How Instantaneous Views changed photography and let us travel to a fixed point in time.
This is genuine time travel: You are looking at a sky in a southern clime taken on the early afternoon of 12 July, 1865. A handwritten paper glued to the reverse provides the exact date. When this fraction of a day was preserved, the Civil War was over but for a few months; this part of the sky was again above the United States, not the Confederacy.
There was a house amongst the trees—its triangular roof and chimney visible mid-left. The sky was bright blue and the clouds were gentle fluffs that, nonetheless, hinted rain. By them the great hot orb of the sun was obscured enough to safely see and photograph. The revolutionary iodized collodion process used by the photographer allowed images to be taken in as little as a few seconds, depending on the light, and this picture probably would have required the briefest of exposures.
The wedding of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren was so popular that children in wedding attire began to reenact the marriage ceremony.
By Beverly Wilgus
The highlight of the 1863 New York City social season was the February 10 “Fairy Wedding” at Grace Episcopal Church of two of P. T. Barnum’s “little people,” Charles Sherwood Stratton and Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump. In the theatrical world, they were known as General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren—he stood 2’10”; she, 2’6″. There were 2,000 invited guests and Barnum also sold tickets to the reception after the wedding for $75 each. Although 15,000 ticket requests came in, only 5,000 were available. One newspaper, the Cleveland Daily Leader, noted that after the particulars were announced by Barnum, “then followed such a universal toadyism…all for the sake of begging, buying, or stealing invitations to the wedding.”
In spite of the event’s commercial nature, Tom and Lavinia’s marriage was a true love match. (Barnum, however, thought Lavinia was too tall for Tom and that her smaller sister Minnie would have been a better choice of a bride.) Lavinia had also been romantically pursued by Thumb’s rival performer, George Washington Morrison Nutt, whose stage name was Commodore Nutt, but Lavinia’s heart belonged to the Little General from the start. After their marriage, the couple lived in domestic harmony for twenty years until Tom’s death on July 15, 1883.
“You shall come to your grave in ripe old age, like a sheaf gathered up in its season.”
On 26 March, 1900, the Alfred Sun of Allegheny County, New York, included this obituary: “Abial Thomas, son of Rowland and Prudence Thomas, was born Sept. 22, 1825, and died Mar. 2, 1900, aged 74 years, 5 months, and 10 days. He was married Sept. 25, 1845, to Mary Crandall, being one of three brothers who married three sisters. In 1848, his wife and infant child died. Mr. Thomas was married again Dec. 1, 1840, to [Ascenath] Jane Stillman. Seven children resulted from this union. Prudence, now Mrs. McHenry, who resides at Alfred Station; Rowland of Hornellsville; Mary, Mrs. Congdon of Hornellsville; Nancy, deceased; Frank of Hornellsville; Lucy, deceased; and Charlotte, Mrs. Melville Green of Hornellsville. Two brothers and one sister also survive, viz., Rowland Thomas of Alfred; Silas Thomas of Milton, Wis.; and Mrs. Alma Green of Silver Lake. Mr. Thomas was taken a little over a week before his death with acute pneumonia, and little hope of his recovery was entertained from the first. The funeral services were held at the 2nd Alfred Church, conducted by the pastor. Text, Acts 26:8. The funeral was well attended, a good many old neighbors and relatives of the deceased being present.”
Abial Thomas was a lifetime native of Alfred—an unusual locality in that there is a Village of Alfred within the borders of the eponymous town that is the site of Alfred State College, Alfred University, and the New York State College of Ceramics. Abial spent his days as a farmer and later a carpenter, never appearing in the newspapers and leaving few records; he registered for the Civil War draft, for example, but already in his late 30s, Abial did not serve.
The above detail of the cabinet card allows us to see Abial as he was late in life, as well as his coffin plaque. According to Ancestors at Rest, “In North America…the popularity of the practice of removing the plates from the coffin before burial increased. Often the coffin plates were never attached to the coffin but displayed on a stand or table next to it…. This practice started in the early 1840s and was particularly popular in the North Eastern United States, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island…. This practice peaked in the late 19th century (1880-1899) and by the 1920s this practice had all but stopped.”
After the funeral, the coffin plaques might become parts of hanging wall shrines to the deceased, which were often replete with wax-dipped linen flowers, skeletonized leaves, dyed and shaped feathers, shells, locks of hair, photographs, and other sentimental items.
The wheat sheaf amongst Abial’s funeral flowers is also worthy of note. Unseen at modern funerals, during the 19th Century the wheat sheaf was a recognized symbol of the biblical verse Job 5:26: “You shall come to your grave in ripe old age, like a sheaf gathered up in its season.” This is beautifully illustrated in the cabinet card above, which includes both elements of the verse from Job. The wheat sheaf was regularly given in tribute to the elderly.
“Her life was marked for honesty of dealings and purity of character.”
The Sabbath Recorder of 17 April, 1890, provides us a concise biography of Abial’s second wife, Ascenath Jane, who had died a decade before him. She was “born in Newport, Herkimer Co., N.Y., Oct. 10, 1818, and died at her home in Alfred, after an illness of about five weeks of heart disease, March 29, 1890, in the 72nd year of her age. Mrs. Thomas was a daughter of Ezra Stillman, long known and well remembered. Four sons and one daughter only are now left of his family. Under the ministry of Elder John Green she was baptized and united with the Seventh-Day Baptist Church of Newport, of which she remained a member until it disbanded, and she never removed her membership. Her life was marked for honesty of dealings and purity of character. In 1849, she was married to Abial Thomas, by whom she had seven children. She was held in honorable esteem by all who knew her, and casting all her cares on Jesus, she died, as she had lived, a Christian.”
Although there had been settlers in the area since the 1830s, the Lillibridges were part of an immense rush of newcomers to the Iowa territory during the 1850s.
Today, the prairies of Iowa are all but gone—their restoration the scheme of environmentalists and concerned volunteers. But when these great grass seas last existed, it was the grandparents of the baby above, Clair Miles Lillibridge, who arrived to radically reshape them.
Clair’s father Leverett Lillibridge, born 25 June, 1851, was the son of John Lillibridge (b. 1816) and Mary Rexford (b. 1815), who married in Lebanon, Madison County, New York, 25 May, 1836, and had seven children, of which Leverett was the fourth. The family went west to what became the town of Manchester, Delaware County, Iowa, almost a decade before Leverett’s birth in 1851. The namesake of John and Mary’s son was his maternal grandfather, early settler Leverett Rexford, who in 1841, according to The History of Delware County, Iowa and Its People, “built a log cabin near the Bailey home, which was later inhabited by John Lillibridge.”
Although there had been settlers in the area since the 1830s, the Lillibridges were part of an immense rush of newcomers to the territory during the 1850s. “Families camped at the Mississippi, waiting their turn for ferryboats to the other side. In only a few years these settlers would turn the forests and prairies into plowed fields,” notes Iowa Public Television. “Farmers arriving from the many different regions of the United States brought their special agriculture with them. Those from New England and New York carried the seeds for plum, apple and pear trees. Kentuckians brought their knowledge of improved seed and livestock breeding. From Pennsylvania and Ohio fine flocks of sheep came to graze in the dry pastures of southern Iowa.”
One harrowing story of the early years of Manchester took place when Leverett Lillibridge was two. “Jane and Eliza Scott, whose home was near Delhi…in the spring of 1853, attempted to ford Spring Branch, a mile above Bailey’s, but the water was so high that their horse and wagon were swept [away] and the horse was drowned. The current carried one of the girls safely to shore, but the other was drawn into the eddy but was finally rescued by her sister, who succeeded in reaching her with a pole and drawing her to shore. One of the girls reached Bailey’s cabin, but was so exhausted she could not for some time explain the situation. As soon as she made herself understood, Mrs. Bailey left her and hastened to the locality where the other girl was expected to be found. On her way she met John Lillibridge and they together carried the insensible girl from where they found her to Mr. Lillibridge’s horse and placing the limp body on the animal’s back, she was conveyed to the Bailey home, where both the unfortunate girls were given every attention.”
Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2017 | 9 minutes (2,170 words)
On March 18, 1845, the Hutchinson Family Singers were huddled in a Manhattan boarding house, afraid for their lives. As 19th Century rock stars, they didn’t fear the next night’s sellout crowd, but rather the threat of a mob. For the first time, the group had decided to include their most fierce anti-slavery song into a public program, and the response was swift. Local Democratic and Whig papers issued dire warnings and suggested possible violence. It was rumored that dozens of demonstrators had bought tickets and were coming armed with “brickbats and other missiles.”
“Even our most warm and enthusiastic friends among the abolitionists took alarm,” remembered Abby Hutchinson, and “begged that we might omit the song, as they did not wish to see us get killed.”
It wasn’t that most people didn’t know the Hutchinsons were…
“In terms of symbolism, the loss of the soul is the same as that of the body, representing a crossing over to a place that we do not know or understand.”
This unusual mourning brooch, which dates to between 1830 and 1840, is a late example of the sepia painting technique popular up to a century earlier. Sepia miniatures in the neoclassical style, such as the one below right, were painted with dissolved human hair on ivory tablets and typically feature weeping women and willows, funeral urns, graves, and other scenes and symbols of loss.
This brooch is dedicated by reverse inscription to “M. Thayer,” but little more can be known about the deceased, as the inscription includes no dates of birth or death. Thayer was likely occupationally connected to the sea, although the image may be wholly allegorical. A ship sailing toward a distant safe haven, accompanied or guided by birds, may be read as the soul journeying toward the afterlife in the company of angelic beings.
“What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time.”—John Berger
James Morley writes of this ambrotype of Channon Post Office & Stationers, Brompton Road, London, circa 1877: “I have found historical records including newspapers, electoral rolls, and street directories that give Thomas Samuel Channon at a few addresses around Brompton Road, most notably 96 and 100 Brompton Road. These date from 1855 until early into the 20th century. These addresses would appear to have been immediately opposite Harrods department store.”
The limited research I have done on this image, which is a stereoview card marked “State Block, New Hampshire, W.G.C. Kimball, Photographer,” leads me to believe it shows mourners of Concord, New Hampshire native Franklin Pierce (November 23, 1804–October 8, 1869), 14th President of the United States (1853–1857).
The banners affixed to the carriage read “We miss him most who knew him best” and “We mourn his loss,” as well as another phrase that ends in the word “forget.” The image also features an upside-down American flag with thirteen stars.
This Edwardian postcard from my collection shows a woman in the fullness of her beauty sat atop a chest tomb that is arguably from much earlier in the Victorian era. Whilst the woman is not dressed in conventional mourning, she does wear a recognizable widow’s bonnet—a necessary prop for the maudlin poem below the image: “She wore a wreath of roses, And once again I see that brow, No bridal wreath was there, The widow’s sombre cap conceals Her once luxuriant hair; She weeps in silent solitude, And there is no one near To press her hand within his own, And wipe away the tear; I saw her broken-hearted! Yet methinks I see her now In the pride of youth and beauty with a garland on her brow.”
The postcard was mailed from somewhere on the Channel Island of Jersey, off the coast of Normandy, France, at 6:30 a.m., 30 July, 1905, to Miss Edith Conner at Clarence Lodge, Clarence Road, in the Jersey town of St. Helier.
The sender’s message was both cheerful and bizarrely inappropriate, as it appears to recognize the recipient’s birthday: “Dear Edith! Permit me to wish you many happy returns of the day. With heaps of love & kind regards to all. Yours truly, A.J.”
One must wonder if the little shop on the High Street was dreadfully low on carte postals. Ω