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.