This woman, born perhaps in the first decade of the nineteenth century, likely lived to witness the Civil War. As inexpensive tintype photographs gained popularity, so did ornate albums where families could collect photographs of loved ones and famous folk alike.1 This tintype, measuring 1.5 x 2 inches, is closest in size to what was considered a sixteenth plate. The embossed paper sleeve in which it was placed brings the size to that of a carte de visite, allowing the tintype to be slipped easily into a slot in an album.2 Paper sleeves such as these were common in the 1860s; while this example doesn’t have a patriotic design that would directly suggest a date during the Civil War, it nevertheless seems probable that it is of that same era.
The woman’s dress has full sleeves, a high collar with possible tatted detail, and a row of fabric-covered buttons down the bodice. Her hair has a center part and is covered by a frilly, old-fashioned daycap with long ribbons that, left untied, frame her face.3 Although her mouth is turned downward, her expression seems kind as she gazes directly at the camera with large, light-colored eyes, her head tilted gently to the side.
I can’t imagine that the woman is younger than fifty years of age; depending on how strenuous her experiences in life may have been, she could also be significantly older but in comparatively good health. She has pleasant features, and, though slim, she doesn’t appear terribly frail. However, her age is apparent as her face and neck are lined and her eyes are deeply set. Daycaps, such as the one she wears, were popular with conservative, older women during this decade.4
This unidentified photograph comes from an album linked to the family of Civil War veteran Jesse M. Smith of Mount Pleasant, Henry, Iowa.5 If I were to attempt to identify the woman in a related family tree, I would look for a woman born circa 1800-1810, perhaps a grandmother or aunt who may have been close to the family. Although paper sleeves made it easier to label tintypes with the names of loved ones – as did photograph albums – perhaps this woman’s identity was so well known to the family that they saw no reason to record her name.
1 Elizabeth Siegel, Galleries of Friendship and Fame: A History of Nineteenth-Century American Photograph Albums (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 148.
2 O. Henry Mace, Collector’s Guide to Early Photographs (Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1999), 116.
3 Joan Severa, Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900 (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997), 182.
4 Joan Severa, Dressed for the Photographer,” 207.
5 Jesse M. and Elizabeth Jane (Baker) Smith Album, ca. 1860-1920; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.