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 just acquired my first half-plate daguerreotype. Half-plate is roughly 4.25 x 6.5 inches in size. Daguerreotypes get truly impressive once they exceed 1/4 plate size. In the second photo of the plate alone, you can clearly see the delicate hand-coloring of his face and hands and the tablecloth on the table to his left in the photo.
This is the plate as it was delivered. It has the original heavy flint glass installed (2.5mm thick!), and you can clearly see the dust and other schmutz on the inside of the glass. It did have its original paper seals, but they were in poor condition, having broken in some places. The preserver looked to have never been opened, either (the preserver is the gold-colored copper foil border around the image that further seals the edges). I decided to open the preserver and examine the state of the seals, to see if it was worth breaking them to clean the glass.
You can see the seals themselves on the left- after a century and a half, the cheap paper tape with a most likely acidic glue was in very poor shape, and not sealing the plate at all. I removed the seals and cleaned the glass. I have temporarily (until I can get a replacement piece of modern borosilicate glass) reinstalled the original flint glass. The reason for replacing the glass (I will keep the original glass with the plate for reference) is that part of the reason the schmutz was on the inside of the glass plate was that the glass itself had impurities and weaknesses that allowed moisture to migrate to the inside of the packet over time. Putting the original glass back on the packet and sealing it up would be undermining your preservation efforts.
When the new glass arrives I’ll replace it and re-seal it with Filmoplast P90, an archival tape, and back the plate with a sheet of acetate for additional protection. At a later date I’ll have the plate professionally cleaned.
Cleaning the glass and re-sealing the packet are restoration activities I feel reasonably confident in my skills to perform. Cleaning the actual plate is something currently way beyond my skills and knowledge – it’s one thing to putter around with modern, reproducible, replaceable objects, another thing entirely to attempt cleaning on an unique original a century and a half old that if damaged or altered is effectively lost forever.
My latest acquisition: a daguerreotype portrait by Thomas Mimmo of Baltimore. Not only was this an absolutely gorgeous plate (from a quality standpoint one of the finest daguerreotypes I have), but having been a previous resident of Baltimore, it appealed on that mental association as well. Baltimore was the birthplace of my photographic interest, having learned it at Maryland Institute College of Art.
If you look carefully at the image, this was the scion of a wealthy family – not only did he get his daguerreotype portrait made, but he paid extra to have the buttons on his waistcoat gilded. The fabric of his waistcoat is exquisite, and his bowtie is immaculately tied. He was obviously someone who cared a great deal about his appearance.
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.