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In 1940, William Wescott Snell was a young man with a mission: to make color photography accessible for amateur photographers.

The Minneapolis man was a salesman for the Dufaycolor, an early color film promoted by a British company based on a film process invented by a Frenchman, Louis Dufay.

Snell traveled from town to town in his sales territory, which included Minnesota and the Dakotas, selling Dufaycolor film and processing to drugstores. To demonstrate "natural color film," he often took snapshots of local events. And in January 1940, he pointed his Voigtländer camera at the most colorful event that month — the St. Paul Winter Carnival parade.

Elaborate floats were part of the 1940 St. Paul Winter Carnival parade.
Elaborate floats were part of the 1940 St. Paul Winter Carnival parade.

William Snell

Snell shot eight images, capturing elaborate floats, marchers in fanciful costumes, Winter Carnival royalty and crowds of people wearing heavy wool coats and snappy fedoras. Buildings in the background that still exist today show that in 1940, the parade traveled along Summit Avenue, up to the Minnesota State Capitol and then downtown on Cedar Street. (Today, the route is limited, traveling W. 7th Street to Rice Park in downtown St. Paul.)

William Snell took photos of the 1940 St. Paul Winter Carnival as part of his job selling a color film process.
William Snell took photos of the 1940 St. Paul Winter Carnival as part of his job selling a color film process.

William Snell

Despite Snell's best intentions, Dufaycolor wasn't ultimately a success. Like dozens of other color film processes being promoted in the early 20th century, it was eventually eclipsed by the technically superior Kodachrome, according to film historian Robert Shanebrook, a former longtime Kodak employee from Rochester, N.Y.

Finding himself out of a job, Snell got into selling floor cleaning machines. He eventually moved to California, where he started his own company selling commercial cleaning supplies and machines.

"He was always a sort of a salesman for something or another," said Snell's daughter, Diane Snell Freburg.

William Snell in 1939, a snappy dresser and color film salesman in the Twin Cities.
William Snell in 1939, a snappy dresser and color film salesman in the Twin Cities.

Provided by Diane Snell Freburg

Snell died in 1993 at the age of 86. And the photos he took of the colorful parade so long ago were forgotten until now.

Freburg recently came across the film shot by her father.

"I'm 82. I'm kind of wrapping things up," said Freburg, who lives in Oregon.

Born in Minneapolis in the same year her father took the photos, Freburg was Snell's only child. She doesn't have children of her own or other relatives who would want the film.

The Dufaycolor film roll shot by William Snell and his handwritten note.
The Dufaycolor film roll shot by William Snell and his handwritten note.

Richard Chin

So she sent the film to the Star Tribune, thinking someone in the Twin Cities might like to see the pictures.

It turns out they do.

Snell's Winter Carnival photos arrived at the paper in an old cardboard Dufaycolor tube used to mail the film to a developer. Inside was a tightly rolled strip of 214-by 314 inch No. 20 film that had already been developed. There was also a tiny slip of paper where Snell had written, "Winter Carnival — St. Paul Jan. '40."

To be displayed digitally, the film had to be scanned at West Photo in Minneapolis, one of the few places in town that still processes film.

Tom Barrett, a longtime collector of Winter Carnival memorabilia, got a look at Snell's photos and is convinced they have historical value.

"These pictures are amazing for two reasons," according to Barrett, the Vulcanus Rex from the 2004 Winter Carnival. "They are over 80 years old and appear to be the first color pictures ever taken of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, which started back in 1886."

The Minnesota Historical Society has some 16 millimeter color motion picture film of the Winter Carnival from 1938 or 1939 in its collection, according to Jennifer Huebscher, Historical Society curator of photography and moving images. But the earliest color still photographs it has of the event are some Kodachrome slide images of the 1941 carnival's ice palace.

"The 1940 Dufaycolor images would certainly be among the first" color photos of the 137-year-old Winter Carnival, Huebscher said. "I definitely want this in our collection."

(The Star Tribune is currently working with the Minnesota Historical Society to make that happen.)

Huebscher acknowledges that the quality of the Snell photographs isn't the best. The images aren't as bright or sharp as later color snapshots. But they give a sense of the colors of the floats and the clothing of the participants in 1940 that wasn't available before.

"Though the color is muted, it has held up better than the Kodacolor prints that were introduced just a couple of years later," Huebscher wrote in an email. "I think it's really cool."

For her part, Freburg said her father would be happy that his decades-old photos are being seen today.

"He would be so tickled," she said. "He was so proud that he had helped introduce color film."

The 2023 St. Paul Winter Carnival runs from Jan. 26 to Feb. 5. See wintercarnival.com for details.

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