Photograph as Fashion Plate: The Case of ANOTHER Unknown Woman

I have long given up on my original photographic quest.  I will measure my Minor Family Album success not on how many faces I  identify and claim as family, but by how much  I have learned about dating old photographs and–perhaps more importantly–about converting a family heirloom into a historical artifact.

So I was not dismayed when I turned my attention to page nineteen in the Minor Family Album and discovered yet another face with ab.so.lute.ly no clues to her identity.  I just shifted gears, wasting little time in moving from family historian to social historian.

This is not a photograph.

No, ma’am.  This cabinet card is a fashion plate, with just enough detail to provide a glimpse into women’s fashion in the late 1890s.

In the period between 1888 and 1897, women’s sleeves went from being skin tight to puffed at the shoulders with yards of fabric gathered into full sleeves.  By 1897 the cumbersome style was being replaced with a more tailored sleeve and shoulder caps or flounces.  The capelets  shown here are just one example of this style which had the effect of greatly exaggerating the width of a woman’s shoulders.  The sleeve underneath these lace-trimmed caps appears to have some fullness, which would indicate that this dress was made just as the fashion shifted.

This is more than a fashion plate.

The unknown woman wears a high, stiff collar, with a bit of lace for decoration.  Conventional day dress.  But it also is a clear indication of how social mores of modesty affected women’s fashion.  “To permit one’s neck to show in daytime is bad form,” stated the Ladies Home Journal in August 1890.  Keeping one’s skin hidden, even in the heat of summer, was more important than being comfortable, a subject that could lead me into the research of how politics, women’s suffrage, and fashion played out during the nineteenth century.

One last thing…

I do believe that this portrait is of the same person featured in the family shot on  page 18 of the MInor Family Album.

What do you think?

Unidentified Woman, cabinet card, J.W. Ward, photographer, Connellsville, Pennsylvania, 1897-1900. The Minor Family Album, p. 19, Author’s Collection, 2014.

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Reassembling the Past

Cousinly Review Prompts a Re-view (updated 27 August 2014)

Shortly after posting this piece, I received an email from reader and cousin, Linda Bell. My colleague strongly suspected that the face was familiar, not just family-like, as if she had seen the photograph before.  Perhaps, Linda suggested, this face appears in Bates’ History of Greene County, Pennsylvania (©1888) which can be read online at the Internet Archive.  And yes, he was there…This post has been updated to reflect the new information.  Portions of the original post have, therefore, been deleted. 

I have stared at the last half of the Minor Family Album for a month now, confounded by more than one photograph.  None are annotated with given names, or family names, or even a hint of a date.  I look at the next cabinet card with a hand lens. I scan it into my hard drive, enhance the clarity and then look again, with the computer as hand lens.  The paper photo drops crumbs of information, which I collect and line up, willing a trail to appear.

tw rogers trademark back 1870 est

The photograph was produced by Thomas W. Rogers of Carmichaels, Pennsylvania, on ivory colored cardstock with rounded corners, and the simple, red-ink trademark on the back.  The photograph, whether original or a copy, was made most likely between the late 1860s and early 1870s, early in TW Rogers photographic career.

Mr. Clean-shaven is between 50-65 years old, with thick wavy hair worn in a conservative above-the-collar fashion.  The white mane sweeps from right to left above his bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows. Puffy half-moons beneath  light-colored eyes cushion his intensity; this is a busy man with little patience for sleep.  The gaze, the wavy hair, the Roman nose, the bushy brow…features shared with other Minor family members.

My wavy-haired gentleman is wearing a starched white shirt, with a heavily starched, detachable collar. He has tied a black silk cravat into a flat bow tie at his throat.  Over this he wears a black, collarless, single-breasted vest, trimmed in braid fashionable in the late 1860s. All of the buttons are fastened, without any evidence of a watchchain. The double-breasted sack coat is also made of black wool and trimmed in braid.  The buttons and button holes go very high into the lapel, which is notched quite deeply, the lower portion much wider than the upper portion at the neck.  The fit is quite generous, particularly at the sleeves, which sit on the shoulder, a style worn in the late 1860s-early 1870s.

This clean-shaven man had his portrait taken at the height of his career, when he was about 55 years, between 1868-1872.  Fortunately, Samuel Bates included an illustration based on this very photograph in his History of Greene County, Pennsylvania (1888), which accompanied a biographical sketch of a very prominent Baptist minister–Charles W. Tilton.
Abia Minor, cabinet card 1866-1873Born  to New Jersey residents Enoch and Elizabeth Tilton in 1815, Charles spent his childhood on the family’s farms.  The youngster attended local subscription schools in western Pennsylvania and Frankfort Academy in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.  Tilton’s first vocation was as a teacher, but he was called to the ministry.  In 1843 Teacher Tilton was ordained a Baptist preacher, and began a life of service inside the Ten Mile Baptist Association, Greene County, Pennsylvania.  Reverend Tilton filled the pulpit at several Ten Mile churches, at times perhaps simultaneously, including Goshen Baptist in Garards Fort, home church to my Minor ancestors.

Pastor Charles was a reknowned revival leader during the post-war years, leading congregants to a healing place after the horrific losses and community ruptures of the Civil War. (Greene County was a Democratic Party stronghold, fiercely opposed to the concept of emancipation.) This photograph was taken during this time.  As a revival preacher, Sabbath School leader, and a higher education advocate, Charles W. Tilton was famous among the Baptists of Greene County, and probably well acquainted with the Minors of Ceylon Lane.

Little wonder that the man’s photograph was sought by my great-great-grandmother, and later displayed, among family, for posterity.