Dating and interpreting old photographs, part 1
Our recent look at the lives of Cyrus Clark and Sarah Strickland Clark (here, here, here, and here) would not have happened without the interest of—and information shared by—Clark and Strickland descendants Steven Clark Van Slyke and Lynnette Thompson. I love “filling in the blanks” of local and family history, and discovering more about Cyrus and Sarah has been a very enjoyable challenge.
For me, one of the real pleasures of the project came from the Cyrus and Sarah (Strickland) Clark photos that Steve and Lynette were so kind to share. Both were keen to learn more about the photos, where and when were they taken, how old were the sitters, and so forth. So, in the spirit of adventure, here is our first Clark House Historian attempt at analyzing historic photos1.
We’ll start with the only photograph I have of Sarah Strickland Clark. Here’s the front:
And here’s the reverse:
What do you see?
The image of Sarah (Strickland) Clark is a sepia-toned photograph on paper, in vertical or portrait orientation, glued to a piece of heavier card stock with decoratively trimmed edges. Size is 4-1/4 inches wide by 6-1/2 inches tall, a common photographic format of the day known as a Cabinet Card. Below the image is the photographer’s imprint: A. T. Lewis, Madison, S. Dakota.
The subject is an older white woman, photographed in head and shoulders view, against a plain, flat, light-colored background. She is looking slightly to her left. Her wavy hair is brushed close to the head, parted in the center and pulled back behind her ears, possibly in a bun. Her hair color is difficult to judge; it appears to be dark, but with blond or gray tones suggested in the well-lit area at the top of her head. Her eyes are light in color, perhaps blue. Her gaze is clear and her mouth is closed, neither smiling nor frowning.
Her dress is dark, perhaps black, with slightly puffed or raised seams at the shoulders. There is decorative loop stitching, in the same color, on the right front breast, suggesting a leaf pattern. The dress has a vertical collar, about an inch or two in height, that is closed at the center. There appears to be a white blouse under the dress; a bit of the white collar can be seen above the dark collar of the dress. The white collar has a decorative edge, resembling a whip stitch, in a contrasting shade.
The only visible jewelry is a light-colored (brass? silver? gold?) bar pin at the center of the raised collar. The pin is long, thin, and asymmetrical. There may be a small stone or pearl inlaid in the center of the pin. It looks like her ear may be pierced for an earring, but she is not wearing one. She does not appear to be wearing makeup, but it is possible the photographer has added a bit of extra shading to her eyebrows and eyelids.
The current owner of the photographs, Steven Clark Van Slyke, received them from his grandmother, Minnie Alice Clark Van Slyke. My guess is that is Minnie’s handwriting on the reverse of the photo, which suggests that the identification of Sarah (Strickland) Clark is an accurate one, based on personal and family knowledge. (Minnie was born in Lake Co., South Dakota, in 1884, and her grandmother Sarah Clark died there when Minnie was seven years old.)
Dating the photograph
We already know the identity of the subject, and also quite a bit about her life and places of residence. The photographer’s imprint—”A. T. Lewis, Madison, S.Dakota”—should allow us to narrow the date further.
- Cyrus and Sarah Clark lived in Wisconsin until 1886. Sometime that year they moved to Madison, Lake County, Dakota Territory with their daughter Ida Estella
- Dakota Territory became the states of North and South Dakota on November 2, 1889
- Sarah died on March 13, 1891, in Madison, South Dakota.
So just based on Sarah’s biography, we can date the print of this photo from some time after November 2, 1889, at the earliest, to March 13, 1891, at the very latest. But did Sarah sit for the photo at A. T. Lewis’s studio in Madison, or did Lewis make a copy of an earlier photo, perhaps taken before Sarah and Cyrus moved to Madison? Or did the family have Lewis make copies of an existing photo after Sarah’s death?
A. T.—and Sarah—Lewis, photographers
Abram T. Lewis2 was born in Oneida, New York, in 1853. He lived in Canada for much of his youth, later moving to Michigan. In 1881 he and his wife Sarah almost lost their lives in a forest fire there. They left Michigan for a short stay in Canada, and then came to the future South Dakota. Both A. T. and Sarah Lewis were photographers. At least one source reports that he preferred photographing landscapes outdoors, while Sarah appears to have done most of the portrait work in the studio.
A. T. and Sarah Lewis had studios in several neighboring South Dakota towns. They lived and worked in Madison for five years, from about 1887 to 1892. The March 28, 1892 edition of the Madison Daily Leader reported Lewis would close his Madison studio on May 1, 1892:
So it’s safe to say that this copy of this photo was made before May 1, 1892, and the image pre-dates Sarah’s death in March, 1891. But how early could the photo be?
Original or Copy?
If the photo is an original by (Mrs.) A. T. Lewis then it dates from some time after the opening of the Lewis studio in Madison, circa 1887; since the imprint states “S. Dakota,” then the print was made after statehood was declared on November 2, 1889.
But could this print from the Lewis studio be a copy of an earlier photo? Making copies was, after all, an important part of the 19th-century photographer’s business. These days, making high-quality copies of existing images is simple and inexpensive. But during Sarah Clark’s lifetime, copying photos required complicated equipment, special chemicals, a good deal of technical skill, and—for the best copies—the photographer needed the tools and techniques of an artist.
In that era, copies of earlier photos often lacked sufficient contrast and detail when compared to the original. These details would be provided by the photographer, who would add them to the photographic copy with brush, pen, ink and paint. Sometimes this retouching was done with such skill as to be almost unnoticeable. Usually, a closer look at the details of the image will show the deficiencies of the photographic copy and the presence of pen or brush “enhancements” on the duplicated photo. Do we find any of these retouchings in Sarah’s photo?
Keep in mind, the image here is an enlarged portion of a medium-resolution scan of the original photo. As we enlarge this copy of a copy we will start to get pixel-like distortion. With that in mind, look at this section of Sarah Clark’s portrait:
I’m convinced this is an original photographic print made from an original negative, and not a copy of an earlier photo. The detail in the wisps of hair, the wrinkled earlobe, the folds of the neck and mouth, and the details of the dress are quite clear and “photographic.” Having said that, I wonder if the photographer has enhanced the print (or the negative) at least in a few places. It looks like the edges of the eyelids have been given a bit of definition with a black pen or brush, and perhaps the eyebrows have been filled-in at the edges with a little watercolor-type wash.
Costume and hair
It may be possible to further narrow the date by considering dress and hair styles. (Though, of course, it would not be unusual for older people, such as Sarah and Cyrus Clark, to favor fashions or hair styles from earlier in their lives.) Dating Sarah’s costume will be difficult for two reasons. One, we have only a head and shoulders view, and many potential period-specific details are not shown. And, two, I am very much a rookie at assessing costume and hair styles of the nineteenth century.
Based on the information on historic costume found in Maureen A. Taylor’s book (see notes), it looks like Sarah is very much up-to-date with her dress. From what we can see, the fastening of Sarah’s bodice is obscured, her sleeves are tight to the arm—with a bit of “kick up” at the arm—and her neckline is a high neck with a moderate stand collar, all of which suggest the fashions of 1890-1892, or perhaps the later part of the 1883-1899 period.
The bar pin at Sarah’s neck may be from earlier in the 1800s. I don’t have a good date for that type of jewelry other than “Victorian.” And while Sarah’s dress may have been purchased recently, during her Madison years, her hair style harks back to the years 1866-1868 or thereabouts.
So far, the biographical and historical details of the subject and photographer have narrowed the date of this photograph to somewhere between 1886 and 1891. Her clothing seems to be from the same period, although her pin and hair style may be more mid-century. Taken altogether, this photo probably shows Sarah Strickland Clark between the ages of 63 and 67 years old.
More specifically, based on the photographer’s imprint, this copy of the photo was most likely printed from the negative after South Dakota statehood on November 2, 1889 and before Sarah’s death on March 13, 1891. If Sarah sat for the photo between those dates—as seems very likely— the photo shows her between the ages of 65 and 67 years old.
Next time, a look at several photos of Cyrus, and…a surprise!
- Analyzing old photos is not my area of expertise. I have seen a lot of old photos, and I like to think I look closely at them and tease out as many details and facts as I can. But there are others who excel at this, and I have absorbed as much advice from them as I could. One of the current experts in the field is Maureen A. Taylor, the Photo Detective®. I have her book Uncovering Your Family History through Family Photographs, 2nd edition, at hand and have referred to it often for this and other posts. Ms. Taylor has written many other books which I commend to anyone interested in this sort of analysis. Here’s a list of her books and consultation services, if you are interested in learning more.
- For more on A. T. Lewis, see this article at The Cabinet Card Gallery website (where he is incorrectly listed as “Abrah T. Lewis”). The Lewis family’s chronology is a bit confusing, as they are also found in living and working in the 1888-89 city directory for Sioux Falls, South Dakota; this is the same time that they were supposedly living and working in Madison, South Dakota. Eight years after leaving Madison, Abram T., Sarah J. and son George Lewis were enumerated on the 1900 U.S. federal census for Lake Preston Town, Kingsbury Co., South Dakota.
Finally, if you have an interest in historic photographs and how they are made, I highly recommend the series of YouTube videos made and put online by the George Eastman House museum. Each video is beautifully produced and filmed and will answer many questions you might have about 19th-century photographic processes. Today’s cabinet card photo of Sarah Strickland Clark may have been an albumen silver print. Next time we will check out some tintypes. Click the links for the related videos.