‘Albums’, (30 december 2020).

[17] Sonoda, “The Traditional Festival in Urban Society.”, 103-104.

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