Monday, May 24, 2021

Frank Hall’s Window to Japan

 By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

Although few today remember his name, an Elmiran named Frank Hall was instrumental in shaping 19th century America’s image of Japan. In 1639, Japan’s ruling shogunate closed the country to all foreigners except for a select group of Chinese and Dutch traders. By the mid-1800s, the United States decided that really didn’t work for them and so, in 1853, the president dispatched Commodore Matthew Perry to Tokyo to force the country open with a little gunboat diplomacy. Between 1854 and 1858, the United States and Japan signed a series of treaties opening Japanese ports to American citizens. Under the treaties, Americans could not only dock in 6 Japanese ports, they could live there indefinitely, own and lease property, erect buildings, practice their own religion, and avoid prosecution in Japanese courts. The result was a massive influx in American tourists, missionaries, and businessmen.

Enter Francis “Frank” Hall. Born in Ellington, Connecticut in 1822, Hall had come to Elmira in 1842 at age 19 with a wagon load of books and a dream. It took him a few years to get off the ground but, by 1845, Hall’s bookstore was a staple of the community and the hangout for the village’s intellectual set. Hall quickly became attached to Elmira. He invited several of his brothers to join him in business, married a local girl (who tragically died), and was elected to public office. He was a driving force behind the creation of Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira College, and Elmira Free Academy, and helped to bring the Lyceum lecture circuit to the village. 

Francis "Frank" Hall, 1822-1902


In 1859, he sold his store to his brothers Frederic and Charles, and headed for Japan. One of his dear friends, R.S. Brown, was heading to Japan as a missionary and asked Hall to join him on the voyage. In order to support himself in his travels, Hall took a position as Japan correspondent for the New York Tribune. Hall arrived at Yokohama, Japan on November 1, 1859. For the next six years, his 70 plus articles in the New York Tribune, Elmira Weekly Advertiser, and Home Journal would provide American readers with a window to a country few of them would ever get to visit.

Hall’s time in Japan was one of the most tumultuous periods in the country’s history. Uncontrolled foreign trade resulted hyper-inflation and the collapse of Japan’s gold standard system. Conflict between the shogun and the daimyos, or Japan’s noble class, resulted in multiple assassinations and four different armed rebellions. Even though the United States was in the midst of its own civil war, Hall’s monthly articles describing this political and economic turmoil received both a surprising amount of space and prominent placement. His coverage of the naval battle between the USS Wyoming and Choshu ships at Shimonoseki took the front page on October 2, 1863. 

Front page of New-York Tribune, October 2, 1863


But Hall wasn’t just reporting about the events of the day. Part travel-writer, part anthropologist, he crafted vivid descriptions of the culture and landscape of Japan as well. His articles contain accounts of festivals, children’s games, earthquakes, firefighters, snow-capped peaks, terrible storms, bustling cityscapes, and government surveillance. Here, Hall describes the port city of Hakodate in an article from December 29, 1860:

It is well built after the Japanese way, with spacious streets of two rods in width, laid out with regularity, well sewered and kept clean by daily and repeated sweepings. The houses differ from those to the southward in few respects. A large number of them are weather-boarded with broad strips of bark placed vertically...Tiled and thatched roofs are mostly supplanted by shingle roofs, and these neither pegged or nailed down, but secured by stones from a child’s to a man’s head in bigness. The aspect of continuous roofs of the streets, when viewed from an eminence, is that of a Vermont sheep pasture for stoniness.

Hall left Japan on July 5, 1866, a much richer man than when he arrived. In addition to his work for the newspaper, he had become an agent for and, later, co-owner of Walsh, Hall & Co., an export company specializing in tea and silks. Even though he sold his shares before returning to Elmira, he continued to remain in contact with his various Japanese friends and business associates. He also kept an extensive collection of Japanese art and artifacts in his home at 213 College Avenue. In fact, until his death in 1902, he was known locally as Japanese Frank Hall.


Japanese art in Hall's home at 213 College Ave

While we here at CCHS have a good-sized collection of papers from Hall’s business and estate, we do not have his journals from his time in Japan. Those are held by the Cleveland Library’s John G. White Collection of Orientalia. In 2001, the diaries were annotated and published as Japan Through American Eyes: The Journal of Francis Hall, 1859-1866, edited by F.G. Notehelfer. We have 2 copies if anyone is interested in reading.


  1. Very interesting. Thank you for posting. What happened to his collection of Japanese art and artifacts?

  2. Not sure if you got our response on Facebook: CCHS does not have any of his collection. We know he had siblings in the area, and that he set up a collection in his home town.