Cyrus Clark’s Cabinet Card

Dating and interpreting old photographs, part 2

Today we take another dive into photo research and dating, as part of our look into the lives of Cyrus Clark and Sarah Strickland Clark (here, here, here, here and here). Thanks again to Clark and Strickland descendants Steven Clark Van Slyke and Lynnette Thompson. Without further ado, here is part two of our initial Clark House Historian attempt at analyzing historic photos1.

Let’s start with the photo of Cyrus that we’ve used on our previous Cyrus and Sarah posts. Here’s the front:

Cyrus Clark, cabinet card, front. Photo courtesy Steven Clark Van Slyke.
Click to open larger image in new window

And here’s the back:

Cyrus Clark, cabinet card, back. Photo courtesy Steven Clark Van Slyke.
Click to open larger image in new window

Always look on the back side

As we discussed previously, the current owner of the photograph, Steven Clark Van Slyke, received it from his grandmother, Minnie Alice Clark Van Slyke. The writing on the reverse matches that on the reverse of Sarah Strickland Clark’s cabinet card. I believe both to be Minnie’s handwriting, which suggests that the identification of Cyrus Clark is an accurate one, based on personal and family knowledge. (Minnie was born in Lake Co., South Dakota, in 1884, and her grandfather Cyrus Clark was still living there when Minnie and her family relocated to Rockford, Illinois in mid-1895.)

Cook Ely, Oshkosh photographer

The front of the card includes the imprint “Ely, Cabinet Portrait.” On the back, we find a more elaborate imprint that includes the studio’s street address. This will help us narrow the date of the print.

One of the great things about living in the internet age is our ability to access specialist resources that, in earlier times, would have been available only at a select few locations. For example, not only can we access the city directories for Oshkosh, Wisconsin, at ($), we can also use the free directories of photographers and their addresses from places like the George Eastman House museum collection in Rochester, New York, and the New York Public Library’s Photographers’ Identities Catalog. There is also a longer biographical sketch of Cook Ely and images of several of his photographs at the Oshkosh Public Museum online collection.

All sources agree that Cook Ely had his photo studio at 25 Elm Street in Oshkosh from 1883/84 to no later than 1889, when he moved to 334 Algoma Boulevard, also in Oshkosh. Please click the links (above) for more information on Cook Ely, examples of his work, and access to information on hundreds and hundreds of early photographers.

Cook Ely, prize winner, 1884

Further evidence that this photo of Cyrus—or at least, this print—dates from 1884-1889 is this illustration on the back of the photo:

Click to open larger image in new window.

Cook Ely won a prize at the fifth annual convention of the Photographers Association of America, in Cincinnati on July 30, 1884.

Click to open larger image in new window.

Cook Ely, in Photography, vol. 1, no. 8, Aug 15, 1884, page 1 [= 170], excerpt. Via GoogleBooks.

Ely took first place for a collection of large format (14 x 17) photographs made with Inglis photographic plate negatives. So our print of Cyrus Clark, with the image of the Inglis medal on the reverse, cannot have been made before Ely returned home to Oshkosh and ordered a new batch of cabinet card stock for his business, sometime after July, 1884.

When was Cyrus in Oshkosh?

We already know quite a bit about Cyrus Clark’s life and places of residence. So, if we knew when he was in Oshkosh, that might give a clue to when the photo was taken, or at least, printed. Or that might help under some circumstances, except that it’s still not completely clear what town Sarah and Cyrus Clark considered “home” from the 1870s until their deaths (in 1891 and 1905, respectively).

By 1855, Cyrus and Sarah Clark were farming in Iowa County, Wisconsin; they “removed to” Madison, South Dakota in 1886. But censuses, city directories, and newspaper reports show that Cyrus or Sarah owned or rented a farm and one or more homes in Oshkosh from the mid-1870s through at least the late-1880s. There were other Oshkosh connections in the family, too. Son Edwin married Mollie Fullerton near Oshkosh in 1874, and another son, Albert, was an established mason and contractor in the city, living there from at least as early as mid-1870 until his death in 1889. Albert’s widow, Carrie Rasey Clark, lived in Oshkosh until her death in 1934; Cyrus and Carrie were enumerated together there on the 1900 federal census. At this point, all we can say for certain is that Cyrus (and Sarah) spent a lot of time in Oshkosh, and had many opportunities to have photos taken or reproduced at Cook Ely’s studio.

Looking at Cyrus

Today’s image of Cyrus Clark is a sepia-toned photograph on paper, in vertical or portrait orientation, glued to a piece of heavier card stock with smooth edges and rounded corners. Size is 4-1/4 inches wide by 6-1/2 inches tall, the common photographic format known as a cabinet card. Below the image is the photographer’s imprint: Ely Cabinet Portrait. The image is notably indistinct in many areas, making detailed observations more difficult. More on that, below.

The subject is an older white man, photographed in 3/4-view, seated in a simple chair with turned legs. His right leg is crossed over the left at the knee. To his left is a small table covered with a light cloth decorated with a bold floral or geometric print in darker tones. He is holding an open book. The subject is posed in front of a plain, flat, light-colored background or wall that has a horizontal border in the form of stylized wave crests.

He is looking straight ahead, over his upheld book. His chair, body and book are all aligned off-center, to his left. He is well-groomed. His hair appears white, or very blond. It is long on the sides, covering all by the lowest tip of his right ear, but ends above the collar of his coat. He has a high, receding hairline, and the hair is parted from the right side, over the top to the left, possibly covering a bald spot. He has a very full and well-groomed beard, perhaps 6 or 7 inches long. His eyes are light-colored, possibly blue. His lips are closed, neither smiling nor frowning. His expression appears alert and focused, yet calm.

Because of his pose, and the quality of the image, it is difficult to make detailed observations about his clothing and accessories. His shirt is white, possibly a starched shirtfront. His collar and tie, if he is wearing either, are not visible because of his beard. One button—possibly a stickpin—is visible on the shirtfront. This appears to be his only jewelry. The shirt cuffs are simple; no cufflinks or buttons are visible.

Over the shirt, and under his coat, is a dark (black?) vest, medium-low cut. It may have lapels, possibly shawl-cut. Vest buttons are not visible and it’s not clear if this is a single- or double-breasted vest. Over the vest, Cyrus is wearing a long, loose-cut, frock coat with notched lapels. It is a solid color, lighter than the vest, possibly a charcoal- or medium-gray or other dark color. It appears to extend at least below Cyrus’s knees. None of the coat buttons are visible, and it’s not clear if this is a single- or double-breasted coat. If I had to guess, I’d say single-breasted.

Cyrus’s trousers are long, similar in color to his coat, and appear generously cut. The trousers are a solid color, no stripes or patterns. The bottom of the trouser legs and his footwear are not visible. It’s not clear if the trousers have a fly or not, or whether Cyrus is using a belt or suspenders.

Looking closer…

Click to open larger image in new window.

In this era, a professional photographer like Cook Ely would keep the negatives of original photos taken by him, as well as negatives he made of pre-existing photographs in order to make copies of those photographs for his customers. The quality of copied photographs depended on the size and quality of the original image. If the original photo was too small, or too indistinct, it would not reproduce well. Large sections of the image might look over- or under-exposed, and any imperfections in the original would be emphasized greatly if the image was enlarged. So it was the photographer’s job to “finish” the job by using a variety of artist’s materials, such as “crayon, ink or water color” to retouch the image.2

If you haven’t done so already, click here to open a new window with Cyrus’s photo and zoom in for a closer look. What do you notice? I see a lot of retouching. Take a look at a few details and ask yourself, is it a photo or a drawing?—

Click to open larger image in new window.

Much like the cabinet card of his wife, Sarah, Cyrus Clark’s eyes have been enhanced with a few strokes of dark ink along the eyelashes and above the upper eyelids. That’s not so unusual, but look at the texture of the skin, pupils and eyebrows. More “drawing” than photograph, I think. Now look at the right hand:

Click to open larger image in new window.

The definition and texture of the fingers, the thumbnail, and the skin of the hand appear to be entirely the (skillful) work of the retoucher. As is pattern on the tablecloth. And this bit of chair leg and seat, just above “Ely” in the photographer’s imprint, is mostly drawn by the artist as well:

Click to open larger image in new window.

Even the wave-form pattern on the “wall” behind and below the sitter’s elbow appears to have been added to a blank background by the artist’s hand:

Click to open larger image in new window.

Original or copy?

Is this print from Cook Ely’s Oshkosh studio an original 1880s photograph, or is it a copy of an earlier photo? I think it’s clear that this is a heavily-retouched copy of an earlier photograph of Cyrus Clark. This copy was made by Cook Ely, in his Oshkosh studio, sometime between August, 1884, at the earliest, and 1889 at the latest. The large amount of retouching suggests that the original photo was smaller, or of poorer quality, or damaged, or some combination of all those factors.

1884 or 18 _ _ ?

So when was the original photo taken? This is difficult. Many potentially useful details of Cyrus’s clothing are not visible due to the pose of the sitter and the heavy retouching. The long, loosely cut frock coat is from an earlier era, possibly 1850-1860. The beard, hair length, and hair style suggest a look common around 1860-1870 or so. Of course, it would not be unusual for an older man, such as Cyrus Clark, to favor hair styles, fashions—even the actual clothes—from earlier in his life.

Can we look at his face and guess his age? I find this approach interesting, but usually more entertaining than accurate. In my experience, men and women of the pre-World War II era invariably look years—even decades—older in posed photographs than they were in real life. But try this thought experiment:

Cyrus was born in 1815. So a photograph taken in:
• 1884-1889 would show him at ages 69 to 74
• 1870-1880 would show him at ages 55 to 65
• 1860-1870 would show him at ages 45 to 55
• 1850-1860 would show him at ages 35 to 45

In this photograph, is Cyrus a prematurely gray 45-year-old circa 1860? A fit and hale 55-year-old in 1870? A vigorous and well-preserved 65- or 70-year-old? I really don’t know. Perhaps somewhere around 50 to 65 years old, meaning the original photo might date from about 1865 to 1880? That’s still a pretty big range…

What do you think? Share your best estimate with us via the “Leave a Reply” box, below. Next time we’ll have a few more Cyrus photos to compare to this cabinet card, and we’ll have a special guest sharing the spotlight with Cyrus in one of the images. We’ll see if those tintypes change your assessment of today’s photo.


  1. 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.

  2. Also, it was not unusual for a photographer to add touches (or a lot of) of color to the final product. Rosy cheeks, gold jewelry, color for hair or clothing were all favorite additions to many 19th-century photographs. This photograph of Cyrus does not employ those types of color retouching, however.

As mentioned in a previous post, 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 Cyrus Clark may have been an albumen silver print. Next time we will check out a very different photographic process, the tintype. Click the links for the related videos.

6 thoughts on “Cyrus Clark’s Cabinet Card

  1. I vote 1870-1880: 55 – 65, probably closer to 60. This print has little detail in the face that would help. And surely his face would have had a lot of character by the time the original photograph was taken – with the life of a farmer.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An amazing amount of information from one photograph for a “non-expert”. Thanks, Reed. I would still have to say post-1884 just because of Ely’s imprint, although I realize he would have been working on an older negative or print. Looking forward to the next.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Why is Cyrus smiling? Tintypes! | Clark House Historian

  4. Pingback: Tintypes! part 2 | Clark House Historian

  5. Pingback: RBOH – Photo Mystery, 1865 | Clark House Historian

Comments are closed.