As part 1 of a 3-part series about the local photography institution that is Dury's, and also in honor of National Photography Month, read about how one of Nashville's oldest businesses got its start and has remained a successful and beloved business in Nashville all of these years.
Most locals, and even those that have moved here and are familiar with photography, are familiar with the name Dury's. If you don't, here's the gist - it's a photography institution in this city that's been around more than 100 years. Its current home may not be the original home of the business, but its dedication to its customers and success as a family business has remained true since the day it opened here, in 1882.
This blog post is the beginning of a 2-part series about the Dury family and business. In this post, I'm just providing you with a little history and background of the family and business. The next part will include translations from a diary we have here in Metro Archives that belonged to Katharina Dury (George Dury Sr.'s wife), written in the old German Sütterlin handwriting, which was discontinued during World War II (more on that in the next blog post). It is an old script that is not easily decipherable to many familiar with the German language. But we thankfully have a coworker here at NPL that took courses in the old language, and has been translating the diary in her spare time for us. Stayed tune for that blog post hopefully sometime next month!
The Dury's Family: From Bavaria to America
The First George Dury
The story of the Dury family and business begins with George Dury himself (the first George Dury, based on what I've read); the one that emigrated to the United States from Bavaria in 1849. This is not the same George Dury that started the business, but rather, his father that was a well-known artist himself, best known as a portrait painter.
George was born in Wurzburg, Germany on March 25th, 1817. He was a blond-headed, grey-blue-eyed boy that, according to his great granddaughter (in the short memoir she wrote about him), "at a very early age, showed remarkable talent."
In his later years, he became a portrait painter to the Court of Bavaria, in Munich. This is where he received instructions from some of the best of their craft. According to his great granddaughter (her name is Carolyn Carver, by the way):
"Here his genius grew and ripened, his prestige as a court painter and his acquaintance with the royalty drew many to his studio and many of the nobility were his patrons."
Of these nobel patrons that came to him, King Ludwig and Queen Therese of Bavaria were included. He created two miniature paintings of them both, one of which I think came with George to the U.S. when they traveled here (the miniature of Queen Therese).
And now we get to the intriguing story of George and his wife, Katharina (Catherine as it's spelled in other material about the family), emigrating to the United States. As it turns out, it wasn't necessarily a decision they made entirely on their own, meaning it was somewhat forced.
The story goes that George's friend and future brother-in-law, Augustine Gattinger, and a few other friends from the University of Munich, decided to celebrate George Washington's birthday (quoting from his farewell address, as well as quoting Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin) during a time and in a country when spouting political freedom and democracy was harshly looked down upon. Not too harshly, thankfully, they were simply asked to leave the country.
So both men and their soon-to-be wives traveled to their new home in America - the home of the men they had been quoting and celebrating.
They departed from their home on March 25th, 1849, marking approximately when Katharina's diary began. I don't want to spoil the next blog post. But just a little sample, here's her entry from March 25th, 1849:
"Today, Monday the 25th of March. 1849, I said good-bye to beautiful, friendly St. Martin, - place of my birth and my childhood, - to my beloved, dear good parents, brothers and sisters, and friends, good-bye maybe forever, because my good George has chosen for me a new home country on another continent."
Prior to their trip, George and Katharina got married in Le Havre, France (a port city on the northwestern tip of the country), on April 24th, 1849. In her diary, she wrote, "this day, the most important of my life, is our wedding day."
Soon after on April 29th, they departed for America on a 3-masted ship known as the "Bavaria". The image below is of the wooden trunk that George brought with him to their new home. I'm not sure who the person in the photograph is, but I'm guessing it's possibly one of the Dury relatives.
Their New Home in Nashville
When the Dury's landed in the United States, it appears they came through New York City. But they didn't come to Nashville right away after that; they first traveled to a German colony at Wartburg, Tennessee, a small town that's about an hour west of Knoxville. But they didn't stay there long because George needed to find a market for his portraits - a town with wealthier patrons looking to spend money on flattering depictions of themselves.
So by June of 1950, the Dury's finally settled in Nashville. I'll try to skim over the smaller details of the family to get to the story of the business. But I've gotten you this far at least; you now know how the Dury family and name came to reside in Music City.
According to Katharina's diary, they moved to Nashville ten months before the first train was to pull out of Nashville and run 10 miles to Antioch. Their first home was located on Cedar Street (formerly Charlotte Ave, now Dr. Martin L. King Jr. Blvd), between Vine and Spruce Streets (7th and 8th Avenues). This is also where their first child, Augusta Katharina Carolina, was born.
In their first years in Nashville, George taught art (oil painting to be specific) at the Nashville Female Academy. His work as a portrait painter never appeared to slow when they moved to Nashville either. In fact, here are a few of his most notable portraits:
- Mr. and Mrs. William Blackmore (later exhibited at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition)
- John Bell, the Speaker of the House of Representatives
- The Honorable Thomas Marton, founder of the Martin Female College of Pulaski
- Senator Felix Grundy
- Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Donelson Creighton
- He was paid $225 by the General Assembly of Tennessee to paint a portrait of both Andrew Johnson and Abraham Lincoln
- Mrs. James K. Polk, but this portrait I'm told is copy of the original by G.P.A. Healy that's hanging on the walls in the White House. Dury's remake copy is a part of the Tennessee State Museum's collection.
Another fun fact I learned about George Dury from his great-granddaughter, he was the first exhibitor at the art exhibition held in Nashville, which was at the opening of the Tennessee Historical Society rooms located in the Watkins Library (which was located where the east side of the Library now sits).
Soon after their first child was born, came their second and third children:
- Henry Maximillian - born at Cave Spring in East Tennessee in 1853
- George Carl (the future founder of the Dury's business) - born in their 2nd home, located in Edgefield on January 10th, 1859
In their new home in Edgefield that was apparently much bigger than their last, some of their treasures and artworks brought from home were displayed on the walls. To name a few of George's works on display:
- Portrait of Lola Montex, the controversial Irish adventuress
- His famous "Italian Girl at Prayer" that was done in the ancient Greek manner of wax mixed with the pigments
Something else that I found highlighted both in the mini-memoir about George and in Katharina's diary is a mentioning of their Christmas traditions. Rooted in their German heritage, Christmas time was apparently quite the festive time at the Dury home. Some of the recipes of the famous cookies made by Katharina during the holidays apparently passed down several generations and possibly continue today.
In a news clipping found in the diary from 1881, it discusses the Christmas tree put up in the Dury home...
"An elaborate Christmas tree, fashioned upon the pleasing German idea of Kris Kringle's visit, was erected in Mr. Geo. Dury's parlor, and was a real delight to the grandparents and their children and grandchildren, as well as to many of their neighbors and friends. Altogether it was perhaps the most unique and elegant private display of the kind attempted in Edgefield."
George Carl Dury and the Camera Business
Prior to George C. founding the business, he also made history as one of the early students of the local private all-boys school, Montgomery Bell Academy. The school was established in 1867 just after the end of the Civil War. And if I'm reading this news clipping from Katharina's diary correctly, her grandson (the son of her daughter Augusta and her husband John Henry Brengelman) also attended and graduated from Montgomery Bell Academy.
When George began his business known as George C. Dury & Co. in 1882, it actually began as a business with his brother's work in the small rubber stamp business. From the sounds of it, Henry (like I'm sure several of the family members were) was quite bright and actually worked as an inventor. In one of the clippings in Katharina's diary, it discusses one of Henry's inventions - the phonograph.
"Henry Dury, of Edgefield, son of the well known portrait painter, has just finished a phonograph that is pronounced equal to Edison's. The cylinder is of wood covered with type metal and the adjustments are much more simple. As it is run by clock work, the reproductions are better than by hand. Mr. Dury thinks of getting it patented."
Not only did they share in the same business work, but both brothers actually got married in the same year as well. While their older sister, Augusta, got married in December, 1872, both Henry and George C. got married in 1889 - Henry was married in October and George C. in December.
But back to the business. It wasn't long after the business started, that they added photographic supplies to their merchandise. According to their website, "Dury's has been providing products and services to photographers since the beginning of photography."
Their first home was at 204 Union St. and remained on that street (though not at the same address) for at least the next 75 years (based on the short bio about the family-business written in 1957). Though Union today has several large corporations and other smaller businesses along its multi-block path, the late 19th century to early 20th century appeared to be quite prosperous for that historic part of the city. During the time that Dury's operated on that street, it was well-known as a retail district.
Check out the photo below of Union circa the 1920's, where you see Dury's on the left. This was its third home, I believe, at 420 Union Street.
At the time when George C. opened his shop, photography began to thrive and the technology appeared to be continuously evolving (as it always does). Not only was Dury's one of the first eight dealers of George Eastman (an early entrepreneur of photography who founded the Eastman Kodak Company and popularized roll film), but they also sold the first ever Kodak camera in Nashville.
A few other products they created and sold in addition to photography products, were stencils and seals. The stencils were used by whisky and flour makers to decorate the tops of their barrels.
Just 12 years after the start of the Dury business (in December, 1894), George Sr. passed away at the age of 77. Thirty years after that in 1924, George C. passed away, leaving the business to his son, Carl George Dury.
Carl grew up learning the business from his father, helping out around the shop in a variety of ways, including carefully changing the plates in the old dark-room (for customers still using old-type cameras) and also delivering rubber stamps. He said of his father, "I learned more by his example than by what he said."
Here are a few other highlights of the business' past:
- At the beginning of the 20th century, the business expanded around the corner in an L-shape, going through 303 Market Street (2nd Ave).
- In 1904, they moved to 306 Union.
- In 1905, their business had expanded so much to include several more products that the city directory of that year included a full-page (front and back) ad for them. See the front side of the ad below.
- In 1912, the company moved to 420 Union, and remained there until at least the early 1960's, when it was sold to the W.T. York family.
- The crash of 1929 and the following great depression had an impact on the company, when they'd opened a second store in Knoxville. The money they placed in the banks essentially disappeared when not just one but three banks went under during their time in Knoxville (and this was them attempting to stay afloat at 3 different times, not just all at once). The Nashville store assisted the second store, but after the third collapse, they gave in and closed the store in Knoxville.
- World War II also had its impact on the store; their merchandise was limited by government quotas, while the store was also under-staffed.
- As of the 1957 history of the store - Dury's was one of the first firms to lease space for a branch store in the new Green Hills Shopping Center on Hillsboro Rd (new at that time). A second manufacturing division was set up at 112 6th Ave S, giving it 3 locations.
- After the first time the company was sold in the 1960's, it was sold again to Bob Fields, Bob Garrett, and Newburn Hayes in the 1980's. As of the 2000 Nashville Business Journal article about the company, the current owner is John Carnes.
Staff test out a new camera at Dury's by taking photos of other staff, dated August 2nd, 1962. Unknown individual in photo. If you can identify this person, please comment below.
There are no other updates on the changing of management after the year 2000 on the company's website, so as far as I know, this is where the story ends in terms of how the company has evolved over the years. But it appears the business itself is still at the top of its game in the photography business.
It's now located at 1027 Murfreesboro Road. If you've never been, it's worth it to go check out one of Nashville's oldest and truly unique businesses. According to their mission, "from capture to output, we offer the top products on the market to make your imaging business a success."
There's so much more I learned about this family that I wish I could share, but clearly this is a long-enough blog post. To learn more about the family and the diary, check out part 2 here.
'Til next time,