Dating and interpreting old photographs, part 4 of 4
In our final look at photographs from the family of early Mequon settlers Cyrus and Sarah (Strickland) Clark, we’ll look at two more tintypes, one full-length portrait of Cyrus Clark, and a similar dual portrait of Cyrus and daughter Ida Estella (Clark) Van Slyke. We will examine the clothing, props, backgrounds and other aspects of both photographs, and try and determine when and where the photos were taken.
If you missed our previous explorations in photo analysis and the lives of Cyrus and Sarah Clark, you may—at least—want to check our previous tintype post, Why is Cyrus smiling?, before heading on to these wonderful photos:
As with our previous example, both of today’s photos are so-called sixth-plate tintypes, roughly 2.5 by 3.5 inches. And even though the two tintypes currently reside in the homes of separate descendants, living many hundreds of miles from each other, it appears the two photos were made in the same studio, and possibly at the same session.1
Not only do they share the same backdrops, but both photos once sported nearly identical paper frames. The paper frame for Cyrus’s solo photo is still in good condition and is shown in full above, and in detail below, left. The frame for the dual portrait is much more deteriorated, but very similar, and is shown in detail below, right.2
Let’s start with the photo of Cyrus and daughter Ida Estella (Clark) Van Slyke. Of today’s two tintypes, this photo’s exposure is better—although far from ideal—and shows more detail of the subjects and the studio background.
Cyrus Clark and Ida Estella (Clark) Van Slyke, tintype. Photo courtesy Lynette Thompson.
This is a dual portrait, with both subjects standing, hands to their sides. Ida is to Cyrus’s right and looks to the right of the camera. Cyrus is taller than Ida, and looks toward the camera’s left side. They are posed in front of a painted backdrop, a common feature of 19th-century studio portraits. This backdrop depicts a mature birch tree rising to frame the left side of the image; several smaller trees are seen behind it. At the tree’s base, and partly obscured by Ida’s dress, are a large painted rock and picnic basket among long strands of painted grasses or similar plants. Behind these is a large body of water, suggesting one of the large lakes near Oshkosh, perhaps.
Another feature of this photograph, common in much earlier photographic portraits, is evidence of posing stands behind Cyrus and, perhaps, Ida:
These stands were heavy, metal, adjustable devices that early photographers placed behind their subjects to keep them still during the long exposures needed for early photographic processes such as daguerreotypes. The posing stand had a heavy base (see the red circles), a tall vertical pole of varying design, and a pair of adjustable “clamps” that would be positioned on the back of the subject’s head to hold it steady during the exposure.
I wonder, though, why Cyrus–and possibly Ida (I’m not sure if she has a stand or not)—needed posing stands at all. By the time these tintypes were made, exposure times were down to just a second or two; that’s not a long time for two adults to stand without moving. On the other hand, the depth of field for a tintype was very limited. In order to get two subjects into focus in the same photo, the photographer may have preferred to use posing stands to get a better final result.
As was typical for a visit to the photographer in this era, the subjects wear some of their nicest clothes. Cyrus is dressed much as in previous photographs, although a bit more up-to-date than earlier. He has on a white shirt and, as before, his beard hides his collar and tie, if he is wearing either. He wears his usual dark vest, although this vest may be new since the last tintype; it seems higher-cut and lacks shiny metal buttons. I can’t tell if the vest is single- or double-breasted. Attached to the vest are the same watch chain and fob as in Cyrus’s earlier, seated, tintype.
One new touch is his coat. As in his other portraits, Cyrus’s coat is a dark, solid color, though not as dark as his vest. While still long, this single-breasted coat with notched lapels is not an old-fashioned frock coat, but the more modern cutaway style.
His trousers are similar in shade to his coat. The fly-front trousers are long, loosely cut, and end just above his footwear. He appears to be wearing smooth leather boots, with a square or box toe. It’s not possible to tell the style or height of the boots.
Cyrus’s face appears thinner than in earlier photos. His eyes and cheeks appear a bit more sunken, the gaze less clear than before. His hair is less distinctly photographed, but seems a bit wilder at the sides. His beard is fuller, longer, and less neatly shaped than before.
A new feature in these photos are the hats. Cyrus sports a dark (black?) hat on top of his head. The hat has flat, wide brim, perhaps 4 or 5 inches, and a full crown with a slightly-rounded top. It’s hard to tell, but the hat may have a matching flat, (silk?) ribbon, maybe two inches wide, around the band. Why the hat? Chances are, Cyrus always had a hat, but didn’t wear it indoors, and that was how the earlier portraits were posed. But this dual portrait is set “outdoors,” even though made in a studio. Hence, hats.
Ida Estella is wearing a dark hat, whose details are hard to discern in this image. The hat appears to have medium- to low-crown and medium brim. The brim may be flat or slightly drooping. The hat features some sort of dark decorations on top, possibly a combination of flowers or feathers.
Ida Estella (Clark) Van Slyke
Ida is shorter than her father, perhaps by four to six inches, or more (it’s hard to tell exactly how much from the photograph, especially with the hats). Her hair is pulled up under her hat, above her ears, and off of her neck, very possibly in a bun. There are suggestions the hair may be somewhat frizzed at the forehead. Her eyebrows are dark and eyes may be a light color, perhaps blue or green. She does not appear to be wearing earrings. Her gaze is serious.
She is wearing a dark, full length dress with 3/4-length sleeves.3 The sleeves end in cuffs trimmed with darker lace. The bodice may be what Maureen A. Taylor describes as “tight, waistcoat effects; bodice extends just below the waist” and the neckline “high with low stand collar, fewer lace ties.” The bodice fastens with a single long row of small- to medium-sized buttons, closely spaced. (It looks some of the buttons reflected the light better than others.) Her only jewelry appears to be a watch chain with a fob or perhaps a small watch pendant pinned to her left torso. And would you say the skirt was a “draped overskirt…apron-like in shape”?4
As they wrap around Ida’s legs, the diagonal, overlapping skirt edges are trimmed in darker lace-like material that matches the sleeve cuffs. The bottom hem of the skirt is edged with several layers of ruffles in a slightly lighter color that matches the skirt and bodice. Ida appears to be wearing round-toed, dark leather shoes or boots of some kind.
Why is Cyrus smiling?
Here’s something you don’t see in a lot of 19th-century photographs, a big, happy smile:
A wide-eyed grin like this was not possible in the early days of photography. No sitter could hold a smile for the many seconds—or even minutes—it took to make the exposure. But by the time these photos were made, the technology had evolved so that an exposure could be made in seconds. Hence the smile.
And why is he smiling? Because he got his picture taken. And Ida’s, too. Here’s a detail of the image. Cyrus is holding another tintype in its paper sleeve (is it the dual portrait, above?) and seems as pleased as could be. It didn’t take much time or money to buy a few tintypes as souvenirs of the day.
Here’s an enlargeable view of the whole tintype in its original paper case. Open it up and check out the details.
Cyrus Clark, tintype. Photo courtesy Steven Clark Van Slyke
We can see more of the painted backdrop. Are those sailboats in the distance, between the birch tree and Cyrus? And past them, are those bluffs along the distant shore, overlooking the lake? More hints, perhaps, to the location of the photographer’s studio? (It sure looks more like Wisconsin than the Dakotas, to me.)
And we get a much better look at Cyrus’s face, which can help us date the photo. On the one hand, his hair is much longer and untamed on the sides, and he’s gone bald on top. No more comb-over on top. But on the other hand, this tintype, in spite its characteristic underexposure and low-resolution image, manages to take years off of Cyrus’s face by capturing him in a moment of high spirits.
Where were these tintypes made?
As we discussed in our previous post, determining where these tintypes were made is a difficult question. But clearly, with the matching backdrops, similar paper sleeves for the tintypes, and the identical clothing and overall appearance of Cyrus in both photos, it seems quite likely that these two images were made in the same sitting.
And considering the painted backdrop, with its soaring birch trees and lakeshore ambiance, I wonder if these were taken in the midwest, perhaps evoking the shores around Oshkosh. Mere speculation, perhaps, but not unlikely. If we ever find a cabinet card or carte de visite with the same background and a photographer’s imprint (looking at you, Cook Ely!), then maybe we could attribute a photographer to these images.
When were these tintypes made?
Once again, Cyrus’s attire gives few precise clues that would tell us when this photograph was made. For the most part, Cyrus—like many mature men of his time—continues to dress conservatively. His choice of cutaway coat, rather than the old fashioned frock coat, is more up-to-date in general, but does not suggest a specific date.
Ida, however, would appear to favor fashions current around the years 1883-1889 or so. She would have been 21 years old in 1883, 27 years old in 1889. How old do you think she is in this dual portrait?
Sarah’s mother, and Cyrus’s wife, Sarah (Strickland) Clark died March 13, 1891. A short time later, on April 23, 1891, the Madison [South Dakota] Daily Leader noted:
Cyrus Clark departed to-day for Oshkosh, Wis. He was accompanied by his daughter, Mrs. F. R. VanSlyke, who will be absent from the city several months, and perhaps visit the Pacific coast before she returns.
Is it possible that these photographs were taken in 1891, when Cyrus and Ida traveled together after Sarah’s death? Did they visit their old preferred photographer in Oshkosh? Or did Ida (and Cyrus?) actually get to the Pacific coast? Perhaps the backcloth in the tintypes is supposed to be the coast of Oregon or northern California. (Do they even have birch trees along the Pacific coast? I’m not sure.) In the spring of 1891, Ida would have been 28 years old and Cyrus almost 76.
Are we looking at a 28 years old Ida and 75 year old Cyrus in 1891? Let me know in the comments, below.
This is the end of our exploration into the lives of early Mequon pioneers Sarah A. Strickland and Cyrus Clark and their family. Next time: back on the trail of Jonathan M. Clark and family.
- Once again, many thanks to Clark and Strickland descendants Steven Clark Van Slyke and Lynnette Thompson for the photos and family history assistance. It’s been fun—and educational—for me and, I hope, our readers.
- Of course, these paper frames may have been manufactured in the hundreds or thousands for sale to many photographers around the nation. But they are nearly identical, which adds a bit more evidence that the same studio produced today’s two photos.
- As mentioned on the previous posts, I am by no means an expert in the history of clothing. I manage pretty well with the terminology of men’s attire, but I am most definitely an inexperienced amateur when it comes to describing and analyzing women’s dress. I welcome a better description and analysis of Ida’s clothing from any knowledgable reader.
- All the women’s dress description quotations are adapted from pages 89-91 of Maureen A. Taylor’s Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs, 2nd edition, 2005. Highly recommended, as are Ms. Taylor’s other publications.