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.
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.
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.