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.”

I’ve Almost Got You

These people are identified by inscriptions, yet their stories remain stubbornly untold—at least for now.

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Mother and child, possibly Elise Briggs and her daughter Elise Von Rodenstein, albumen carte de visite, circa 1865, by the studio of Thomas Rodger, St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This beautiful carte de visite (CDV) is identified on the reverse as “Elise Von Rodenstein.” When I purchased it, I had great hopes of uncovering a full biography, but this has not yet happened. The first problem I encountered was not knowing whether the snood-wearing, polka dot-dressed mother or the equally polka-dotted child was Elise. If the infant, she may have been the Elise Von Rodenstein born in 1865 or 1866 in Fort Washington, New York, United States, to German immigrant Charles Von Rodenstein and his American wife, Elise Briggs. I am skeptical of this, however, as I can find no connection to Scotland.

Elise von Rodenstein’s potential mother, Elise Briggs, was enumerated on the 1881 Census of Kingston City, Ontario, Canada, with her six Von Rodenstein children. (Interestingly, half of the children were Catholics and the other half adherents of the Church of England.) The census said that Elise Briggs was born about 1833 in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. In 1890, Elise and her children’s enumeration escaped the conflagration that destroyed most of the decade’s U.S. Census.  In that year, Elise Briggs lived in Washington, D.C., with one of her other daughters. She was also likely the same woman who died in Manhattan, New York City, 28 October, 1920, aged 88.

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Thomas Rodger in the mid-1860s.

Elise Von Rodenstein became a nun. In 1910, she was at the Sacred Heart Convent and Loretta Sisters Schools in St. Charles, Missouri, working as a teacher, By 1915, she taught at the Academy of the Sacred Heart at University Avenue and 174th Street, New York City. Between 1920 and 1930, Elise was a nun at the Convent and Academy of the Sacred Heart in Rochester, New York. She eventually became Mother Superior of a Philadelphia convent and died there of acute coronary occlusion on 9 March, 1961.

The photographer of this CDV is quite well known. Thomas Rodger (1832-1883) studied at St. Andrews University, learned to produce the silver iodide-coated paper calotypes introduced in 1841, and became an assistant at Lord Kinnaird’s studio in Rossie Priory.

During the 1850s, Rodger won multiple awards for his photographic achievements, and in 1877 he was given the International Photographic Exhibition Medal.

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The Brown family, 1/4th-plate daguerreotype, circa 1852. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Written inside the case of this delightful daguerreotype is “W. K. Brown, 45 yrs old; Wife, 41 years old; Minnie, 2 years old.”

Every time I look at baby Minnie’s grumpy face I can imagine her thoughts: “I hate my dress! I hate my boots! I hate my spit curls! And you behind that big box on sticks—I. Hate. You. Too!”

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No doubt but that her parents had the patience of saints.

I’ve looked to no avail for a Minnie Brown born between about 1848 and 1855. There are a few W. K. Browns and hundreds of W. Browns—William Browns, Wilhelm Browns, Walter Browns, Wilfred Browns, Wesley Browns—but none with a daughter named Minnie. If Mrs. Brown’s first name had been part of the inscription, I might have been able to suss out the family’s traces. Doing so may still be possible as more records come online. Until then, at least I can smile at eternally cranky Miss Minnie.

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Unmarked carte de visite of a woman in deep mourning, circa 1863. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

“Wife of Hugh Holmes” is written on reverse of this melancholy CDV. Assuming the heartbroken subject wore mourning for her spouse, I have looked into records of a number of men. The most promising was Hugh P. Holmes of Maine, who was born in 1833 and who died of Typhoid in August 1861, one month into his service with the 7th Regiment, Maine Volunteer Infantry. However, I can find no record of a marriage for this man. Hugh Holmes’s father filed a pension claim on his son many years later, but no widow is listed in the paperwork.

Another possibility is that Mrs. Holmes was not in mourning for her spouse, but for another close family member. This may indeed be more likely because Mrs. Holmes’s bonnet does not include white inner ruching signifying a widow. However, this practice was less common in the United States than in Great Britain. If this Mrs. Holmes did not mourn a spouse, it will be nearly impossible to identify her. Ω


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A happy New Year, Gentle Readers. May 2017 be kind to all your clan!

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?

And days of auld lang syne, my dear,
And days of auld lang syne.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin’ auld lang syne.

And days of auld lang syne, my dear,
And days of auld lang syne.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.

And days of auld lang syne, my dear,
And days of auld lang syne.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.

—1788 poem by Robert Burns set to the tune of a traditional folk song.