Hello, Gentle Readers. I’m sorry to have been away so long. I spent the COVID lockdown and a long summer of isolation writing a book that will hopefully be published in mid-2021. Now that is accomplished, I’m planning to start a new series of articles here. Thank you for your patience. In the meantime, enjoy this recent addition to my small collection of “hidden mother” photos. The original is a cased tintype from about 1862. (Colorized by by the AI program DeOldify). Ω
“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”―Marcus Aurelius
We see the still, worn body of old lady, prepared for burial by her family and laid out, most likely, upon her own bed.
This photograph may have been both this woman’s first and her last. She was likely a child in the 1790s and a young wife and mother when Jane Austen wrote her literary oeuvre. The story of her life unfolded during the waning of one century and the child years of another. For many, by the time this post-mortem ambrotype was taken, familiar patterns of life had been radically altered by the industrial revolution. The War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars had rolled by like awful storms. The British Queen would shortly lose her dearest love and plunge herself into perpetual mourning. America was spilling out across a vast continent and tensions were escalating to the point of eruption between its North and South. War was a dark cloud on the horizon, threatening the young men of her family, but mercifully, she never saw it blot out the sun.
A note tucked inside the case of this 1/6th-plate reads, “Grandmother Whitney—mother of Samuel. Born between 1775 & 1780.” The plate is stamped “Melainotype for Neff’s Pat 19 Feb 56.”
In John Towler’s 1864 opus on what was then state-of-the-art photographic technology, The Silver Sunbeam, he writes, “The melainotype takes its name from the black background upon which it is taken…. Very thin plates of sheet-iron are covered with a protective varnish or Japan, of which one is of a rich black or brown-black color, highly polished, and without flaw, for the reception of the collodion and the collodion picture. Glass in this sort of picture is entirely dispensed with, and so is also the black Japan, the black velvet, and paper. This type is by far the easiest and the quickest to take, and in general the most satisfactory when taken. Melainotype plates of all the variable photographic sizes, and of variable qualities, can be obtained from the photographic warehouses.” Ω
The posing of mother and child may also deliberately highlight the loss of her long and well-cared for hair.
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.
The eerie and eclectic photography of Caroline Leech
Carolyn, an English woman who lives in Spain, writes of herself: “I am an obsessive Victorian and lover of all things Gothic. As a child I would often rather spend my pocket money in the local antique shop on postcards, photos, stamps or coins than in the toyshop. History just always fascinated me.”
“I then developed an interest in spirits and faeries and fell in love with writers such as my beloved Charles Dickens, Sheridan LeFanu, Emily Dickinson and with the whole world of Victorian spiritualism, mourning, the faery painters of the time and also the darker aspects of Victorian society.”
“I live in a watermill in the middle of a forest, which is always an inspiration to me. I feel I am surrounded by all sorts of spirits.”
“I have been an antique dealer and visionary artist for years and am also a keen amateur photographer of anything mysterious. My greatest love is of course Victorian photography, these amazing ghosts which pleasantly haunt the pages of my book and the drawers and cabinets of my bedroom.”
“It was the purpose of the author to describe a number of novel and curious effects that can be obtained by the aid of the camera, together with some instructive and interesting photographic experiments.”—F. R. Fraprie, 1922
By Beverly Wilgus
In 1893, H. P. Ranger was granted Patent No. 505,127 for a “Mirror For Use In Photography.” This was a device comprised of two adjustable mirrors set at an angle. When a subject was placed in front of it, his or her image was reflected in each mirror and that reflection was again reflected, resulting in five or more figures—the number of figures determined by the angle of the mirrors.
The above schema is from an article published in Scientific American in the 1890s that was included in the 1896 book Photographic Amusements by Frank R. Fraprie and Walter E. Woodbury. My husband and I own a copy of the 1931 edition that still contains the original illustrations.
Also from the book is the illustration above: “Diagram Showing The Method Of Production Of Five Views of One Subject By Multiphotography.”
Although there had been settlers in the area since the 1830s, the Lillibridges were part of an immense rush of newcomers to the Iowa territory during the 1850s.
Today, the prairies of Iowa are all but gone—their restoration the scheme of environmentalists and concerned volunteers. But when these great grass seas last existed, it was the grandparents of the baby above, Clair Miles Lillibridge, who arrived to radically reshape them.
Clair’s father Leverett Lillibridge, born 25 June, 1851, was the son of John Lillibridge (b. 1816) and Mary Rexford (b. 1815), who married in Lebanon, Madison County, New York, 25 May, 1836, and had seven children, of which Leverett was the fourth. The family went west to what became the town of Manchester, Delaware County, Iowa, almost a decade before Leverett’s birth in 1851. The namesake of John and Mary’s son was his maternal grandfather, early settler Leverett Rexford, who in 1841, according to The History of Delware County, Iowa and Its People, “built a log cabin near the Bailey home, which was later inhabited by John Lillibridge.”
Although there had been settlers in the area since the 1830s, the Lillibridges were part of an immense rush of newcomers to the territory during the 1850s. “Families camped at the Mississippi, waiting their turn for ferryboats to the other side. In only a few years these settlers would turn the forests and prairies into plowed fields,” notes Iowa Public Television. “Farmers arriving from the many different regions of the United States brought their special agriculture with them. Those from New England and New York carried the seeds for plum, apple and pear trees. Kentuckians brought their knowledge of improved seed and livestock breeding. From Pennsylvania and Ohio fine flocks of sheep came to graze in the dry pastures of southern Iowa.”
One harrowing story of the early years of Manchester took place when Leverett Lillibridge was two. “Jane and Eliza Scott, whose home was near Delhi…in the spring of 1853, attempted to ford Spring Branch, a mile above Bailey’s, but the water was so high that their horse and wagon were swept [away] and the horse was drowned. The current carried one of the girls safely to shore, but the other was drawn into the eddy but was finally rescued by her sister, who succeeded in reaching her with a pole and drawing her to shore. One of the girls reached Bailey’s cabin, but was so exhausted she could not for some time explain the situation. As soon as she made herself understood, Mrs. Bailey left her and hastened to the locality where the other girl was expected to be found. On her way she met John Lillibridge and they together carried the insensible girl from where they found her to Mr. Lillibridge’s horse and placing the limp body on the animal’s back, she was conveyed to the Bailey home, where both the unfortunate girls were given every attention.”
“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea! I do like to stroll along the Prom, Prom, Prom! Where the brass bands plays tiddely-pom-pom-pom! So just let me be beside the seaside! I’ll be beside myself with glee and there’s lots of girls beside, I should like to be beside, beside the seaside, beside the sea!”
This British ambrotype shows either a mother (right) with three daughters, or four sisters of disparate ages, posed on the exposed ground of a tidal estuary or river. Their fashions date to about 1870. The littlest girl is either carrying her bonnet or a bucket. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
Capocci & Sons, ice cream vendor, on the beach during a sunny, happy day at Bournemouth, Dorset, in the 1890s. The 1891 census enumerated Celestine Capocci, a 51-year-old ice cream maker born in Italy, and her large family living at 5 St. Michael’s Cottages, Holdenhurst, Bournemouth. Glass-plate negative courtesy James Morley (@photosofthepast). The identification of the ice cream vendor was made by EastMarple1, who is a collector and historian at Flickr.
Three elegant young adults on the deck of a ship or a seaside pier, circa 1900. Glass-Plate negative from the collection of James Morley.
On the beach at Trouville, Normandy, France, in September 1926. Paper print from the collection of James Morley.
Although posed in front of a backdrop, this girl was genuinely at the seaside, as Littlehampton, West Sussex, remains a vibrant holiday community to this day. Whilst photographers roamed the beach at Littlehampton and other resort towns, photography studios with their painted seaside scenes provided a second souvenir option. This Carte de Visite, taken circa 1900, is courtesy Caroline Leech.
“The most easily identified and most commonly found British tintype are the seaside portraits where families pose with buckets and spades in the sand or lounge in deck chairs on pebbled beaches with wrought iron piers in the background,” writes the administrator of the site British Tintypes. “The seaside might also be the one place where middle class people could safely and easily have a tintype made—as a fun, spur-of-the-moment amusement in keeping with other beach entertainment.” Tintype, mid-1890s, Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
Lyrics to “I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside,” written in 1907 by John A. Glover-Kind.
“I’ve felt for the first time in my life the joyful consciousness that I am truly loved by a truly good man, one that with all my heart I can love and honor… one who loves me for myself alone, and with an unselfish, patient, gentle affection such as I never thought to waken in a human heart… a man in whom I can trust without fear, in whose principles I have perfect faith, in whose large, warm, loving heart my own restless soul can find repose.”—Anna Alcott Pratt, 1859
“[M]y love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break… ”—Sullivan Ballou, letter to wife Sarah, 14 July, 1861.
“To lovers, I devise their imaginary world, with whatever they may need, as the stars of the sky, the red, red roses by the wall, the snow of the hawthorn, the sweet strains of music, and aught else they may desire to figure to each other the lastingness and beauty of their love.”—Williston Fish, A Last Will, 1898
I am delighted to announce that I have joined the staff writing team at Historical Diaries. Material from Your Dying Charlotte will appear there regularly.
I am also delighted to note that I will be able to bring you material from James Morley, who maintains his vast and wonderful collection on flickr, here, and is the founder of the blog What’s That Picture? His twitter handle is @PhotosOfThePast.
Even the fake kind, or the missing altogether….
Oh my. After this debacle, let’s hope there was snow outside to sled on.
Okay. Well, at least there is fake snow. And a fake dog.
This is more like it: Real snow outside and the girls are rocking those gifts from Santa.
A happy boy on his sled the back garden of what seems to be a row house. A woman stands at the end of the wooden-plank walkway, probably his mother. I hope Edward’s father took him to a local park where there were many high hills to fly down.
A wistful girl sleds on a snowy day near the family farm. Everything about this image charms me—from the baggy pants, the bottle curls, and mad hat to the upturned, pointed noise of the sled and the low mountain beyond. I wish I knew more about her, but sadly there is no photographer’s impression or inscription. Ω
All images: Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
It is clear this portrait was taken before Susan slipped into the final downward spiral of Tuberculosis.
Written on the reverse of this carte de visite, of which above is a closeup, is “Mrs. Susan F. Sawin, Died April 23rd 1863 aged 29 yrs 10 mos 23 days.” Susan, née Kimball, born 31 May, 1833, was the daughter of farmer Ruben Kimball and Abigail Spaulding. A native of Manchester, New Hampshire, she died of consumption—Tuberculosis (TB)—in Townsend, Massachusetts, only a little more than a year after her marriage.
In the United States, TB was the leading cause of death during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The University of Virginia notes, “It was estimated that at the turn of the [20th] century 450 Americans died of tuberculosis every day, most between ages 15 and 44.” Susan Kimball Sawin was just one of these. Her simple life as a New England housewife was lived long ago and cut off in its prime, but her memory—and the memories of all the White Death’s victims—should be honored.
Susan was the third of four spouses of Elisha Dana Sawin. He was 5 born January, 1824, in Sherborn, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, and was the son of Bela Sawin (1789-1858) and his wife Rebecca Barber (1789-1827).
Elisha, who was as a cooper—a maker of casks and barrels—had taken as his first wife Hannah Campbell, daughter of farmer Daniel Campbell (1792-1873) and Susanna Colburn (1787-1859). Hannah was born 6 November, 1821, in Townsend. The couple married 12 November 1846—he a “bachelor” and she a “maid”—but the marriage lasted less than a year. Hannah died 12 August, 1847, in Milbury, Worcester County, Massachusetts, of an inflammation of the bowels.
Sawin’s second wife was Elmira Bartlett, born 21 May, 1826, in Townsend. Elmira was the daughter of Martin Bartlett (1786-1849) and Elmira Graham (1797-1882). The couple had a daughter, Ella F., who arrived in 1851. A second daughter, Anna M., was born in 27 August, 1853, but died of the croup aged 4 months and 9 days. It was a staggering loss, but worse was to come. As the decade waned, it became clear that Elmira had contracted the White Death and that she was waning, too.
“It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived. That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.”
When, in 1820, the poet John Keats (who was schooled in medicine) coughed a spot of bright red blood, he told a friend, “It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived. That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.” Within a year, aged 25, he did just that.
At the time of Keats, Elmira, and Susan’s deaths, TB was believed to be hereditary or arose spontaneously. By 1868, a french doctor, Jean-Antoine Villemin, ascertained that the disease was spread from one victim to another by a microorganism.
“In 1882, Robert Koch discovered a staining technique that enabled him to see Mycobacterium tuberculosis. What excited the world was not so much the scientific brilliance of Koch’s discovery, but the accompanying certainty that now the fight against humanity’s deadliest enemy could really begin,” states Rutgers Global Tuberculosis Institute at the New Jersey Medical School.
Meanwhile, the variable course of TB only served to make it more baffling and terrifying. Physicians could not easily predict whether a consumptive patient would succumb within months, linger for years, or somehow manage to overcome the disease altogether.
According to the 19th century American physician Dr. William Sweetser, the first stage of consumption was marked by a dry, persistent cough, pains in the chest, and some difficulty breathing, any of which could be symptoms of less dire illnesses. The second stage brought a cough described by Sweetser as “severe, frequent, and harassing” as well as a twice-daily “hectic fever,” an accelerated pulse, and a deceptively healthy ruddy complexion.
In the final, fatal stage, wrote the doctor, “The emaciation is frightful and the most mournful change is witnessed… the cheeks are hollow… rendering the expression harsh and painful. The eyes are commonly sunken in their sockets… and often look morbidly bright and staring.” At this point, throat ulcers made eating difficult and speech was limited to a hoarse whisper. Once the distinctive “graveyard cough” began, the diagnosis was certain and death was inevitable. Rarely, wrote Sweetser, “life, wasted to the most feeble spark, goes out almost insensibly.” More typically, severe stomach cramps, excessive sweating, a choking sensation, and vomiting of blood preceded the victim’s demise.
Elmira Sawin rasped her last breath on 21 August, 1860, when her daughter Ella was only four years old. The widower took almost two years to court the little girl’s new mother.
Pretty Susan Kimball, aged 27, became Ella’s stepmother on 10 June, 1862. Sadly, in short order, Susan began to exhibit the telltale signs of TB. Her fight was brief, and with the greening of Spring 1863 she joined Elisha’s previous spouses at Townsend’s Hillside Cemetery. However, unlike Hannah’s and Elmira’s graves, today Susan’s is unmarked. It is uncertain whether there was a headstone that has now vanished or whether Elisha Sawin chose not to have one made.
Elisha, now aged 40, waited only until Autumn to take as his fourth wife, Mary Jane Gilson. Born 19 May, 1830, in Brookline, she was the daughter of William Gilson (1802-1887) and Eliza Ames (1806-1841). The couple married 26 October, 1863, in Townsend. Elisha, Mary Jane, and Ella appear together on the 1865 Massachusetts State Census and the 1870 Federal Census.
On 4 August, 1875, Ella Sawin married the superintendent of schools in Westerly, Rhode Island, Eliel Shumway Ball (1848-1892), whose obituary (above) details his life. Together they had four children: Rose Julia Ball was born in 1876, but died in 1880 at age four; Arthur Watson Ball was born in 1878 and lived only two years; Laurence Sawin Ball was born in 1882 and Alfred Tenney Ball in 1886. The two youngest sons lived to adulthood.
After her husband’s death from acute Bright’s disease on New Year’s Day 1892, Ella lived on as a widow for another 36 years. She died 3 February, 1918, and is buried at Hillside Cemetery.
The union of Elisha and Mary Jane produced no children of its own but appears to have been a busy and happy one. By the enumeration of the 1880 Census, Elisha Sawin was no longer a cooper, but had become a peddler in Townsend. He was also deacon of the Townsend Congregational Church and his wife was involved with its mission, too. The 17 July, 1890, Fitchburg Sentinel notes that Mary Jane, in the company of other Townsend ladies, was “gone to Framingham to attend the Chautauqua meetings there.”
The couple, however, entered into serious decline in the last months of 1899. On 20 October, the Sentinel reported, “E. D. Sawin, who has been ill several weeks, was able to be out Saturday last, but has since had a relapse and is now again confined to his bed.” His sickness was almost certainly chronic cystitis, a bacterial infection of the bladder by Escherichia coli. The illness plagued him throughout the remainder of his life. On 17 November, Mary Jane Sawin died from pneumonia. Elisha outlived her by not much above a year, dying of chronic cystitis, age 77, on 7 January, 1901.
Susan Sawin’s photograph was probably trimmed for insertion into a mourning brooch.
My CDV of Susan Sawin is likely a copy of an original ambrotype or daguerreotype, as the fashions Susan wears could date to as early as about 1853, when she was about 19, or may be late in the same decade. Without seeing more of her clothing, it is hard to pinpoint, but it is clear that this portrait was taken before Susan slipped into the final downward spiral of Tuberculosis.
Susan’s albumen paper image was cut into a small circle probably meant for insertion into a mourning brooch. Multiple copies may have been made for several mourning pieces, and mine was a spare glued onto a CDV card. Ω