John N. Brengel was a popular photographer for over 20 years in the city of Kingston, New York. Prior to his arrival at Kingston Brengel operated a photographic gallery in New York City from the late-1860s through the mid-1880s.
Family portrait, by J. N. Brengel. Author's collection.
John N. Brengel was born in February 1833 in Manhattan, New York. He was married to Mary J. (Brown) Brengel. There is a conflict as to Mary’s correct year of birth, as the 1900 United States census shows her birthdate as July 1854 whereas her gravestone shows her birth year as 1855. John and Mary were married around the year 1875.
Brengel honorably served during the Civil War. At the age of 29, he enlisted for three years on August 12, 1862 at New York. He mustered in as a private in Company I, 6th New York Cavalry on August 13, 1862. Records show, somewhat amusingly, that he was “wounded in the canteen, October 11, 1863, at Brandy Station. Not disabled, but had to go thirsty until he procured another canteen.” He was promoted to sergeant on December 1, 1864. He was discharged on June 5, 1865 at Cloud’s Mills, Virginia.
The 6th New York Cavalry was involved in intense fighting for much of the Civil War. Notable battles and campaigns include the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30 – May 6, 1863), Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign (August-November 1864) and the Appomattox Campaign (March 29-April 9, 1865).
By the late 1860s Brengel was listed with the occupation of photographer in the business directories for New York City. His studio was listed as 391 Canal Street. In the mid-1870s his business was located at 291 6th Avenue. Advertisements later place his business at 55 East 13th Street. The year 1885 was the last one in which Brengel was listed as a photographer in New York City.
The logo imprint on the reverse side of a portrait taken by Brengel reads “J. N. Brengel, Ferrotype Gallery, New York. 4 for 25 cents.” The ferrotype, also known more popularly as tintype, was patented by Hamilton Smith in 1856 in the United States. The ferrotype process was used widely used in the 1860s and 1870s.
An 1884 advertisement in The Photographic Times stated: “J. N. Brengel, Solar Printer, Photo, Enlargements by Electric Light. Prints made, Rain or Shine. Address for Price List, 55 East Thirteenth Street, New York.”
In August 1884 tragedy struck when Brengel’s New York City gallery was destroyed by fire. The New York Times provided a summary of the incident.
“J. N. Brengel, a photographer, whose specialty is the enlargement of pictures for artists by electric light, had a gallery on the third floor of No. 55 East Thirteenth Street. Last evening he was developing some negatives in the dark room, and his boy, Albert Whitemore, was in the gallery, when there was a whizzing noise, followed by an outburst of flame. Mr. Brengel found the woodwork of his operating room on fire, and the heat caused bottles of ether and alcohol to burst and add fuel to the flames. The fire was fierce when the engines arrived, but it was subdued in half an hour, when the gallery was a complete wreck. Mr. Brengel used the Brush wires for the light he needed, and he says the fire was due to insulating material being stripped in some manner from the wires so that they set fire to the woodwork through which they passed. Mr. Brengel was insured for $1,300 in the Phenix Company, of Brooklyn, and his loss is more than $2,500. C. Z. Bates, locksmith and bellhanger, on the second floor, loses about $700 by water damage. John Church & Co., of Cincinnati, publishers of music, on the first floor, lose by water damage from $1,200 to $1,500. About $800 damage was done to the building, which is owned by the Roosevelt estate.”
Perhaps due to the tragedy that destroyed his gallery, that same year, 1884, Brengel advertised that he was in the market to purchase a Photographic Gallery, giving his address as Rondout, New York.
The city of Kingston business directories first listed Brengel as operating at 9 Wall Street by around 1884. By 1894 he had moved locations and was then operating at 29 Strand. Following business directories listed Brengel at 31 East Strand, 27-29 East Strand and 29 East Strand.
Portrait, Old Woman, by J. N. Brengel. Author's collection.
An 1888 newspaper advertisement had Brengel operating his business at 9 Wall Street in Kingston. He advertised cabinet photographs for sale at a cost of $1.50 per dozen. The advertisement also interestingly stated that “15,000 Negatives by Edward Lewis are in my possession.” Lewis had been a long-time photographer at Kingston through the early 1880s.
The Kingston Daily Freeman. October 13, 1888.
In October 1890 a fire broke out in the rear of the E. T. Dodge candy store on Wall Street, and quickly spread. As the fire engulfed the building, it did much damage to the rear of the Brengel’s photographic establishment. Damage was estimated at $500, and Brengel was not insured for the loss.
The 1892 book Kingston and Rondout: Their Representative Business Men and Points of Interest featured a profile of Brengel.
“J. N. Brengel, Photographer, No. 9 Wall Street, Kingston, N.Y. – If improved apparatus and reliable chemicals and unbounded self-confidence were all that is necessary to make a first-class photographer, the country would be full of such, for about every tenth man you see nowadays practices photography for fun or for money, and can talk to you by the hour about “negatives,” and “exposures” and developing, and many other things of which you know little or nothing; but when it comes to putting theories into practice the average photographer, amateur or professional, cannot seem to make a very excellent showing. The fact is long experience and considerable natural ability are absolutely essential to the attainment of thoroughly satisfactory results in photography, and an illustration of this may be had by comparing the work turned out by Mr. J. N. Brengel with that produced by other photographers who might be mentioned, for Mr. Brengel has been in the business for many years and is thoroughly familiar with it in every detail. He is a native of New York, and succeeded to the business founded by Mr. Edward Lewis in 1865. His rooms are located at No. 9 Wall Street, on the third and fourth floors, being very thoroughly fitted up in every way. Photography in all its branches is carried on, orders being filled at short notice and at uniformly moderate rates, while the results attained are such that it is perfectly safe to fully guarantee satisfaction to all who may place orders at this popular studio. This gentleman commanded Company I, 6th New York Cavalry, during the war, and for a time served on the staff of General Sheridan.”
In 1896 Brengel achieved a certain amount of fame with the announcement that he, along with Chester B. Melott, had developed a process to produce static x-rays. News of this discovery was featured in newspapers in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska and other states.
“Static X-rays. A process differing from that of Roentgen. Everything goes now. These people made a wide departure. No vacuum was used. A series of experiments at Kingston which appear to be more startling than any yet performed with the Crookes tubes.
Kingston, N.Y., Feb. 18. – Chester B. Melott, manager of the Rondout Western Telegraph office, and J. N. Brengel, a local photographer, have made several successful experiments with X-rays, the manner of obtaining the pictures being altogether different from ordinary methods.
Not an inch of conducting wire, no battery, Crookes tubes, condensers, coils, or Leyden jars were used. The electric current used was transmitted through the body of the operators, and was conducted by them to the objects that were photographed and transmitted through the sensitized plate to the body of another person place on the opposite side of the sensitized plate, which was enclosed in a dark slide.
The current used was static, of high potential and high frequency, and the time of exposure required was about half a minute for each object. The experiment was conducted upon the principle and the theory that a lightning bolt will photograph objects on any sensitized bodies, when coming between them, as numerous accounts prove.
The pictures were taken through the cardboard cover of the slide, and through one thickness of a pane of glass, making about one-fourth of an inch. The whole operation is simple, and can be performed by anyone. The electricity for this experiment was obtained by holding an ordinary tin dusting pan under the rapidly moving leather driving belt of an engine in the power house of the Kingston City Electric line, with one hand, while the other hand touched the objects lying on top of the case containing the sensitized plate, another person holding the plate through the body of which the electricity passed off.
By other experiments tried with exhausted tubes and incandescent bulbs, lights of all the shades of the rainbow were secured, the light changing according to the condition of the atmosphere. In damp weather a very reddish light is produced, while in dry, clear atmosphere, the light assumes a bluish ting; also phantom rays of great brilliancy were obtained, but owing to the arrangement of the bulb and machinery, when sensitized plates were brought close to the bulbs, it destroyed their electrical effect, and in some cases extinguished the light altogether, the operation taking the current away by induction.
Mr. Melott contemplates making further experiments with the rays, and also with a very penetrating electric light, which consists of passing a current of dynamo electricity through a tube filled with a peculiar metallic gas. The current freely passes and produces and produces a very penetrating light.”
The 1900 United States census listed Brengel as residing in district 107 of the city of Kingston. Also residing in the household was Mary J., his wife, born July 1854; Carrie A., born January 1880; Anna L., born February 1882; Frederick D., born January 1884; George A., born March 1886; and Mable V., born July 1888. The census reported that John and Mary Brengel had seven children, six of which were currently living. The census showed that Brengel’s parents had both been born in Germany. He was listed with an occupation of Photographer. Frederick, even at the young age of 16, was listed with an occupation of Assistant Photographer.
In 1903 Brengel began planning for retirement, putting his gallery up for sale. An industry publication carried the following advertisement. “FOR SALE – Having decided to retire from active business, will sell my studio at a bargain; fitted for 11 by 14; fine Dallmeyer lens; best light; price, $450, cash. J. N. BRENGEL, 27 Strand, Kingston, N.Y.”
Brengel’s actual retirement from the photography business took place two years later in 1905 at 72 years of age. He sold his business in August of that year to Robert G. Sibley, of Port Ewen. After the sale Brengel moved back to New York City.
The address directories for Manhattan and the Bronx begin to list Brengel in 1902 with a home address at 204 West 114th Street. In some years he was listed with an occupation of photographer, however, there was no business address listed.
John N. Brengel passed away at 76 years of age at his home in New York City on September 26, 1909. He was survived by two sons, George and Fred, and four daughters, Mrs. Joseph Stillwell, Carrie, Mabel and Lulu. Mary J. Brengel passed away at her home on January 26, 1927 at her home on Glenwood Road, Brooklyn. John, along with his wife Mary, is buried at Montrepose Cemetery in Kingston, New York.
 “Fired By Electric Light.” New York Times (New York, New York). August 26, 1884.
 Bacon, George F. Kingston and Rondout: Their Representative Business Men and Points of Interest. Newark, N.J.: Mercantile Publishing Company, 1892. p. 33.
 “Static X-rays.” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York). February 19, 1896.
 The Photo-Beacon. Vol. 15. Chicago: The Photo-Beacon Company, 1903.