I love it when one of the antique photographs in my collection poses a mystery that sets me off on research in an effort to solve it. Often the solution remains frustratingly elusive, as in “Is This a Lost Portrait of Lord Byron?” which has brought me fascinating e-mails from Byron experts around the world, but has never identified the painting of Byron that was photographed in that early ambrotype. I’m still convinced that my ambro records an important unknown oil painting of Byron that will show up some day in a musty English stately home.
The photograph at the top, of a charming family with five children, has had me puzzled for many years. I call it “Mom with Messy Hair.” It’s a large (half plate) ambrotype, which is the photographic process that emerged during the 1850’s, after the daguerreotype. An ambrotype is a negative image on the back of a glass plate, which becomes a positive image when you put a dark background behind it.
I was fascinated by this very attractive family because, in an era when women never let their hair down in public, but always had it severely pulled back and up, how can we explain this mother’s hairdo which seems to have been “combed” with an egg beater? (To see examples of 19th century women's severe hair styles, check out my post “Diane Arbus and Spooky Twins”).
With my usual penchant for tragedy and drama, I imagined that perhaps this woman was an invalid—at death’s door—and the photographer had been called in to record her image with her family before she passed away. But this mom looks perfectly happy and well, except for what’s on top of her head.
There was also the question of the towel or piece of cloth that has fallen on the floor at her feet. Is there a towel on the floor because this is a sickroom? I once developed a theory, because so many people in early daquerreotypes and ambrotypes were clutching a white handkerchief, that these were symbols of mourning and loss, like the black arm bands and woven hair bracelets often worn in the 1800's.
Turns out I was completely off base with that theory. More savvy collectors told me that those white cloths and handkerchiefs were in the photo to help the photographer focus, so that he wouldn’t get solarization—a white glare or aura around something like a white shirt front that often mars early photos, due to the bright sunlight’s reflection. (Remember there was no electricity back then, so the photographer could only work on sunny days.)
After years of puzzling about the woman’s hair, I recently posed my question to a fellow collector and member of the Daguerreian Society, Joan Severa, who is the ultimate expert on the history of fashion. She can look at the garments, collars and sleeves, shoes and hairstyles, brooches and ruffles, and tell you exactly when an antique photograph was made and the social class of the people in the photo.
Joan Severa has written a number of books on the subject, including “Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840 – 1900” and “My Image Taken”. Her books are invaluable tools for any historian or collector.
Here’s what I wrote to Joan about the “Mom with Messy Hair”.
“What fascinates me, of course, is the attractive mother of five children, sitting with her family, with completely messed-up hair. Surely that hair was never in fashion? Because she also seems to be without the usual tight boned corset I thought that maybe she is ill and in the equivalent of a dressing gown? Yet she looks quite serene and well in the photograph”.
And here’s what Joan Severa replied. As usual, she knocked me out with the detail and depth of her knowledge of the fashions of the period:
First, let me tell you that the mommie in your first image does not have “messy hair! Her locks are combed down and full over her ears very smoothly, then swept up in back into a crown of twists or braids, which she has then crowned with an ultra-fashionable “coiffure”, or headdress, of flower buds and ribbon, which hangs down both sides. The image dates to the first couple years of the ‘50s, when wide whitework collars were the latest word, skirts were very full and supported by 8 or 9 petticoats, and the corset was still the bust-crushing long one of the late ‘40s. She is, too, wearing a corset.
Her gown is of a light silk, puffed in the bodice and with open sleeves and fancy “engageantes” or undersleeves of sheer white frills. It is a fancy “at home” dress, in which she would have received callers. The oldest girl is wearing the long corset too, as witness the pointed waistline, and she and the next-oldest wear “bretelles”, tapered frills like those of a fancy apron, from shoulders to a point at the waist.
So there’s the end to the mystery. My heart-breaking scenario of an ill or dying mother was complete fantasy, but I don’t mind. I love learning about things like “engageantes” and “bretelles.” And I’m glad to know that the mom with the messy hair was in perfect health and rocking a headdress of flower buds and ribbon.
But I still think, if I had turned up with a headdress like the nineteenth century mom above, no matter how fashionable, my own mother would be quick to say, “You’re not going out of the house with your hair looking like that!”