Their Lives Well Lived

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”―Marcus Aurelius

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An elderly woman in her final sleep, 1/9th-plate postmortem ambrotype, circa 1860. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

We see the still, worn body of old lady, prepared for burial by her family and laid out, most likely, upon her own bed.

This photograph may have been both this woman’s first and her last. She was likely a child in the 1790s and a young wife and mother when Jane Austen wrote her literary oeuvre. The story of her life unfolded during the waning of one century and the child years of another. For many, by the time this post-mortem ambrotype was taken, familiar patterns of life had been radically altered by the industrial revolution. The War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars had rolled by like awful storms. The British Queen would shortly lose her dearest love and plunge herself into perpetual mourning. America was spilling out across a vast continent and tensions were escalating to the point of eruption between its North and South. War was a dark cloud on the horizon, threatening the young men of her family, but mercifully, she never saw it blot out the sun.

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Grandmother Whitney, postmortem cased melainotype, circa 1856-1860.

A note tucked inside the case of this 1/6th-plate reads, “Grandmother Whitney—mother of Samuel. Born between 1775 & 1780.” The plate is stamped “Melainotype for Neff’s Pat 19 Feb 56.”

In John Towler’s 1864 opus on what was then state-of-the-art photographic technology, The Silver Sunbeam, he writes, “The melainotype takes its name from the black background upon which it is taken…. Very thin plates of sheet-iron are covered with a protective varnish or Japan, of which one is of a rich black or brown-black color, highly polished, and without flaw, for the reception of the collodion and the collodion picture. Glass in this sort of picture is entirely dispensed with, and so is also the black Japan, the black velvet, and paper. This type is by far the easiest and the quickest to take, and in general the most satisfactory when taken. Melainotype plates of all the variable photographic sizes, and of variable qualities, can be obtained from the photographic warehouses.” Ω

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Postmortem tintype of a very old woman, circa 1863. Courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.
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An elderly nun in her coffin, 1/6-plate daguerreotype, circa 1858. Courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

2 thoughts on “Their Lives Well Lived”

  1. I love the quote by Marcus Aurelius! This is the way I think and I had no idea he had expressed it so succinctly all those centuries ago! I love this article too, great article! I love the photos and the idea of “the life well lived” combined with the photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The paragraph that begins “This photograph may have been both this woman’s first and her last” – that’s some of the most lyrical writing you’ve ever written. Honey, you moved me. I can’t wait until you retire and have peace and time to write a novel.

    Liked by 1 person

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