Every Picture Tells A Story

by Terry Hogan

About a year ago, I was given life size formal portraits of my great, great grandparents, Jonas and Christine Williamson of Wataga. Jonas Williamson was an older brother of the better known Moses Ocean "M.O." Williamson. The portraits were in their original frames and protected by glass. They looked to have been drawn with charcoal or a similar material and then lightly tinted in pastel colors, by hand. I assumed they were drawn by hand, probably copied from a photo. I felt quite smug when I later found a small photographic portrait of my great, great grandparents that were identical to the drawings. This small photo confirmed my belief.


My smugness left when I visited a photo display at the Indiana State Historical Library recently. It was sponsored by the George Eastman House and the Indiana Historical Society. The display, entitled "A Perfect Likeness", followed the development of family photography. It seems my analysis of the family portraits was only partly right (sounds better than partly wrong or just plain wrong). These old, large charcoal-like drawings were, in fact, photographic enlargements, enhanced with applied coloring. These life-size portraits were available from the 1850s to the early 1900s. It seems that glass negatives were projected onto photographic paper with an enlarging or solar camera. The paper may have been exposed for several hours. The resulting exposed, thin paper was mounted on stretched canvas or cardboard. A variety of coloring was used, including oil paint, crayons, ink and chalk to add color and to cover blemishes. Of course this explained the incredible similarity between the large "hand drawn" portraits and the smaller photographs of my ancestors. The paper is quite fragile and is easily damaged. If you have ancestral portraits of this type and in good condition, you are quite fortunate.

Of course, since these life-sized portraits were the same as the photos, they suffered the same flaw that many of the old photos did of the period­­ very stern looking ancestors. Because the photographic technique was fairly insensitive to light, exposure time was long. Subjects had to remain motionless. At least one of my family members has suggested that the portraits may be good for keeping rodents and other vermin out of the house, but may traumatize visiting young children.


With this discovery about crayon drawings, I was hooked. Rather than spending time looking for genealogy information in the library, I went from display to display, learning about portrait photography. Daguerreotypes are not at all what I had anticipated. I guess I had them confused with the more common tintypes. Daguerreotype was the first photographic process to have significant popularity in the US. The technique was perfected, oddly enough, by Louis Daguerre in the late 1830s. It is an image on a copper sheet plated with silver. Its surface is reflective like a mirror. The photograph is most clear when viewed straight on. Many of the Daguerreotypes of the 1840s and 1850s had simple backdrops. By the 1850s, the larger cities had "Daguerrean Artists" and many of the smaller cities were visited by itinerant Daguerrotypists who traveled by wagon or barge. The going rate was from 25 cents to 5 dollars. As the Daguerrotypes are old, fragile, and were fairly expensive for the period, they are uncommon.


This was a form that I had never heard of. It was described as a "novel alternative to Daguerreotype." Ambrotype was popular in the late 1850s. The process relied on dissolved gun cotton and silver nitrate on a glass to produce a negative. Ambrotypes usually were coated with a varnish and lacked the detail of the Daguerreotype. Highlights were milky white, lacking detail. The examples on display were easily distinguished from Daguerrotypes but looked a lot like tintypes.


Tintypes are the small metal photos that can still be seen at flea markets and antique shops. They date from about 1856 to the early 1900s. This method also used fluidized gun cotton, but on a dark lacquered sheet iron dipped in silver nitrate. There is no tin used in tintypes. Tintypes and ambrotypes look a lot alike, but can be separated by the use of a magnet (I feel like "Mr. Wizard" writing that). Tintypes brought photographic portraits into the reach of the masses. The cost was typically about 25 cents.


From about 1860 to 1900, small paper prints on cardboard, about 4 1/2 inches by 2 1/2 inches, were developed and sold. These "visiting cards" often showed the name of the studio below the photograph. During the period from September 1864 through August 1866, Congress levied a stamp tax on photographs to raise money for the Civil War. Stamps were placed on the back of the photos during this period to show that the tax had been paid. The presence of a stamp may help you closely date an old family portrait.


If your ancestors were like mine, they probably weren't in the "Carte de Visite" crowd. Most of my older ancestral photographs were of the less pretentious but larger cabinet card. These paper prints on cardboard were 6 1/4 inches by 4 1/4 inches. Many of these, like their smaller cousins, the visiting cards, had the name and address of the photo studio clearly displayed below the photo. The cabinet cards were popular from 1870 to 1900. Besides being displayed on the cabinet, these photos frequently ended up in ornate photo albums. During the 1870s and 1880s, ornate (Victorian) photographic backdrops were popular. These cabinet cards are often abundant in flea markets and antique stores, being sold for as little as a dollar a piece.


This process was used from 1880 to 1920. I have to admit that I had never seen one before. It produced a distinct blue color. It is reported to have been used mostly by amateur photographers and was seldom used for portraits. If you ever see one, the reason for its limited use is apparent.

At the risk of stating the obvious, old family portraits, particularly the cabinet card and the carte de visite, may help you to track down ancestors. Beyond their priceless value as a documentation of ancestral features, the presence of photo studio information, the presence of a tax stamp, or the type of photo, can help pinpoint an ancestor at a specific period. With that information, census, court records, cemeteries, and the like may help you learn more.

One of my favorite informal photos is from about 1911. It is printed with a postcard back. The photo is an informal outdoor shot of my grandfather Ernest Hogan as a young man, standing in the early stage of a large flower garden, near north Henderson Street in Galesburg. He had work clothes on and was accompanied by other young men, similarly dressed. Several were his brothers. On the back of the photo, in pencil, was a short note addressed to a young woman named Sarah. It simple said, "The Greenhouse Bunch" and was signed Ernest. My grandfather would have been about 20 years of age. My grandmother, Sarah, would have been about 13. They were married when she was 14. The family oral history of how they met remains. Sarah met Ernest through a mutual friend. Sarah and the friend were returning from school. The friend wanted to stop at the greenhouse. Ernest gave Sarah cut flowers, trimmed to promote continued flowering of the greenhouse plants. The rest is history.

The oral history makes the photo, with its note, priceless . The photo could have been lost, thrown away or sold in an estate settlement, but it was not. Someone cared enough to protect and keep it. Its story is now mine to protect, record, and pass on to the next generation to someone who cares.

Every picture tells a story.

This article posted to Zephyr online April 25, 1997
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