Have you ever gotten sidetracked while exploring the past? I have, on a number of occasions. I’ll start looking online and go down many rabbit trails. I’ll look at some records in my files searching for an answer to a question and get absorbed re-reading some forgotten details. I had been thinking recently of my old photograph collection. In fact, the other day I pulled out one of my very oldest photographs from where I have it kept in a fireproof safe to share with a young friend who has shown an interest in old things (Us memory-keepers always have to be on the lookout for ways to cultivate the next generation in order to keep those memories from fading). I was dismayed to find that despite my efforts to keep them safe, these old photos are showing evidence of time (that old enemy) and temperature fluctuations that may eventually damage them beyond repair.
I originally sat down tonight to work on a blog post to document details of one of my ambrotypes that is slowly fading away. I got sidetracked when I was looking through photos I already had digitally scanned and some that still needed scanning. I scanned a few quickly of one of my direct ancestors and put together a post sketching the details of his life. This led me to start scanning and transcribing some family bible records related to this ancestor. I started having technical difficulties and lost my work twice before deciding to give up and call it a night. But then I remembered my original intent and decided that maybe the reason I was having difficulty was because the subjects of the ambrotype were insisting that their story be told instead.
And so, despite the lateness, I felt that I should continue. As Joan Severa writes regarding photographic portraits: “A certain vivid face looking out at you with its voice just a breath from speaking can sometimes stop your heart.” I feel the need to tell the story of this silenced voice and share with you what Joan Severa has called the “truest glimpse possible of a moment in the past.”
This photograph (labeled D-2) is only one of many that I have been blessed with as a family collection. Although I have a great deal more to write regarding the details of my collection, I will refrain for now so as not to get distracted again. Instead this will serve as just an introduction for what I hope to add in future posts to come.
This cased image was among several given to me by my father’s cousin Norman Vaughan in 1994 from his mother, Ruby Hardy Vaughan’s collection. Ruby had many photographs from her grandmother Martha Sizemore Hardy and her aunt Bettie Hardy Gross.
The back of this case is identical to another ambrotype cased image I have labeled D-1 and may have been originally together (both were given to me by Norman). This case is called “The Romanesque Urn” in Rinhart, 1969, (p. 126). This source indicates that it dates from ca. 1857 (casemaker unknown). One half of these two images has hooks on the side to close the case and the other half has eyes for the hooks. The inside mat for this one is in a style called nonpareil (Rinhart, 1969, p. 22) with a four double-petaled flower and vine border. The outside mat has a four-petaled flower in each corner.
The subject is a girl and boy. The girl appears older, maybe 12-13 years old and a bit taller than the boy. The details are not very distinguishable in the case but when I took it out of its case one day over ten years ago and held it up in just the right lighting, many details appeared which I documented:
They look to be sitting on a wide bench with a backing at their shoulders (as noted by the wide dark horizontal line). The girl’s dress is a small checked or hound’s-tooth pattern with long leg o’mutton puffed sleeves hemmed just over her shoulder. The dress appears to be belted around her waist with a round buckle in the front. She wears a lace collar with a gilded brooch pinned in the middle. Her hands are not distinguishable but appear to be on her lap. She is wearing some kind of choker made up of two rows of dark beads showing just above the lace collar. She also wears gilded hoop earrings with her cheeks and lips rouged. She has an oval-shaped face with thin lips and dark eyes. Her hair is dark, parted in the middle and smoothed above her ears towards the back, perhaps pulled back in a bun. As her ears are showing, this may date the photo to about 1863-1865 (Frost, p. 57). The boy appears to be about 10-12 years old. He has light eyes with his hair halfway down his ears and smooth on top. His cheeks are rouged as well. His face appears square, somewhat angular, what I’d called chiseled features. He is dressed in a suit with a similar bow tie and collar as one of the fellows in D-1. He is holding his hands together on his lap. His shirt is white with the sleeves showing slightly past the jacket sleeves. The jacket has a thin lapel with one button buttoned. The shirt has a thin pointed collar. His pants are made of a lighter material than his jacket.
Frost, Lenore. Dating Family Photographs 1850-1920. Berwick, Australia: Valient Press, 1991.
Rinhart, Floyd, Marion Rinhart. American Miniature Case Art. New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1969.
Severa, Joan L. My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2005.
“Society is an open-ended partnership between generations.
The dead and the unborn are as much members of society as the living.
To dishonor the dead is to reject the relation on which society is built –
a relation of obligation between generations.” –Edmund Burke