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HomeContents > People > Photographers > William H. Rau

Born: William Herman Rau 
Dates:  1855 - 1920
Born:  US
Active:  US / Egypt / South Seas
American photographer and publisher of stereographs who participated in trips to Egypt, the South Seas and worked for various railroad companies including the Pennslyvania Railroad and the Lehigh Valley Railroad. In 1901 his stereograph company was purchased by Underwood & Underwood. 
Stereographs project 
Business locations 
Philadelphia, PA, US 
[7-0] *"Photographer"; 1324 Chestnut St.; excellent and prolific photog. & pub.; issued 4,000+ views, broad coverage both under his own name & as Universal View Co., also pub. By Griffith & Griffith beginning in 90; Transit of Venus Expedition, 70s; exc. coverage of major affairs, Span.-Am. war, fine scenics, genre, animals, flowers, often nicely tinted; Martinique disaster, 02; Johnstown Flood. Began as asst. photog. for William Bell, 73 and then became partner; worked as photog. for the Centennial Photographic Co., Philadelphia, 76; accompanied E.L. Wilson to Middle East 81-82 & prob. took the hundreds of fine views which Wilson CR; official photog. for the Lehigh Valley R.R. 95, St. Louis Expo. 04; Lewis & Clark Expo., Portland expo 05. Did much early work himself, later had staff photogs. and bought negs.; active from the early 70s until taken over by Underwood & Underwood in the 90s. B. 55, D. 20. SEE "Philadelphia Photographers 1840-1900" by William & Marie Brey, "William H. Rau's Photographic Experiences in the East" by William Brey, STEREO WORLD Vol. 11, No. 2; and "Meet Me In St. Louis" by William Brey, STEREO WORLD, Vol. 15, No. 5. 
T.K. Treadwell & William C. Darrah (Compiled by), Wolfgang, Sell (Updated by), 11/28/2003, Photographers of the United States of America, (National Stereoscopic Association)
Credit: National Stereoscopic Association with corrections and additions by Alan Griffiths and others.
NOTE: You are probably here because you have a stereograph to identify. Please email good quality copies of the front and back to so we can create reference collections for all.

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William H. Rau
William H. Rau 
1917 (ca)
Family history 
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Supplemental information


William H. Rau

The following material has been kindly provided by Barbara Mayo Wells and starts with a discussion of a series of photographs that Rau published purporting to show scenes of the Boer War:
Here's my understanding of the Boer War photos. They were part of an exhibition at the St. Louis World's Fair (officially called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition) in 1904. Rau was the official photographer for the fair, and many (though by all means not all) of the Fair photos were published in a book called "The Forest City", still available in some libraries and occasionally for purchase on-line. The photos are also available in CD-ROM format. They are an extraordinary assortment.
Rau was also the official photographer for the 1900 Exposition Internationelle (Paris) and the 1905 Louis & Clark Exposition (Portland, OR). The French Government awarded him the cordon bleu (blue ribbon) for his work at the former, and he wore it proudly in his lapel for the rest of his life - you can actually see it in a few portraits of him as an older man.
He got his taste for expositions when he was part of Edward Wilson's team of official photographers of the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. He also photographed (though he was not the exclusive official photographer for) the following other expositions: 1878 Exposition Internationelle (Paris), 1889 French Centennial Exposition (Paris), 1893 Columbian Exposition (Chicago), 1898 [Spanish American War] Peace Jubilee (Philadelphia), and 1901 Pan-American Exposition (Buffalo, NY). After the Chicago Exposition, he took a jaunt into British Columbia and was part of the first team to ascend Mt. Afton.
Rau was quite the international traveler, beginning in 1874 when, at the age of 19, he was part of the official American team that went to the South Seas to photograph the transit of Venus. In 1875 he was part of the US Geological Survey teams that photographed the American West (William Bell was part of the team). In 1881-82 he accompanied Edward Wilson to Egypt and the Middle East; his Journal of that trip was published in installments in 1882-83, detailing a variety of technical innovations that he made. In 1889 he documented the Johnstown Flood and in 1904 the great Baltimore fire. In 1890 he became official photographer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, perhaps his most famous work; from 1885-89 he was also official photographer for the Lehigh Valley Railroad. He also took images in England, Ireland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Italy, Sri Lanka, "Cochin China," Cuba, and South America and there's a lovely series that he took of his mother's home in Buren an der Aare, Switzerland.
In between all these travels, he ran a successful studio in Philadelphia, honchoed the American Lantern Slide Exchange, did a prosperous business in 3-D stereocards, photographed most of the U.S. naval fleet (during the Spanish American War), and was active in securing copyright coverage for photographers. As you observed, he was a publisher as well as a photographer. Given his activity on the copyright front, I would assume (but cannot be sure) that he would give credit to other photographers whose work he published. But maybe not. He was quite a businessman, an entrepreneur, and a self-promotor - and always at the cutting edge of photographic technology, among the first to use dry-plate, to experiment with color photography, to take panoramic photography beyond its known limits, to use magnesium flares to photograph the inside of the great pyramic, you name it, he did it.
By way of chronology: In 1873 (age 18) he became William Bell's assistant, having "worked" for him unoficially since the age of 14; in 1876 (age 21), Bell's business partner; and in 1878 (age 23 and by then Bell's son-in-law) he bought out Bell's company. From 1878 to 1880 and again in 1885, he was in partnership with his brother George ("Geo. & Wm. H. Rau"). In 1886 (age 31) he opened his own studio on Chestnut Street, and in 1894 moved Rau Studios to Camac Street, where the business remained until his death in 1920.

There is a major collection of his work in the Southern Allegheny Museum of the Arts (SAMA), Altoona, PA. Many of his Pennsylvania Railroad photos are housed there as well as at The Library Company in Philadelphia. SAMA also has some signed photographs of members of Rau's family.
Contributed by Barbara Mayo-Wells (2006) 

Internet biographies

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Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
The Cleveland Museum of Art, USA has a biography on this photographer. [Scroll down the page on this website as the biography may not be immediately visible.] Go to website

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on William H. Rau.] 
• Perez, Nissan N. 1988 Focus East: Early Photography in the Near East 1839-1885 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.) p.209 [Short biography on William H. Rau possibly with example plates.] 
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