My camera is three and a half pounds of image-capturing magic. Mary Jane Minor’s mouth would round in wonder at its 1295 frames. My great-great-grandma and I are alike in this regard–we collect faces, without identifying the occasion or relation or special qualities that make those eyes so admired, so treasured. Nonetheless, the portraits, now and then, are at an edge, where private lives meet public spaces, revealing a good bit about who we are, what technologies shape our present, what kinds of people add value to our days.
I can confidently put names to only a few faces. So what? This Victorian album is evidence of the sweeping movements of people and machines that transformed my ancestors’ communities in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. More than faces, these portraits are portals to history.
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?
Sometime between 1883-1888, F. P. Morgan ushered these three people into his Uniontown (Pennsylvania) studio on Morgantown Street, and shot this cabinet card photo. Their identity is concealed by the passage of time; their relationship to the Minor family of Green County lost in a historical fog.
Their relationship to each other, however, is clearly described in the photographer’s clever posing.
The silver-haired gentleman sits relaxed in an upholstered chair, while the woman and boy stand to his right with their arms resting on his shoulder and arm. Their hands line up, smack dab in the middle of the frame, a visual statement–We are family. The tableau is vintage Victorian; the husband is seated in the only chair signifying his role as patriarch and the woman is beside him as helpmeet. Together they shelter and nurture their six(ish) year old son.
Three faces, one family. Incognito.
This middle-aged woman sat for her portrait, held motionless by a photographer’s head rest for the minutes-long exposure. The discomfort of such stillness couldn’t keep an impish grin from her face. Woman in a Day Cap’s identity and relationship to my family has been lost. Her photograph, however, can serve now as a mid-nineteenth century fashion plate, evidence of what a mature woman wore out and about on a cold day.
LOOK WITH ME
A white cap covers the woman’s gray-streaked hair, framing her face with its starched ruffles. A white ribbon is tied under her chin, ensuring the cap’s place come wind or rain. At her throat, the woman wears a white cotton collar, one to three inches wide, with scalloped tatted edges decoratively set off by the dark material underneath. The woolen wrap is worn draped across the front, gathered and fastened on the upper left arm–not at the throat like other coats and cloaks of the 1840s and 1850s. Her hands are tucked inside a white fur muff, likely made of ermine.
Even if I don’t know how this woman is related to my Minor family, I take great delight in the inclusion of her photograph. As always, digging in the Minor Family Album reveals treasures.