RBOH – Photo Mystery, 1865

Another in our occasional series of Random Bits of History, illustrating life as experienced by the early Mequon settlers and their contemporaries. Today we examine a photograph that may—or may not—depict an early Mequon settler or their kin.

Is this a photo of young Sarah (Strickland) Clark?

Reader Eric Pearman is a descendant of early Mequon settlers Cyrus Clark and Sarah Strickland. For a while last year Clark House Historian spent some time tracing Cyrus and Sarah’s lives, and analyzing some old photographs of those Mequon pioneers here, here, here, here and here (and a few more places, too; just use the blog’s Search function and keyword “Cyrus” or “tintype”).

Eric recently sent me this, unidentified, photo that belonged to a Cyrus and Sarah Clark descendent, and wondered if it might be of a previously un-photographed member of the Cyrus Clark or Sarah Strickland families. Even if this is not a Cyrus Clark or Sarah Strickland family member, the photo has a unique feature that you may want to know about as you examine other old photos. Let’s take a look…

1865 photo, possibly of a Cyrus Clark relative, obverse. Photo courtesy Eric Pearman, used by permission. Click to open larger image in new window.

What do we see?

Unfortunately, we do not have the original photo at hand; we are working from a copy and are not sure of the original dimensions. Depending on the size of the original image, this is probably either a carte de visite, or a slightly larger albumen print cabinet card. Both formats were very popular in the mid-nineteenth century.

Our subject is a white woman, shown in three-quarter view. She is posed against a plain white background, her left arm on a posing table that is draped in a boldly-pattered, fabric table cloth. She is seated upright, in an elaborately carved Victorian-era armchair. Her chair, body, and face are set at an angle to the camera, looking to her left.

Her dark hair is parted in the center, combed tightly to her head and gathered, it appears, into a large chignon that hangs over the back of her neck. Her face is serious, the corners of the mouth turned down. Her eyes are light in color, very possibly blue.

She is wearing a dress (or matching blouse and skirt) of a shiny, dark fabric with a small, light (white?) grid pattern. The bodice is snug but not unnaturally so, with 8 or 9 buttons closing the front and featuring dropped shoulders with a kind of epaulet feature made of the same fabric. The sleeves are simple, generously cut, and fasten snugly at the cuffs. The skirt is full and has many pleats. There is some kind of undergarment under the bodice; a bit of white undergarment can be seen peeking out at the collar and cuffs.

No cuff-links, rings, or earrings are visible. There is an oval brooch at the throat, with a shiny (brass?) border and a light or white center that may have a design or cameo on it. Her hands show signs of hard work. Her nails are short, trimmed and undecorated.

Always look on the back…

The photo displays all the hallmarks of a mid-1800s studio photograph. This is confirmed when we turn the image over:

? CLARK (Cyrus) family photo (back)

1865 photo, possibly of a Cyrus Clark relative, reverse. Photo courtesy Eric Pearman, used by permission. Click to open larger image in new window.

The reverse side includes the imprint of photographer J. S. Anderson of Rockford, Illinois. At the time this photo was printed, his studio was located on the east side of State Street in Rockford. But there is another, special, piece of evidence on the back of the photo.

Revenue Stamp, 1865

The orange stamp on the back of this image is of the reasons I wanted to talk about it today. This is a U.S. revenue stamp. The history of revenue stamps is more complicated than I want to go into today, but this article is a nice introduction. More to the point, tax stamps like this were required on U.S. photographs from August 1, 1864 until the tax was repealed on August 1, 1866.

Actual “Photography” revenue stamps had not been issued by 1864, so photographers often used other tax stamps with the same value. In this case, photographer Anderson has used a two-cent “Bank Check” revenue stamp. As required, he signed the stamp with his initials—J. S. A.—and the date of the transaction, Aug. 4, 1865. So we know that this photograph was taken—or at least printed—on August 4, 1865.

Could this be a younger Sarah (Strickland) Clark?

If this photo was taken mid-1865, could this be younger Sarah (Strickland) Clark? We know that by August, 1865, Sarah (Strickland) Clark was 42 years old, had been married to Cyrus Clark for 24 years, and had borne nine or ten children. Our mystery woman seems much younger, though it’s often hard to judge ages in these 19th-century photos. Let’s look at a side-by-side comparison of our youngish 1865 woman, and the elderly Sarah (Strickland) Clark, aged 65-67, taken circa 1889-1891 and see if they are possibly related.

Mystery photo, 1864, and Sarah Strickland photo, c. 1889-91. Slide the < > slider to compare faces.

I’m not a pro at this, but I’ve cropped the photos—and slightly rotated Sarah’s image— so that the two heads are roughly the same height from chin to top of head and close to the same vertical alignment. Click-and-drag the slider to the left and right and compare the two faces. What you think?

It’s not a perfect juxtaposition, but close enough to see that—in spite of several decades’ difference in age—these two women have distinctly different features. Eyebrows, eyes, nose, ears are all very different in shape, size, and placement on the face. I feel pretty confident in saying that our 1865 photograph is not an image of the 42-year-old Sarah (Strickland) Clark, but of an entirely different woman.

So who is this?

Who is this? It would be easier to make an informed guess if I knew how old our 1865 sitter was. Is she in her mid-40s? Or is she only 25 or 30 years old? I have no idea. It’s probably not a daughter of Cyrus and Sarah (Strickland) Clark. They only had two (or three) daughters; one (or two) died in infancy, and Ida Estella Clark was only nearing her third birthday when this woman’s photo was taken.

Were any of the Clark-Strickland family—or their future spouses—in Rockford, Illinois, in 1865? We know this photograph descended to its current owners through the Dr. Edwin L. Clark side of the family. Edwin was the fifth of Cyrus and Sarah Clark’s children; he was born in 1849. Later in life Edwin and his wife, Mollie/Molly Phoebe Fullerton lived and worked in Rockford. But in 1865, Molly was only 12 years old. So this is not Molly. Could it be her mother, Phoebe (Babcock) Fullerton? It’s not impossible, but we can’t know just by looking at this one photograph.

My guess is that this woman is probably not from the Clark-Strickland side of Dr. Edwin L. Clark’s family. I would look for a woman born between, perhaps, 1825 and 1845, who lived in—or at least visited—Rockford, Illinois in mid-1865. It’s possible that this is a bridal portrait, so Eric might also look for a couple on his family tree that were married around 1865.

Final observation

Thanks again to Eric Pearman for sharing this photograph with us. Even if today’s subject is not—to our knowledge—an early Mequon settler, there is one very good reason to look closely at her precisely-dated portrait. Compare the general shape and styles of the clothing, hairstyle and brooch of today’s mystery woman with the similar features on our one-and-only—and undated—portrait of Mary (Turck) Clark:

Mary Turck Clark. Undated photograph courtesy Liz Hickman. Click to open larger image in new window.

I need to take a much closer look at Mary’s photo, but the similarities in dress, hairstyle, and jewelry are very apparent. They suggest a date for Mary’s portrait closer to 1865, perhaps, than either 1855 or 1875. Something to think about…

Stay safe. Be well.

2 thoughts on “RBOH – Photo Mystery, 1865

  1. Reed, thanks so much for taking the time to research this photo and provide your thoughts. The comparison to Mary Clark is interesting. If this woman is not a Clark she may be a member of the French family. Three French women married Evans men from what I can tell. Evans is my grandfathers last name on my mother’s side. The Evans and French families were in the Rockford area during that time period.


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