Monday, March 28, 2011

America’s First Woman Author (The Story Behind the Photograph)


One of the categories of antique photographs that I collect is photos of paintings, especially portraits.  Photography began in 1839 with the daguerreotype process, and many Americans quickly went to a photographer’s studio carrying a painting of a deceased relative—for how else would future generations remember the face of their ancestor?

The most touching example of this that I’ve seen was a daguerreotype of a man seated in a chair, flanked by his young children, holding on his lap a primitive painting of what was undoubtedly his deceased wife.  Even separated by death, he gathered the whole family together for the only photograph they would ever have.

I bought this sixth plate daguerreotype of an old woman wearing a mob cap (much like Martha Washington) from a seller on E-Bay in 1999.   He wrote that it was “identified by the previous owner as Hannah Adams (1755-1831)”.  He then quoted part of a biography that identified her as  the “first American woman to support herself by writing.”

I researched Hannah and her works. Born in Medfield, MA, the second of five children of a farmer and bookseller named Thomas Adams, Hannah was sickly and was not sent to school.  She read on her own and learned Latin and Greek from divinity students who boarded in their house. Her mother died when she was only 12.

Hannah’s father became bankrupt when she was 17. She supported herself during the Revolutionary War by making lace and later by teaching. (Her father, a scholarly man, also tutored students from Harvard who boarded with them “on rustification”—country leave from classes in Cambridge.)

Hannah was curious about all varieties of religion.  She once said “My first idea of Heaven was of a place where we should find our thirst for knowledge fully gratified.”As she studied, she found herself “disgusted” by the “lack of candor” of writers about religion, who always seemed to prefer one denomination over another—so she determined to write a book comparing all religions  without showing preference for any one. In 1784 she published the result, under the verbose title: “An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects which Have Appeared from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day”.  It sold out, but her agent kept all the money, which led Hannah to lobby for the United States’ first copyright law, passed in 1790.

More books came from this prolific author, mostly about history and religion.  She was much sought after as a dinner guest and houseguest during an era when no women were allowed to attend university. According to one biographer, “She was cherished by affluent New England women as an embodiment of the benefits of permitting female equality in higher education.” When she died in 1831, she was the first of many important figures to be buried in the new Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

Although Hannah was a distant cousin of President John Adams and stayed for two weeks at his house, she never traveled beyond New England, and she never married.

As always, I tried to verify that my daguerreotype was in fact Hannah Adams.  The engraving above is the only authenticated image of her that I could find.  It’s obviously based on a painting, and “my” Hannah is a painting, so we’re dependent on the skills and vision of the two artists for an answer.  Nevertheless,  I’m happy that the image I bought, of a crone who was born before the American Revolution, introduced me to Hannah, the feisty and intelligent trailblazer of every woman writer came after.

1 comment:

Nicole said...

I loved this Joan. How interesting and very inspirational. I read it to my oldest daughter who is going off to college next year (yikes) to become a journalist and writer.
~ Nicole Xifaras