For Want of a Surname, Her Lifestory is Lost

Julia was one of thousands of Americans who made for California after gold was discovered in 1848.

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Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This wonderful 1/6th-plate daguerreotype shows a plump, well-dressed, melancholy woman whose first name was Julia. An inscription in the case reads “Aunt Julia. mothers [sic] sister that went to Calif. in 1851 or 52.” Unfortunately, the niece or nephew who penned this message to posterity left out Julia’s last name. Lacking it, we will never know Julia’s story, save that this daguerreotype almost certainly marked her departure west, as her fashionable clothing and coiffure can be dated to about 1851.

After the Gold Rush kicked off in January 1848, many thousands hurried west to seek their fortune or to provide goods and services for those allured by gold’s siren song. This mass movement lifted the nonnative population from less than a thousand to 100,000. Filled by newcomers and new wealth, the California Territory was quickly admitted as the U.S. 31st state on 9 September, 1850.

The society that Julia joined was only somewhat more than nascent. One new arrival, Jessie Benton Fremont, who came by sea to San Francisco in 1849, noted her first impressions from the deck of the vessel, “A few low houses, and many tents, such as they were, covered the base of some of the wind-swept treeless hills, over which the June fog rolled its chilling mist.” (A Year of American Travel, published 1878.)

Fremont, the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and the wife of military officer and politician John C. Fremont, was used to the finer things. Her account of society in early San Francisco and Monterrey makes for enticing reading. I quote her here at length not necessarily as a member of the social class that Julia represented, but as one of the few surviving women’s voices from the Gold Rush era.

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Jessie Benton Fremont

“I was taken to one of these houses, which had been the residence of Liedesdorff, the Russian consul, who had recently died there. It was a time of wonderful contrasts. This was a well-built adobe house one story high, with a good veranda about it, and a beautiful garden kept in old-world order by a Scotch gardener. Luxuries of every kind were to be had, but there were wanting some necessaries. Fine carpets and fine furniture and a fine Broadwood piano, and no house-maid. The one room with a fire-place had been prepared for my sleeping-room, and had French furniture and no end of mirrors, but lacked a fire. The June winds were blowing, and I felt them the more from recent illness, which had left the lungs very sensitive. There was no fuel proper; and little fagots of brush-wood, broken-up goods boxes and sodden ends of old ship timber were all that could be had.

“The club of wealthy merchants who had this house together had excellent Chinese servants, but to make everything comfortable to me they added the only woman that could be procured, who accepted a temporary place of chamber-maid at two hundred and forty dollars a month and perquisites. One of the perquisites was the housing of her husband and children as well as herself. She had been washer-woman to a New York regiment, and was already the laundress of these gentlemen. She was kind enough to tell me that she liked my clothes, and would take the pattern of certain dresses, and seemed to think it a matter of course that I would let her carry off gowns and wraps to be copied by her dress-maker, a Chinaman. I declined this as civilly as I could, but the result was that she threw up the situation.

“The only really private house was one belonging to a young New-Yorker, who had it shipped from home, house and furniture complete—a double two-story frame house, which, when in place, was said to have cost ninety thousand dollars. At this price, with the absence of timber and the absence of labor, it will be seen that it was difficult to have any other shelter than a tent. The bride for whose reception this house was intended arrived just before me, but lived only a few weeks; the sudden and great changes of climate from our Northern weather into the tropics, and from the tropics again into the raw, harsh winds of that season at San Francisco, were too much for her, even with all the comforts of her own beautiful home. At a party given to welcome her the whole force of San Francisco society came out, the ladies sixteen in number.”

Later, to aid her health, she and her husband went to Monterrey, finding “There was none of the stir and life here which made San Francisco so remarkable. There was a small garrison of married officers with their families, but no man of any degree voluntarily kept away from the mines or San Francisco; it was their great opportunity for sudden money-making. Domestic matters were even more upset than in San Francisco, where Chinese could be had. Here it was like after a shipwreck on a desert shore; the strongest and the most capable was king, and, to produce anything like comfort, all capacities had to be put to use. The major-general in command of the post, General Riley, was his own gardener. He came to me, proud and triumphant, with a small market-basket on his arm, containing vegetables of his own raising. And as we would bring roses of our cultivation, so he brought me a present of a cabbage, some carrots, and parsley.

“The French ships brought cargoes of everything that could be sealed up in tin cans and glass, but the stomach grows very weary of this sort of food. It was barely a year since the gold had been discovered, but in that time every eatable thing had been eaten off the face of the country, and nothing raised. I suppose there was not a fowl left in the northern part of the state, consequently not an egg; all the beef cattle left had been bought up by ‘Baron’ Steinberger in San Francisco; there were no longer vaqueros or herdsmen, and flocks and herds had dispersed. There were no cows, consequently no milk. Housekeeping, deprived of milk, eggs, vegetables, and fresh meat, becomes a puzzle; canned meat, macaroni, rice, and ham become unendurable from repetition.”

The Fremonts eventually left California, but she and her husband returned to settle in Los Angeles later in life. On the whole, Jessie’s was a happy, adventurous story, which ended 27 December, 1902, in her adopted state. Her ashes were buried at Rosedale Cemetery. We know nothing of Julia’s fate. The inscription implies that she never returned from California, rich or otherwise. She was an aunt unknown and passed into legend— just “mothers sister,” long away, dead or not in contact with the clan; a vestige of family recalled only by her mirror image on a metal plate. Ω

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Daguerreotype case inscription.

European Daguerreotypes

Europeana.eu offers up 2 million historical photographs that bring the old Europe and its people to life.

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Courtesy Nordiska Museet.

In this daguerreotype an unknown woman sits in a high-backed chair, dressed in a patterned dress with elbow-length sleeves and a wide slanted neckline. The white paper passe partout is printed with a gold decorative pattern and the stamp “Daguerreotype by J. W. Bergström.” According to Nordiska Museet, Johan Wilhelm Bergström (1812-1881) was born in Kungsholmen to a carpenter’s wife and died quite wealthy, after a decade as a leading daguerreotypist and a career as an inventor.

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Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, “This is one of the first daguerreotypes ever taken in the UK. Landscape view of London: Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square. In the foreground to the right is a statue of Charles I mounted on horseback, seen from the back, on a raised stone plinth or column with carved royal arms, surrounded by a palisade of railings and protected by stone bollards. Parliament Street goes to the left, lined with tall buildings of five or more storeys, most of which have awnings over the street. The skyline shows many chimneys and chimney-pots. The pavements have lamps at regular intervals. On the left side of the street is a line of vehicles and drivers. In the distance is the Royal Banqueting House. Note the man in a top hat sitting slumped against the lamp-post in the middle foreground, with four bollards around him.”

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Courtesy Technische Sammlungen, Dresden, Germany

Technische Sammlungen writes of this portrait of an unknown man with glasses and chin whiskers wearing a dark suit and a white shirt, “A simple wooden chair, a cloth as a background, and straight posture are the ingredients of this expressive portrait. The necessity of standing still in front of the camera demanded the anonymous man maintain a firm gaze and physical immobility, which made numerous daguerreotypes appear collective portraits of bourgeois self-confidence…. The unidentifiable order ribbon on his jacket lapel adds extra strength to the man’s proud aspect like a footnote.”

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Courtesy Royal Collection Trust, United Kingdom.

Acquired by Queen Victoria in 1852, the process of making this hand-colored, enameled daguerreotype “involved varnishing the daguerreotype and then heating and adding another coat of varnish after the colour pigments had been added. Interestingly, [daguerreotypist Richard] Beard seems to have signed the plate three times, presumably before varnishing and again after each coat was added.” The subjects of the image are “a group of Tyrolese singers called Klier, Rainer, Margreiter, Rahm, and Holaus. Rahm is seated facing partly left playing a dulcimer and Rainer holds a guitar. All are wearing traditional Tyrolese costume, coloured with both dark and pastel tones. Queen Victoria had first seen this troupe of Tyrolese singers at Kensington Palace in 1833. Her mother, the Duchess of Kent, later arranged for the singers to perform at Osborne on her birthday in 1852. The Duchess recorded in her diary that ‘dearest Victoria appeared very much pleased with the surprise’. Later the same year Queen Victoria acquired this daguerreotype.”

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Courtesy Archivo Gráfico José Huguet, Spain.

This nude image of an unknown woman was made by daguerreotypist Felix Jacques-Antoine Moulin who ran a studio at 31 bis rue du Faubourg Montmartre from 1849. Moulin produced risqué daguerreotypes of young girls, and ultimately his work was confiscated and he was jailed for immorality. After his release, notes Archivo Gráfico José Huguet, “Moulin continued his activities more discreetly. He taught photography, sold photographic equipment, and had a backdoor installed to his studio to dodge further legal problems. His works eventually gained esteem from critics.”

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Courtesy the Royal Collection Trust, United Kingdom

This daguerreotype was commissioned by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1852, notes the Royal Collection Trust. It shows “a group of 15 men, including the gamekeepers Mr. McDonald and Mr. Cowley, gathered in front of a wall of Windsor Castle. At the centre of the group a tall man stands with a gun resting on either shoulder. The man in front of him bends down to button his gaiters. All of the men are wearing top hats and most are carrying sticks…. [Daguerreotypist Theodore Robert] Brunell was invited to Windsor Castle at the beginning of 1852 to photograph the royal family. He spent almost three weeks making portraits of the royal children and also took a number of photographs of the gamekeepers. McDonald and Cowley had originally been employed at Balmoral but by 1848 were working at Windsor, with McDonald in charge of the kennels. Both men were photographed on several occasions over the following years and their portraits appear in the personal albums of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who as well as collecting portraits of their own family commissioned photographs of their staff.”

The Europeana Collections are accessible here. Ω

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

“I bought this for 6d. at a Rummage Sale at Ealing Broadway Methodist Church. It was thrown out by Mrs J. W. Allcock.”—Thomas Inwood, 1939

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An English 1/9th-plate daguerreotype of an unidentified teenager, possibly a member of the Allcock family, taken in the mid-1840s. Image courtesy James Morley Collection.

The first photographic image of human being was captured in 1839, when at about 8 a.m. one fine Spring day, photographic pioneer Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre sat up his camera in the window of the Diorama in Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 3rd arrondissement, for an exposure that lasted up to 12 minutes. Although the street was crowded with both persons and horse-drawn traffic, none of them remained still long enough to register save one man on a corner to whom a bootblack attended. We will never know who he was, but this 19th Century Frenchman holds a special place in mankind’s history.

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This is the unmirrored version of the Daguerre’s 1839 daguerreotype, correctly reflecting the photographer’s view of the Boulevarde du Temple. The man having his boots blackened is at lower right. This precious sliver of the past was destroyed during cleaning in 1974.

In the 21st Century, we possess both still and moving images of our family and friends, but in the 1830s faces of loved ones could be preserved only by personal memory, sculpture, portraits, caricatures, or silhouettes. The vast majority of people were born and died leaving no visual legacy. This quote from Henry Fitz, Sr., captures the enthusiasm that resulted from the release of the daguerreotype process by the French government as a gift to the world 19 August, 1839: “Here is a similitude of heavenly origin! Of a wonderful power! A supernatural (so far as man’s agency is concerned,) agent! An effect produced by the light of heaven; absolutely creating man’s perfect image and identity [emphasis mine].” (The Layman’s Legacy, Volume II, 1840.)

Millions of daguerreotypes—the vast majority of them portraits—were created in the the heyday of the art. Of those, it has been estimated that several hundred thousand survive. In A Curious & Ingenious Art: Reflections on Daguerreotypes at Harvard, author Melissa Banta explains, “Like painters of miniature portraits, they adopted the convention of placing a decorative mat and a sheet of glass over the plate. They used thin paper tapes to hold the assemblage together and to protect the image from shifting. Sometimes they enveloped the entire packet in an ornate metal rim, known as a preserver. This tiny composite fit snugly into a velvet- or stain-lined case made of leather, wood, or thermoplastic, or into a frame. Such decorative touches lent the daguerreotype much of its intimacy and charm. Fortuitously, these same elements protected the plate from its worst enemies: abrasion, airborne contaminants, and corrosive substances.”

Despite the care in their making, countless daguerreotypes succumbed to attempts to clean ills that become acute over time, including “surface dust, white or beige mold spiders, silver tarnish, blue or brown spots and areas of scum deposits that were caused when the older glass leached out some of its impurities onto the surface,” notes experienced restorer Casey A. Waters of Fine Daguerreotypes & Photography. “Less common elements are daguerreian measles (tiny black dots sometimes visible through an 8x loup), a white or bluish haze (but not tarnish), residue from wax on the copper side of the plate, and exfoliation of or bubbles in the silver layer.”

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A circa 1850 daguerreotype of sisters in matching dresses that displays wipe marks and a fingerprint from past attempts at cleaning. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

There is another reason that many of these precious historic relicts are now lost: Their inheritors tipped them in the rubbish bin. We see the same phenomenon today—grandchildren or other distant relatives hurry through possessions after a death, keeping only what appears valuable at that moment. Unidentified images of people who mean nothing to the inheritors are discarded.

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Thomas Inwood’s 1939 note, front.

The daguerreotype at the top of this article was mercifully saved from oblivion and now resides in the James Morley Collection. “I bought this for 6d. at a Rummage Sale at Ealing Broadway Methodist Church. It was thrown out by Mrs J. W. Allcock. 37 Hillcroft Crescent. Ealing W5. Spring 1937,” wrote Thomas Ernest Inwood (b. 1871) on a slip of paper inside the daguerreotype’s case. James Morley ascertained that Inwood lived at 8 North Common Road, Ealing, in 1937, when he spent his 6d. on this portrait of an unknown adolescent, seeing in it what others could not. “This is a Daguerreotype Portrait. About 1845. These photos were taken between 1842-1857. The Chief Librarian at the Victoria & Albert Museum said it was a splendid specimen & well worth retaining. Centenary of Photography 1839-1939. 12 January, 1939.”

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Inwood’s note, reverse.

The Allcock family lived at 37 Hillcroft Crescent, Ealing, in 1937, headed by John William Allcock, and including his wife Mabel, née Hewson, and daughter Ruth. John Allcock was a Wesleyan Methodist Minister, born in Litchurch, Derbyshire, in 1870 to railway messenger William Allcock (1828-1903) and his wife Sarah Naylor Gott (1839-1919). If the daguerreotype’s young subject is an Allcock, he was from William’s generation. Ω

Men of Mystery

A selection of unidentified daguerreotype and ambrotype portraits.

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A very early daguerreotype of a personable young man that dates to about 1843. Courtesy Price and Zimmer Collection.
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The rugged and remarkable older gentleman who sat for this ambrotype in about 1852 probably first opened his eyes to the world in the 1780s or 1790s. Courtesy Price and Zimmer Collection.
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A painterly 1/6th-plate daguerreotype of a breathtaking young man. His fashions date this portrait to about 1850. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
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An unusual profile daguerreotype taken in about 1850. Courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.
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A 1/4th-plate ambrotype of an unknown man intently focused on a point in the distance. Taken circa 1860. From the James Morley Collection.
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A man and his dog, whose front paws were held to keep them from moving during the long exposure. This 1/6th-plate ambrotype, probably from the late 1850s, is courtesy of the Caroline Leech Collection.

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Salt Life and Death

“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.”

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Nautical-themed memorial brooch to M. Thayer. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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.

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This gold brooch in a navette shape, circa 1790, features a sepia painting of a grieving widow with the bust of her husband. Courtesy C.J. Antiques.

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.

“Being lost at sea strikes an image of loss and departure that evokes the very essence of sadness. In the very literal sense, there is the loss of the body that prevents the kind of closure that physical remains offer. Yet, 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. It is not surprising that symbolism featuring the sea has been appropriated by mourning jewellery. The physical and symbolic departure of the soul away from the mourner as a result of a death at sea, during both peace and war times, are depicted in 18th and 19th century jewellery,” writes Lord Hayden Peters at the magnificent site, The Art of Mourning. His article on this topic deserves to be read in full, rather than summarized by me.

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Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

A mourning piece connected to a sailor or ship’s officer would have been worn by someone like the young woman above, were she widowed. In this detail of a circa-1850 daguerreotype, the couple were portrayed likely on their wedding day. The groom wears gold hoop earrings, marking him as a career sailor who may have transversed the world several times.

“Men’s earrings are nothing new, old salts will tell you. Even before the days of pirates, mariners who had sailed the China seas or had done any Asiatic duty took to wearing earrings as a mark of their service in the Orient. It was the campaign ribbon of its day. The modern gob, after he has sailed in Asiatic waters, gets his ears pierced and a ring inserted, then goes to a tattoo parlor and has various Chinese legends etched on the shank of his left leg. But not all men who wear earrings are veterans of Asiatic sea service. The custom has been adopted by many who have sailed in the Central, South, or Southwest Pacific without entering the waters of the China Sea,” wrote Hal J. Kanter in the Saturday Evening Post, December 8, 1945.

Sailors of old believed that piercing their earlobes increased their eyesight and hearing or would prevent sea sickness. They were also quite concerned about dying at sea and not receiving a land burial. Sailor victims of shipwrecks hoped the value of their gold earrings would be put toward a proper Christian burial by those who found their bodies washed up on shore. Ω

After a Fashion

“In this portrait we see a woman probably approaching forty yet still wearing the popular stiff, busked corset, and her dress is as tightly fitted over it as if she were a teenager.”

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Unknown woman, partly solarized 1/6th-plate daguerreotype, circa 1842. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

I am fortunate to have several daguerreotypes in my early image collection that were featured in one of the two seminal books on Victorian fashion by Joan Severa, former curator of costume at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America, 1840-1860 was released in 2006, as the followup to 1995’s Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. Both volumes were published by Kent State University Press.

In My Likeness Taken, Severna wrote of this image, “Few details testify so perfectly to the power of fashion influence as the persistent use of tight corseting. In this portrait we see a woman probably approaching forty yet still wearing the popular stiff, busked corset, and her dress is as tightly fitted over it as if she were a teenager. The corset makes for a rigid, upright posture.

“The sleeves are of the new, narrow shape, which became the preferred sleeve form by 1843. The collar is wide, in early forties style, and lappets have been laid under it and pinned with a brooch at the throat.

“The daycap is of the early forties shape, with a very deep brim that has been turned back so that its edge ruffle frames the face. The ribbon strings are tied closely under the chin and fall in lappets. Only in the later forties were the capstrings left open.

“The hair is done in short sausage curls at the crown, where it fits under the puffed back of the daycap.”

This image is also notable for its early date. The Daguerreotype process did not reach America until the end of the 1830s and was not viable for commercial use until exposure times could be cut down to a period that the sitters could bear.

“Americans began to experiment with the process almost immediately. Neck clamps limited the movement of subjects during a sitting. Mirrored systems to increase light and improved chemical techniques reduced exposure times to less than one minute. Although it is impossible to say who created the first daguerreotype portrait, all the claimants were Americans, and the daguerreotype acquired a particularly American identity. Even the leading daguerreotypists in London and Paris advertised ‘Pictures taken by the American process,’” notes the Cornell University website for the exhibition “Dawn’s Early Light: The First Fifty Years of American Photography.”

The solarization of the ribbons on the sitter’s daycap and collar is explained by M. Susan Barger and William Blaine White in The Daguerreotype: Nineteenth-Century Technology and Modern Science: “Blue usually occurs in daguerreotypes that have overexposed highlights. The frequent appearance in cheap daguerreotype portraits of blue shirtfronts on men gave these daguerreotypes the name ‘bluefronts.’”

I would postulate that given the 1842 date Severna assigned the image based on the sitter’s clothing, the photographer—who was plainly adept at posing and lighting his subject in an open and appealing manner—may not yet have mastered the technical processes of the art form. He may have been, in modern parlance, a “newbie.” Ω