Blue-Eyed Widow

“A certain vivid face, looking out at you, with its voice just a breath from speaking, can sometimes stop your heart.”

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Albumen carte de visite of an unknown Illinois woman wearing mourning dress and jewelry, photographed by Candace McCormick Reed, circa 1861. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This carte de visite (CDV) is both visually stunning as well as a lovely example of mourning jewelry as it was worn in the Victorian era. And no, this woman was not Reptilian. Individuals with blue eyes merely looked like space lizards when pictured by early photographic technologies.

This is what daguerreotypist Albert Sands Southworth told his female customers in an 1854 Lady’s Almanac article titled “Suggestions for Ladies Who Sit for Daguerreotypes”: “Remember that positive red, orange, yellow or green are the same as black, or nearly so; and violet, purple and blue are nearly the same as white; and arrange your costume accordingly.”

The CDV’s subject was probably a widow in a later stage of mourning. Her headgear seems to be a snood made of woven ribbons with fancy bows and by the ears and at the crown as well as black-and-white lace that is perhaps loosely ruched around the lower part of the hairnet. In her monumental book Dressed for the Photographer, Joan Severa writes of a slightly fancier gown of an identical cut, “This well-fitted frock shows the fashionable puffed sleeve at its height in the early sixties…. The dart-fitted, short-waisted bodice and gathered straight lengths of skirt, plus the extreme width of the hoop, are clear evidence of the early date as well. Also seen here are the effects of the new corset in ordinary use: the breasts are full, separated, and well-defined, and the rib cage is tapered firmly to the small waist measurement (the corset being very short below the waist) [where a belt] cinches the garment properly.”

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The late Joan Severa: “When my soul is free at last, it will run, flying lithe and barefoot.”

And now I must praise her like I should.

Joan Severa passed away in March 2015, aged 89. Although I never met Joan, I consider her a mentor and will be forever grateful for her research that taught me to date 19th Century photographs by fashions worn within a two-to-four year span, and for her writing that immeasurably enriched my understanding of the Victorian era.

Born 7 August, 1925, in Spring Green, Wisconsin, Joan was long with that state’s historical society, ultimately serving as curator of costume, textiles, and decorative arts. Dressed for the Photographer won the CSA Millia Davenport Award in 1996, and prizes from the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, the Victorian Society in America, Wisconsin Library Association, and the Golden Pen Writing Award from the United States Institute for Theater Technicians. Her followup My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America contains four daguerreotypes now in my collection.

In the introduction to this book, Joan wrote of the photographic traces of lives gone by, “We experience inescapable emotions when viewing these images. A certain vivid face, looking out at you, with its voice just a breath from speaking, can sometimes stop your heart.” When I read these words I was more than convinced Joan and I were kindred spirits. I’m sure that when first glimpsing the beautiful and hauntingly powerful subject of the CDV above, you may have felt the same sudden forceful hearbeats, the in-rush of air pulled sharply through your nose, and knew that when Joan wrote that last quote, she wrote it for you, too.

Leading us yet along a female pathway, the reverse of the above CDV is marked “Mrs. W. A. Reed, Artist, No. 81 1/2 Hampshire Street, Quincy, ILL.”

According to the Illinois Women Artists Project, “Candace McCormick Reed was born in Crab Orchard, Tennessee, on June 17, 1818, and moved to St. Louis as a young girl. She married Warren Reed in 1842 in St. Louis. Leaving Missouri for Quincy, Illinois, the Reeds opened a daguerreotype gallery in 1848 on the southeast corner of the downtown square, now Washington Park. When her husband died ten years later in April of 1858, Candace Reed became the gallery owner and used her acquired expertise as a daguerreotypist, ambrotypist, and photographer to support herself, two young sons, and her mother-in-law.”

Reed opened the Excelsior Gallery at 103 Hampshire Street in Quincy and took as an assistant her sister Celina McCormick. “Typically working under the name Mrs. W. A. Reed or Mrs. Warren Reed, she advertised in the Quincy Whig & Republican (January 4, 1862) promoting her new stock of camera equipment ‘to surpass everything in the line of her art,’” the Women Artist Project noted, and indeed, her career was a garden of unforgettable images.

Candace Reed died in Quincy 7 April, 1900, and despite an 1878 fire in her studio, “Numerous carte de visite portraits, family photographs and photographs of soldiers during the war survive. These photos, along with city street scenes, record events and provide an enhanced view of local 19th Century culture. Her legacy of photographic work adds immensely to community historical perspectives,” the site states. I am glad that my CVD is one of those that can yet cause a breath to draw and a heart to flutter.

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Detail  of Candace Reed’s photograph showing the black enamel mourning brooch with hair compartment.

In my collection I do not have an truly similar brooch to the one worn by this CDV’s subject—and this is surprising, as mourning  jewelry was produced en masse and brooch bodies, ring and stick pin types, and more were commonly advertised for selection by the jewelers of grieving families. I own identical or extremely similar versions of many of the major styles. The closest match from my collection is probably the one below, made to commemorate the death of an English child only a year or so before Candice Reed photographed the blue-eyed widow above. Ω

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Pinchbeck and black enamel mourning brooch for Ibbotson W. Posgate, 1859-1860. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
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Posgate mourning brooch reverse. “Ibbotson W. Posgate, who Died Feb. 19th 1859, Aged 31/2 Years.”

Kissing Cousins?

“Almost certainly a wedding portrait, this is a reasonably well-to-do couple, since they are dressed in formal day wear.”

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Unknown couple, 6th-plate daguerreotype, circa 1854. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This is another of my daguerreotypes, formerly of the Ralph Bova collection, which was published in Joan Severa’s My Likeness Taken. Severa wrote of the image: “Almost certainly a wedding portrait, this is a reasonably well-to-do couple, since they are dressed in formal day wear.

“The wife has done her hair in the bandeau style, in the longer, deeper roll that was one of the choices at mid-decade. Her hairdo is finished with ribbon ends hanging from a bow at the back of the crown. She wears what is probably a black velvet bodice over a black silk shirt. The fine whitework collar is large, and the white undersleeve cuffs are deeply frilled. The unusually wide silk ribbon is an expensive luxury; it flares prettily from the folds under the collar to spread over the bosom. A gold chain for a pencil hangs at the waistline.

“The young man wears a morning suit: a cutaway coat over striped trousers. His black vest matches the coat, and the high, standing collar of his starched shirt is held by a wide, horizontal necktie.”

When I first uploaded this image to my photostream at Flickr, a number of commentors suggested the sitters were siblings rather than man and wife. I agree there is a definite resemblance. Severna felt strongly that this image had the hallmarks of a wedding photograph and I also agree with her assessment. The two positions may be reconciled if the subjects are married cousins—a common occurrence until the second half of the 20th Century. 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