The Minor Family Album closes out with portraits of nine children, all taken between 1887-1894. I can identify, with confidence, only one face.
Framed by short bangs and soft, baby curls, the chubby toddler’s brown eyes flatly state that she will hold this position but a moment longer. This is Flossie, christened Florence McClure in 1889 by her parents, Owen and Sarah Minor McClure.
The puffed sleeve of the eighteen nineties makes an appearance in even this little one’s dress. Her bodice is embellished by a large lacy collar, and ribbon and bows adorn the bodice, sleeves, cuffs, and floor-length skirt. What a fabulous portrait!
The Minor Family Album closes with nine children’s portraits, all of them, but one, local Green County kids photographed by Carmichaels (Pennsylvania) portrait expert, Thomas W. Rogers.
The exception is found in page twenty-three’s head shot of a young girl, taken by Iowan Silas T. Wiggins of Cedar Rapids, in the early eighteen nineties.
To distinguish his work from the other photographers of Linn County, Mr. Wiggins used ivory colored cardstock with rounded corners and gold beveled edges. A thin brown line borders all four sides, just a hair away from the cabinet card edge, framing both the portrait and Silas Wiggins’ imprint. That much embellishment was used by many photographers in the years between 1889-1894, however.
What sets this card apart is the imprint’s logo which, together with the text, describes Silas T. Wiggins in quite some detail.
Upon first examination, this artifact appeared to be a typical Victorian business card incorporated into a commissioned product; S. T. Wiggins was the creator of the cabinet portrait, and could be found in a studio near the post office in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There is something about the coat of arms and the scrolled design that makes me pronounce this information with a flourish, a reaction that I have not had to any other cabinet card imprint. Questions bubbled up in quick succession…what are those groups of letters? that crown thingie? What is the meaning of the circle? What is inside the square?
HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE
This Anglo-Norman phrase–Evil unto him who thinks evil of it–is the motto of the British chivalric Order of the Garter. At some time in the past few hundred years, this order became associated with Freemasonry. The words are printed on a garter, which encircles a shield on which are displayed a lion and a harp. Atop this emblem sits a crown. The medallion in the Wiggins’ imprint is filled with the symbolism of Freemasonry. A biography of Silas Wiggins in the History of Linn County, Iowa* confirmed that the photographer had been a Mason, and served as Sir Knight Templar and in the Apollo Commandery.
Freemason membership was important to Silas Wiggins, and from a cursory look at the rest of the Brewer book it would appear that freemasonry was important to much of Linn County’s leadership. Is it possible that Silas Wiggins included the masonic symbols in his professional imprint to advertise specifically to fellow freemasons? Did that membership drive business into his studio? I suggest the answer is yes. At least on one occasion.
The women with a masonic affiliation could join the Order of the Eastern Star, whose emblem was a richly decorated five pointed star. Each point held a symbol representative of a Biblical queen and a virtue for which she was known. For example, a scepter and crown represented Esther and the virtue of loyalty. A scepter and crown, like the one seen in this young girl’s necklace.
I would speculate that this child is a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, and that her parents decided to have a fellow mason capture her image in his Cedar Rapids studio, near the post office, sometime between 1890 and 1892. Just who she is and how she is related to Mary Jane Gwynne Minor is a story for another day…
*Brewer, Luther A. and Barthinius Wick. The History of Linn County, Iowa, Volume 2, p. 233. The Pioneer Publishing Company: Chicago. 1910.
In my last post I shared the final images found within the covers of the Minor Family Album. All of the photographs are portraits of children, taken by professional photographers between the years of 1888 and 1894. I am not an advanced student of photography’s history, and therefore, cannot pull all of the evidence present in these cabinet cards, but I can infer from the presence of a certain piece of equipment what type of camera was used for a few of the shots.
Early photographs were made on wet plates using light sensitive chemicals. The amount of time that a photographer had to leave the camera shutter open to activate the chemicals and expose an image on the plate varied between five and ten minutes. Such long exposures required the use of cast iron adjustable stands equipped with medieval-looking clamps that held squirmy subjects still. By the early 1880s new technologies–dry plates using new chemicals–were being introduced which markedly decreased this sitting time. Shorter exposures were a boon to capturing more realistic portraits, of everyone, but most particularly of children. Photography was a competitive business, and as professionals could afford it, they replaced their cameras and threw their “Brady” stands on the rubbish pile.
While examining the photographs I noticed posing stands peeking out from behind several subjects, a clue that the photographer was using the older, wet plate, long exposure technology. Why else would a professional use those contraptions?
I invite you to examine these photographs and see if you can’t spot the photographer’s equipment. And for those history buffs, what other evidence exists in these cabinet cards to support the use of wet or dry plates?
Florence McClure Titus, Thomas W. Rogers, photographer, Carmichaels, Pennsylvania, about 1892. The Minor Family Album, page 22: Author’s Collection.
WHAT DID YOU SEE?
I found that the stands appeared in photographs that Thomas W. Rogers, Carmichaels (Pennsylvania), took in the late 1880s-early 1890s. Did you discover evidence of posing aids in any other photographs?
The final pages of the Minor Family Album hold photographs of children, none are identified, one looks familiar. Together they present a plate of youthful Victorian fashion from the closing decades of the 19th century. Separately they tell stories, even as the personalities remain cloaked in anonymity. I hope you will return to this space as I reveal the hidden meaning of a photographer’s imprint and point out clothing clues that help family historians “age” the subject. Play a game of “I Spy” as you examine the portrait for the photographer’s equipment or count the ribbons on a toddler’s velvet dress.
I look forward to hearing your reactions in the coming weeks.
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.