You’re A Grand Old Flag

Early images of the Stars and Stripes from the Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.

By Beverly Wilgus

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The earliest flag image in our collection is this ambrotype of a young Civil War soldier standing before a painted military backdrop of tents and an American flag. By necessity, it dates from the years of the conflict, between 1861 and 1864. He wears an enlisted man’s trousers, a blue-tinted cape coat, and a regulation enlisted man’s dress Hardee hat bearing the insignia “H” and “81” inside a brass infantry bugle. Five states had an 81st Infantry: Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. This fierce and determined Union soldier joined up from one of them. 
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This albumen stereoview card is from the 1871 “Kitty At Play” series by John P. Soule of Boston.

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Sit Down, John: An Adams Image Rediscovered

The historical importance of March 1843 daguerreotype was forgotten until now.

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Newly rediscovered daguerreotype of President John Quincy Adams. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

A new image of John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president, will be presented for sale by the auction house Sotheby’s later this year. The March 1843 daguerreotype, which Quincy Adams gifted to a friend, remained in the recipient’s family through the generations although its historical importance was forgotten. The image was made during a sitting with early photographers Southworth & Hawes that yielded at least two daguerreotypes. A copy of the other now resides in the collection of the New York Metropolitan Museum.

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This daguerreotype copy of a second, cleaner image from the Southworth & Hawes sitting shows the former president as he actually appeared. Daguerreotypes present a mirror image of the subject; daguerreotype copies present the correct frontal view. Although it may appear so, Adams was not photographed in a private home. This set was used in other daguerreotypes taken by Southworth & Hawes. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum.

There is a third, badly damaged daguerreotype of Quincy Adams held by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Adams disliked it, noting in his diary that he thought it “hideous” because it was “too close to the original.” More than a hundred years later, in 1970, the daguerreotype was bought for 50 cents in an antique shop. After identification, it was eventually donated it to the nation.

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A Soldier’s Comfort?

“Many cultures accept the faulty nature of memory. They know even the photograph only gets it halfway right. They believe there is only one way to bring the dead back to life, story.”― Jon Chopan

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Unidentified subject, sixth-plate ambrotype. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This beautiful young woman was photographed somewhere in the antebellum United States in about 1852—a date I assign for two reasons. First, the fashions she wore, which include a distinctive corset type, ribbon choker, and an open-front bodice—all styles that were enormously popular in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Second, ambrotypes, which are produced by a wet-plate collodion process invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer, became commercially available in 1852, so the image cannot date any earlier.

The subject was surely not more than about 18 years old when photographed and she appears to wear a wedding ring, making it possible that this is a bridal image. At some point, a large curl of her thick brown hair, still as glossy as the day it was cut, was tucked behind the ambrotype packet between slips of newspaper. The text of the newsprint is largely advertising for several companies in northern states, but there is also a mention of the Union occupation of Memphis, Tennessee, which began in June 1862. Together, these facts make it likely the young woman belonged to a northern family.

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The ambrotype packet and case contents.

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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 a 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 for 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.)

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Alice Isn’t Dead: A Cautionary Tale, a Family History

Upon receipt of the carte, I scanned, enlarged, and enhanced the image. Immediately I became aware of motion blur caused by the child’s arms moving during the exposure.

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Mary Jane Stayman Culley holding eight-week-old Alice Maud Culley in August 1879. Albumen carte de visite. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Within eBay’s vintage and antique photo subcategory, every slightly odd-looking baby is a dead baby. I confess that when I saw the listing for the carte de visite (CDV) above, I thought this was an infant gone, never to grow up, forever to sleep, dressed in angelic white and buried in a tiny coffin so unfairly made-to-fit, her grave topped by a small stone lamb. This was cruel fate; this was a Victorian postmortem. But those who explore the Victorian propensity to mark gut-wrenching loss via photography should take this story as a cautionary tale, not unlike the one I featured last November, “To Be, or Not to Be, a Victorian Postmortem.”

The CDV’s backstamp is that of “John Davies, Portrait & Landscape photographer, BelleVue High Street, Weston-super-Mare. Formerly with the late T. R. Williams, London, Photographer to the Queen and Royal Family.” There is also a handwritten inscription: “Alice Maud Culley, 8 weeks old, Aug. 1879.”

Upon receipt of the carte, I scanned, enlarged, and enhanced the image. Immediately, I was aware of motion blur caused by the child’s arms moving during the exposure. Alice Maud Culley wasn’t dead. I could then plow into the public records because of the fortuitous identification upon the reverse.

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A Mother’s Mortality, A Woman’s Glory

The posing of mother and child may also deliberately highlight the loss of her long and well-cared for hair.

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Photo courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.

This stunning tintype, circa 1875, of an American mother and infant, is owned by collector and Your Dying Charlotte contributor Beverly Wilgus, who notes, “This little tintype is not as much a ‘hidden mother’ as a mother who chose to put the emphasis on the baby. I do wonder about her very short hair. One explanation could be that she has been very ill, maybe after a difficult birth, and her hair was cut short for comfort.”

It is possible that the woman pictured suffered from puerperal sepsis (called childbed fever) in the aftermath of delivery, which had been combatted, in part, by hair cropping. If true, this mother surely thought the tintype image celebratory—even triumphant: She had survived; her magnificent reward was the healthy infant draped over her shoulder, offered visually to posterity.

The sitter was lucky—a scarce survivor of a bitter scourge. “Childbed fever killed at the cruelest moments. It was described as a ‘desecration,’ an aspect of the natural world that felt almost deliberately evil. What caused it? Some thought ‘a failure of uterine discharge;’ others, a little later, called it ‘milk metastasis,’ noting that the internal organs of the women who died seemed covered in milk. Eventually, it was accepted that the fluid was not milk at all. It was pus,” wrote Druin Burch in a Live Science article, “When Childbirth Was Natural, and Deadly.” When obstetricians and midwives talked of “delivering women,” he explained, they meant delivering them from the deadly perils of childbirth.

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