By Beverly Wilgus
Early images of the Stars and Stripes from the Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.
Early images of the Stars and Stripes from the Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.
By Beverly Wilgus
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.
According to an article by Colin Harding at the Science and Media Museum’s blog, “The earliest photographic processes normally required exposures of many seconds, or even minutes, rendering the photography of movement impossible. However, with the right combination of lighting, subject, lens and plate size, exposures of a fraction of a second, whilst still very difficult to achieve, were possible. The taking of such photographs became known as ‘instantaneous photography’. Whilst the term was in common usage during the 19th century, there was surprisingly little discussion or agreement as to precisely what it meant. In practice, it was applied to any photograph which contained an element of movement or which was taken with an exposure of less than one second.”
Because of the need for exposures of draconian length with the earliest forms of photography, objects in motion had never been successfully captured, and this made Instantaneous Views wildly popular. As the British Journal of Photography enthused in October 1862, “Omnibuses, carts, cabs, wagons, and foot-passengers in shoals in active movement, are all ‘arrested’… In the immediate foreground is a man, without his coat, wheeling a barrow, his left leg poised in mid-air, in the act of stepping…. One individual in a black suit, with his hands in his pockets, and looking on excellent terms with himself, is sauntering towards the spectator. The whole scene is full of life, and the photography leaves nothing to be desired.”
What was true of crowded city streets was also true of nature. Stereo images such as the one below allowed the world to be recorded in its majesty, both in 2-D and arrested motion. To viewers who had never seen an actual ocean—and there were many of them—an image like this one would have been awe-inspiring. Ω
All images from the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
I’m also pleased to announce that I will be bringing you photographs from the Jesse Cress Collection—many of which are daguerreotypes elderly men and women who were born in the mid- to late 1700s. Here is one to whet your appetites.
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.
The Leader, which was only one of scores of newspapers around the world that covered Tom and Lavinia’s nuptials, explained to its readers, “Tom Thumb was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1838. He weighed nine pounds and a-half when born, but stopped growing at eighteen months old. Barnum took him in at ten years old and he has been a public character ever since. Miss Lavinia Bump was born in Middleboro, Mass., in 1842. She grew until one year old and then stopped… She and the General met a few months ago at Boston and a ‘mutual understanding’ developed.”
On the day of the wedding, the bride wore “plain white satin, the skirt en traine, being decorated with a flounce of costly point lace, headed by tulle puffings; the berthe to match. Her…hair, slightly waved, was rolled a la Eugenie…. Natural orange blossoms breathed their perfume above her brow and mingled their fragrance with soft sighs of her gentle bosom,” all-but moaned the Leader. Thumb was resplendent in a black dress coat and a vest of white silk, “his appearance that of a little old man in whom the juices of life were yet rich and whose jolly days were not done.”
After the wedding, the couple greeted reception guests from atop a piano amidst a mountain of gifts. At the end of the evening, Thumb ardently and grandiloquently thanked their guests and he and his wife withdrew, shortly thereafter to begin a European honeymoon. From start to finish, stated the Irish Meath People and Cavan and Westmeath Chronicle, Barnum had arranged the Fairy Wedding “with a true eye to business.”
Following the wild popularity of the wedding, a rather strange practice developed and has continued until today. Plays based on the event became popular, with children in wedding attire reenacting the marriage ceremony. My husband and I collect photographs of the original couple but also have a collection of photographs of children engaged in this activity from the 19th Century through 1950. The weddings were indeed so popular during the century after the actual event that there were professional Fairy Wedding planners who advised on the faux nuptials and rented out costumes.
Many Fairy Weddings were staged as fundraisers by churches and schools. For example, Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg Telegraph of November 30, 1888, noted that a Tom Thumb Wedding was held on Thanksgiving evening at Wesley Union Church. It included the mock bride and groom, maids of honor and groomsmen, and the bride and groom’s family. “The couples were appropriately and beautifully attired and of such costly material, fitting splendidly the little bodies and producing much excitement even among the men and women,” the newspaper stated. The children performed with “great propriety and dignity, and won high praise.”
In 1893, the Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania, Daily News, reported a Tom Thumb Wedding held at the G. A. R. Opera House on May 12. “The youthful participants enacted their parts well and the quaint costumes created no end of amusement for the audience.” And the North Carolina Wilmington Messenger of February 28, 1894, published that “all the little boys and girls who took part in the ‘Tom Thumb Wedding’ at the Grace Church entertainment last night are requested to meet at city hall this afternoon [in their costumes] to be photographed.”
We possess a clipping from 1950 of my husband, Jack, acting as best man in a Tom Thumb Wedding at his family’s church. And if the term “Tom Thumb Wedding” is entered into Google, one will find many posts about churches, schools, and private birthday parties performing these weddings as late as just a few years ago. Ω
All images courtesy of the Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.
“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 dry-plate glass negative shows a group of locals gathered at the smithy, Manafon, Wales, during the Montgomeryshire by-election of 1894. You can read more about this image at James Morley’s site, What’s That Picture?
Beverly Wilgus writes of this 1850s image, “The overwhelming majority of daguerreotypes made were portraits. It was the ability to capture and preserve likenesses of loved ones for an affordable cost that made the daguerreotype such an immediate success. From the beginning there were daguerreotypes of houses, cityscapes, and landscapes. We do not know the ratio of portrait to non-portrait but do know that over the years of searching we have seen thousands of portraits for every one non-portrait. We have three antique and three modern outdoor examples in our collection of over 150 daguerreotypes.
“This 1/2 plate daguerreotype is of a white house behind a picket fence. There are eleven people in the yard, on the porch, or in a window. The man in shirt sleeves at the center of the picture holds a baby and the three figures on the right appear to be children. Is it a new house or was there a traveling daguerreotypist in the neighborhood? Is it an extended family or neighbors who dropped in for the day? We will never know since there is no information or identification with it.”
This stereoview street scene shows a busy day in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, facing north up Broadway from the corner of Chestnut. It was published by Underwood & Underwood in 1908. Ω
From the Valley Register, Middletown, Maryland, 2 February, 1917.
“A very peculiar white cloud, stretching from the northeast clear across the sky to the southwest, in an otherwise perfectly cloudless sky, attracted great attention from shortly before 7 o’clock last night (Thursday), until 7:30. The cloud was pure white and in the centre of the sky appeared to be about 30 feet wide, tapering down at each end to a point. At the southwestern point, a projection hung down.
“The cloud had the appearance of a huge Zeppelin and some described it that way. Nervous persons declared the cloud had a meaning and portended war. Coming as it did, just when the situation with Germany has become serious, plenty of people associated the strange cloud with war.
“The cloud was really a very peculiar and remarkable sight and large groups of people stood gazing at it for some time. The edges of the cloud had the appearance of a solid mass of roiling smoke. One man said it was the Kaiser’s hand reaching out after Uncle Sam.”