My biggest collecting theme so far is Tom Thumb. I got started when I was first starting to collect CDVs and found one of the Tom Thumb wedding photos by Brady with the facsimile signatures on the verso. Lately I’ve been spurred in my collecting to see if they can outdo Frederick Douglass in their image-making as the most photographed people of the 19th century (see my blog post about Tom Thumb and Frederick Douglass)
This is another CDV of Tom Thumb and his wife, Lavinia Warren, by C.D. Fredricks. I think I’m up to 25 now, and I know there are at least a dozen more images I don’t have that are in reasonably widespread circulation. I don’t think I have any that are particularly rare. This was a very nice acquisition as it is in near-mint condition and the print is exceptionally sharp and fresh.
What are some of the distinguishing features of a CDV that can help you date the image? Fashions worn by the subject, certainly. Hand-written dates and identifications on the verso, yes. The photographer’s information on the verso imprint – often times with better known studios, the dates of operation at a particular location are known, so seeing a particular address would give you a window of when the image was made. Another clue is the style of the imprint – in the early days of the CDV, photographers’ imprints were little more than a name, perhaps a motto, and an address. Later CDVs (starting in the late 1860s and progressing through the end of the CDV period) have more ornate logos on the verso, a trickle-down effect from the more popular cabinet card.
When much of this information is not available, though, how can you tell? There are many CDVs out there that have no imprint, and no identifying information recorded. One way is through the pose. It is rare to find a US Civil War era CDV shot as a tight head-and-shoulders portrait. Such is the case in this image. A post-war portrait, you can tell first through the image composition. Next is his facial hair – while sideburns (so named after the Union General Ambrose Burnside) were around and popular during and even before the war, this beard style is later. The uniform style also has clues- the lapels of his jacket are a post-war style. I’m no expert on military uniforms, but with a bit of careful research, uniforms can help you date the image sometimes within a several year period if there is a particular piece of equipment or clothing displayed that was only issued briefly.
In this particular case, I’m very lucky – the photographer, C.D. Fredricks, is one of the best-known photographers of the period, and a very early adopter of the CDV format. I have early C.D. Fredricks CDVs that show just his slogan, “Specialité”, along with his name and studio address, on the back. I also have some that show his multiple studio addresses in Havana, New York and Paris.
I’ve been fascinated by all things U.S. Civil War, and, since I live in Washington DC, things related to Abraham Lincoln and his assassination. The assassination radically altered the course of post-war politics, economics, and society, and even today 150 years afterward we are still experiencing the after-effects and reverberations of that one pistol shot. I’ve done several guided history tours of Washington DC with Lincoln’s assassination as a topic or the primary theme, including the wonderful John Wilkes Booth Escape Route tour led by the inimitable Ed Bearss (seriously, if you have the opportunity to take that tour, DO IT, NOW, while Ed is still leading tours. He’s a brilliant Civil War historian and a great tour guide, and at 91, not going to be doing them too much longer). I’ve been in Ford’s Theater to see the stage from the Presidential box, heard the tale of the timing of the fatal gunshot, walked the path of John Wilkes Booth as he fled the theater, and read the stories of the cast and crew who were working at Ford’s Theater that night.
In the course of my collecting, reading and research, I’ve seen photographs of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, Mary Surratt, the other conspirators, Generals Grant, Sherman, Butler, Burnside, Hooker, McClellan, a whole host of lesser Union generals, Henry Holt (the union general who prosecuted the conspirators), Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris his fiancee who were in the Lincoln’s theater box that night. I have very clear mental pictures of these people. I have photographs of other actors from the period in my collection too. But I’d never seen images of the cast and/or crew of Ford’s Theater on that night. Laura Keene’s name is well known if you’re familiar with the Lincoln assassination story, but I dare you to say you’ve seen her picture before unless you’re truly an assassination or 19th century theater geek.
Now you have. The photo is by C.D. Fredricks, of New York, Havana and Paris. Charles Fredricks was one of the most sought-after portrait photographers of the day, and specialized in theater personalities (I have photos of Tom Thumb, his wife, other circus freaks, and George Pope Morris, a 19th century American poet in my collection). Laura Keene played Miss Florence Trenchard, one of the principal characters in Our American Cousin. She was one of the better known actors of her day, even having her own theater in New York, where Our American Cousin premiered. The performance of Our American Cousin that night was her last night in the play at Ford’s Theater, and the night had been declared a “Benefit Night” for Laura Keene. A “Benefit Night” was a 19th century practice where a significant portion of the proceeds from that night’s ticket sales would go to benefit one actor or actress, usually the lead; it was a form of gratuity to compliment them as they were usually the big box office draw and helped make the show’s run profitable. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln that night broke the near-inviolable rule of the theater: the show must go on. The performance ended with John Wilkes Booth’s leap to the stage and shout of “Sic Semper Tyrannis”, as did Ford’s Theater itself – it never re-opened as a theater in the 19th century after the assassination. It was seized by the federal government, with the idea that it should never be used again for theatrical performances. It became a warehouse for government records, and languished, neglected for decades. It was not until 1968 that the theater was restored and re-opened. 103 years after that ill-fated performance of Our American Cousin, actors once again strode the boards at Ford’s Theater.
Today, you can visit the theater and take guided tours of the auditorium, see the Lincoln box recreated as it was the night of the assassination, and explore the basement where numerous artifacts of that fateful night are displayed including Lincoln’s wool dress coat and top hat he wore to the theater that night, Booth’s pistol that fired the fateful shot, and the bloody pillow that Lincoln’s head rested on as he lay dying at the Petersen House across the street.
These two photos came as part of an estate lot purchase I made. In looking at the first photo, the boy to me looked like he could be Native American. After doing some research, I’m not so sure anymore. The photo was taken by Edgar Decker, a Cleveland society photographer. This would be from the Civil War period or shortly thereafter. The Superior Street imprint on the verso indicates this was taken between 1859 and 1883, but given the style of the CDV, it would argue for before 1870. While certainly not impossible, I think it would be less likely than not that a society photographer would be doing portraits of Native American boys at that time. I don’t know the history of the Native American presence in the Cleveland area in the mid-1800s, so I can’t say to what degree there was one and to what degree they were integrated into Anglo society.
A biography of Edgar Decker, as found at OhioLink :
Edgar Decker (18 February 1832-1 December 1905) was one of Cleveland, Ohio’s earliest and most prominent photographers. Decker grew up in New York State and was largely self-taught. At 13, he became a clerk in a store, after 7 years managing his own store where he developed an interest in photography. He moved to Cleveland in 1857 and worked in various studios for 2 years before opening his own on Superior Street in 1859, moving it to the more fashionable Euclid Avenue in 1883. Decker maintained a studio in Cleveland for over 40 years, producing an enormous volume of work that included portraits of old pioneers, lawyers, businessmen, physicians, society women, and families. In 1862 he photographed Cleveland regiments encamped outside the city prior to their involvement in the Civil War. Decker won many prizes for his portraits of famous statesmen, soldiers, diplomats, and actors and actresses. Among these were 4 presidents–Garfield, Grant, Hayes, and McKinley–as well as General Sheridan. His original photographic portraits were tipped in the book Cleveland, Past and Present; Its Representative Men (1869). Active in photographic societies, in 1887 Decker was elected president of the National Photographic Association. His work was continued by his protege George Edmondson, who also became a well-known Cleveland photographer. Edmondson acquired Decker’s studio at the turn of the century. Decker also served on city council from 1878-1882. He married Julia English on 2 February 1857. They had a son, Edgar, Jr. Decker was buried in Lake View Cemetery.
The second image I believe is the same boy – they have very similar hair, and similar facial structures. Since the poses and composition are different, and neither photo is labeled who it is. it’s hard to tell for sure. This is the image that makes me think the boy is not Native American moreso than the identity of the first photographer.
If any of you out there are expert enough on the topic to provide guidance on if this boy is Native American, part Native American, or is totally Caucasian, I’d love to hear from you.
If you’re familiar with the story of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, you’ll know they were married for twenty-some years but never had a child of their own. P.T. Barnum, though, thought it would make for a good story for them to have a baby. Lavinia Warren was unable to bear children, so Barnum would simply rent a baby for them to pose with, and when the baby got too big, he’d go out and rent another one. This is one of the earliest “Baby Thumb” photos, as part of a set of images commissioned from Mathew Brady by P.T. Barnum to promote the Thumbs.
Another CDV of just Lavinia Warren. This is an unusual image that I hadn’t seen before. It really gives you a sense of how small she was, as you get a sense of scale from the chair she’s sitting in- she’s sitting on a bolster and still is barely above the top of the back of the chair.
Here’s an interesting thing that happens when collecting 19th century images. Copyright law was somewhere between feeble and nonexistent in the second half of the 1800s. Photographers frequently ripped one another off, making copies of a very popular and successful image and re-selling them under their own name. Here I have two identical images, one on Masury’s logo, the other on Case & Getchell’s. It’s hard to tell who is the copyist and who is the original. Given the overall quality of both is quite high, it may be that one of them bought the negative from the other and reprinted the image legitimately.