Massillon History: Abel Fletcher

Photographic Pioneer

Abel Fletcher (1820-1890)
Marth and Abel Fletcher
Gift of Mrs. Abel Fletcher (BC 1813.2)


Abel Fletcher’s Business Card
Collection of the Massillon Museum (BC 2678)

Abel Fletcher was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1820. He worked as a Universalist preacher, but had dabbled in photographic processes since he was 16 years old, creating optical lenses from scratch. He moved to Massillon in 1843 to open a studio on South Erie Street, a block south of Main Street (Lincoln Way East). The building was equipped with skylights and was therefore ideal for photography. Advertisements promoted the studio as a “skylight Daguerrean room.” Fletcher devised a process for producing paper negatives, which allowed an image to be duplicated. Henry Fox Talbot was also experimenting with this process in England at the same time, and is credited with inventing these negatives, called calotypes.

Daguerreotypes are a single positive image developed directly onto a chemically treated metal surface. Paper negatives allowed photographers to make multiple copies of the same image.

Abel Fletcher captured an early outdoor scene on daguerreotype about 1855, providing the earliest existing glimpse of Massillon’s downtown. Since Fletcher was a pioneer to this new field of photography, he was forced to create his own chemicals and processes. Unfortunately, one of his chemical experiments exploded in the darkroom, blinding him in 1859. Abel’s wife, Martha, had been working beside him in the studio and was able to continue photographing, making her one of America’s early women photographers. Martha continued running the studio until 1866 when her health began failing. William Wilson took over the studio at that time.

Abel Fletcher (1820-1890)
View of present-day Lincoln Way looking East from the Tuscarawas River
Reproduction from original Daguerreotype
Collection of the Massillon Museum (BC 2314.1)


Abel traveled to Columbus for a stay in an asylum for the blind, where he learned to read and write, and learned the trade of broom making to render himself useful in society and able to earn a living. He returned to Massillon and opened a store in the third story of the Wellman Block where he made and sold his brooms. Abel Fletcher penned prose and poetry since his early days as a preacher, and several of these poems were written about his time in the asylum and coping with his disability.

Abel Fletcher died in 1890, never having been fully recognized for his contributions to photographic history and his rightful place as a pioneer. His daughter, Lillian, donated much of his collection of plates and negatives to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

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