August Semmendinger

Life History

New York City, 1849
 
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Period tintype photograph of unknown man with possible Semmendinger camera used as a prop.

Special thanks to Milan Zahorcak and to Mike Kessler for permission to use this photograph. 

1820-1859 Early Life/Emmigrating to America

 

 

August Semmendinger was born in 1820. Records indicate he emigrated to the United States from Germany.

 

 

August married Magdalene Kinney who it seems certain was from Switzerland. Different spellings exist regarding her name. On some documents, including a family tree, her first name has been spelled Magdelina.

 

 

August Semmendinger, along with his wife and daughter, arrived in the United States aboard a ship named Columbia which had embarked from Bremen, Germany.  Their arrival In New York City was on July 6, 1849.

 

 

A copy of the Manifest of Passengers lists August Semendinger (interesting that the name is spelled with only one M) as passenger number 123 on the Columbia. The document seems to indicate that August was 29 years old upon his arrival in New York. August's occupation was listed as a "workman." The document lists August as coming from Urach.  Known today as Bad Urach, this is a town in the district of Reutlingen, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany. 

 


Along with August, of course, were passengers numbered 124 and 125. Passenger 124 was Magdalene Semendinger, his wife, aged 20 or 21. Passenger 125 was a one-year-old baby, a daughter, Alsoine (sp?) Semendinger. It is not believed that this daughter ever reached adulthood. Save for this listing, no other record exists of this child.

 

 

There have been no records that indicate anything about August Semmendinger in the period between his arrival in 1849 and 1859 when the next information is known.

 

 

It is an almost certainty that August Semmendinger lived in New York City at this time.

1859-1871  Camera Making in New York City:

 

August Semmendinger began making camera is 1859. An old letterhead, still in the family's possession (see below) states,

"A. Semmendinger & Sons: The Oldest Firm of Camera Box Making - Established 1859."

 

 

August Semmendinger made his cameras in New York City at

Nos. 410 & 412 West 16th Street (see address on letterhead above)

In addition to being the "oldest firm of camera box making,"

Semmendinger was also an early camera designer. He was awarded four United States patents related to camera making.  The first two patents came while he was living in New York City.

 

 

On February 21, 1860, August Semmendinger was awarded his first patent, Patent No. 27,241, by the United States Patent Office. This patent was for a "Photographic Apparatus."   In this document, "August Semmendinger of the city, county, and State of New York," states that he has "invented a new and Improved Photographic Apparatus."  He signed his name on this document as Aug. Semmendinger.

 

 

Just six moths later, Semmendinger was awarded his second patent. On August 7, 1860, this second patent, Patent No. 29,523 from the United States Patent Office, was simply for a "Camera." He again signed his name as Aug. Semmendinger.

 

 

The fact that August Semmendinger did not often write his full name has led some in the camera collecting world to assume, incorrectly, that his first name was Augustus. Please see an additional page on this web site where the authors of this page demonstrate that Semmendinger's first name was simply August.

 

 

It is the author's belief that August Semmendinger was a camera maker as his primary occupation. It is possible that he also made furniture, as later in life he patented a camera stand. It is known that one of his sons, Guido Semmendinger, was a carpenter who did construct furniture, at least on occasion. Guido made a kitchen table for his son and his son's wife and gave this as a wedding gift to them.   The table is still in the family's possession.

 

Giving credence to the notion that August Semmendinger was primarily a camera maker is a New York City taxation document document from October 1862. This document lists August Semmendinger of 146 Elizabeth (Street). The "Valorem Duty" on which Semmendinger was required to pay tax is listed as "Camera Boxes."

1871-1885 Moving to Fort Lee/Later Life

 

By the early 1870's, it seems, August Semmendinger was looking to move to New Jersey.  He purchased land just across the Hudson River in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

 

Most of the Semmendinger cameras still in existence that are known to this author seem to have been manufactured in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

 

A document in family possession dated June 27, 1871 indicates that Semmendinger has "rented...two rooms of his new building in Fort Lee."

From this point forward, Semmendinger lived and made his cameras in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

 

Historians of antique camera from this period have researched and found that that many early camera makers obtained the wood they used for camera construction from other businesses, notably piano manufacturers.  The wood used for pianos was of high quality and properly aged.  This wood was ideal for early box cameras.

 

According to the book Music in New Jersey: 1655-1860: A Study of Musical Activity and Musicians in New Jersey from its First Settlement to the Civil War , by Charles H. Kaufman, there was an Abbott plant (for piano making) in Fort Lee, New Jersey.  This firm, known as Abbott & Sons, operated in Fort Lee, NJ.  Also, according to the 1876 Bergen County Atlas (which shows the Semmendinger property and "Photographic Apparatus Mfy." ), there was a piano factory (C. Ruff Piano Fact'y) located very close to the Semmendinger plant.  It is highly likely that the wood for the Semmendinger cameras, at least during the Fort Lee period, came from either the Abbott or Ruff piano outfits. 

 

August Semmendinger was awarded his third United States Patent, No. 145,020, for Photographic Plate-Holders while living in Fort Lee.  For this patent, August Semmendinger stated that he "invented a new and useful Improvement in Photographic Plate Holders." It is believed by this author that this patent is for what August Semmendinger titled his "Celebrated Silver Double Corners."

 

The December 1873 issue of The Photographic Times (Vol. III, No. 36) states: "Aug. Semmendinger, proprietor of the Fort Lee Camera Box Factory, is constantly receiving new testimonials in favor of his make apparatus. The multiplying and celebrated Roller Camera Boxes are his speciality."

 

 

August Semmendinger was able to earn a fourth patent fourteen years later on March 31, 1874. This, the final patent he earned, Patent No. 149,255 by the United States Patent Office was for "Camera-Stands."

 

There is also a very difficult to read United States Census Report from June 4, 1880.

"Inhabitants in (illegible) in the County of Bergen, State of New Jersey. Listed under the surname Semmendinger are August (aged 60), Magdeline (aged 50) (Wife), Theodore (27)(son), Alvina (18?)(daughter), Roland (20)(son), and Guido (16) (son). The document seems to indicate that all of the children were born in New York. Further, the (barely legible) "Place of birth for the father" was listed as Germany, while the place of birth for the mother was listed as Switzerland.

 

August Semmendinger died, in Fort Lee, New Jersey on August 6, 1885. An obituary was printed in Anthony's Photographic Bulletin (Volume XVII, 1886).

 

The obituary reads:

"August Semmindinger (sic), the well-known camera manufacturer, died at Fort Lee, N.J., on August 6, 1885, at the age of 65. He was a native of Wurtemburg, Germany, and always an active man, whether in business or social life. He was the inventor of a number of improvements in the camera, for which he held patents. Mr. Semmindinger's (sic) sons carry on the business founded by their father."

 

For a time following August Semmendinger's death, his sons carried on his camera making business.  It has not yet been determined how long they continued to make cameras. 

 

A turn-of-the-century map of Fort Lee, NJ titled "1908 Sanborne Map" shows the Semmendinger building labeled "Photo Apparatus Factory (closed)."  This seems to indicate that by 1908, the Semmendinger family was no longer making cameras.