Edward S Curtis’s The North American Indian at the Seattle Public Library

December 3, 2012

One of the exquisite portraits in Edward S Curtis’s The North American Indian

I recently read Timothy Egan’s book about Seattle photographer Edward S. Curtis who is known for his iconic Indian portraits.  Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher:  The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis tells the story of Curtis’s life-long obsession with documenting as much as he could about North American Indian life and culture before the traditional tribal ways died out or were eradicated.  Curtis had a grand vision to publish a 20-volume set, The North American Indian, of his photographs and his findings.

The volumes were sold by subscription at a price of $3000 in 1907 when the first volume was published.  Curtis intended to sell 500 sets, but fell far short.  Only 220 sets were sold.  Completing all 20 volumes was a constant financial struggle, and Curtis worked on the project from 1907 to 1930.

Those of us who live in Seattle are fortunate in that the Seattle Public Library purchased subscription # 38 and now holds this historic set in its Special Collections.  You can see it, but by appointment only, as the library has special procedures in place to safeguard this valuable resource.  I recently spent 1-1/2 hours with librarian Jodee Fenton, who showed me Volumes 7 and 8 and their accompanying portfolios of plates.

Leather-bound volumes 7 and 8 of The North American Indian by Edward S Curtis

The Seattle Public Library purchased # 38 of this limited-edition set — 20 volumes published between 1907 and 1930.

Each of the books is about 12 x 10 inches and is printed on high-quality Japanese Imperial paper.  Curtis included 1506 photographic plates in the 20 volumes, and each book has an accompanying portfolio of larger format loose prints.

One of Edward S Curtis’s Indian portraits, Nine Pipes (Flathead)

Paging through Volume 7 in the Seattle Room of the Special Collections, Seattle Public Library

One of the prints from the accompanying portfolios

The portfolio prints were on thick paper stock

Unusual night-time portrait by Edward S. Curtis

Edward S Curtis portrait of native woman

To make an appointment to see the Seattle Public Library’s volumes of The North American Indian, contact Jodee Fenton, Special Collections librarian at 206-386-4610 or email her at jfenton@spl.org.  If you don’t live near Seattle, or if you prefer to view this amazing work online, you will find text and images in the Library of Congress’s digital collection at this link.








9 Responses to “Edward S Curtis’s The North American Indian at the Seattle Public Library”

  1. Adrienne Says:

    what a treasure. so glad you mentioned the online collection.

  2. shoreacres Says:

    Thanks for making me aware of this. I have your post and the Library of Congress site bookmarked for the future.

  3. Carol Says:

    Wow! Simply amazing.

  4. Sarah Hodge Says:

    Thanks for putting these wondeful pictures online. I noted that protective white cotton gloves are not worn when turning pages to preserve them from oil, dirt etc?

    • Rosemary Says:

      You’re welcome. I asked about the white gloves, and Ms. Fenton said that she believed it best to turn the pages with clean hands, as oil-free as possible. We both washed out hands and used anti-bacterial gel before looking at the books.

  5. Fantastic! I just finished the book today and am elated to find out your able to view the books at the Central Library. I plan on making an appointment in the near future.

    • Rosemary Says:

      I, too, was thrilled to know that Seattle has such a wonderful resource for public viewing. Enjoy your day at the library.

  6. Svetlana Says:

    Would your photo of the volumes 7 and 8 be available for publication in a children’s book about Edward Curtis?

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