Friday, May 24, 2019

Old-Time Photography: Say Cabbage

Never say "shoot" when you mean "photograph," 
especially when talking to a trigger-happy gunslinger.
                                                          -A Vision of Lucy

Recently, it was my granddaughter’s prom night. Students, parents and grandparents met beforehand for three hours of picture-taking.  As I watched the photo frenzy, I showed my age by commenting that Matthew Brady and his helpers were able to record the entire Civil War with only 1100 photographs. I wonder what he would think today if he knew that a simple high school prom required many times that number?

I’ve always been interested in old-time photography and have nothing but awe for the brave souls who first took camera in hand.  Not only did they contend with unwieldy equipment but also dangerous chemicals and exploding labs.
Women had an advantage over male photographers who were often confounded by female dress. This explains why one photographer advertised in 1861 for an assistant, “Who understands the hairdressing business.”
Women also had a few tricks up their leg-of-mutton sleeves—or rather their skirts.  Elizabeth Withington invented a “dark thick dress skirt” to use as a developing tent when she traveled. 
Then there was Julia Shannon of San Francisco who, in 1850, took the family portrait to new heights when she shockingly advertised herself as "a daguerreotypist and midwife." 
Women photographers were no better than men in preventing the cheerless expressions in those early photographs. The sourpuss faces were partly due to the uncomfortable vices that held heads still for long periods of time. Photographers used all sorts of devices to hold a client’s interest.  One even had a trained monkey. Another photographer had a canary that sang on command.  Mechanical birds were a favorite gimmick and “Watch the birdie” became a familiar refrain in studios across the country.
Magazines and newspaper ran ample advice for posing.  An 1877 edition of The Chicago Inter-Ocean advised women with large mouths to say the word “flip,” although one photographer preferred the word “prunes.” If a small mouth was the problem saying “cabbage” would make it appear larger.
Not everyone was enamored with cameras.  One nineteenth century dog owner put up a sign warning “photographers and other tramps to stay away” after his dog had an unfortunate run-in with a tripod.
Did photography have a bearing on the suffragette movement?  Indeed, it did, but it appeared to be more of a detriment than a help.  The photographs of militant suffragettes or women dressed in bloomers did more harm than good.
If you think America was tough on suffragettes, think again. The women’s rights movement was considered the biggest threat to the British Empire.  According to the National Archives the votes-for-women movement became the first "terrorist" organization subjected to secret surveillance photography in the world. 

Photography has come a long way since those early daguerreotype days.  One can only imagine what the brave souls of yesteryear would think of today’s “aim and click” cameras.  Now days we can’t even drive down the street without having our picture taken. Our only defense is to stay home until ready for a close-up. 

 His first mistake was marrying her; his second was falling in love


  1. Thanks for the post! I love people sharing their pictures nowadays, but are we so busy taking the pictures that we miss the moment itself?

  2. That's a good question, Connie. To me, photographs are one dimensional and you miss a lot when staring at a screen. As my daughter likes to say, I'm probably the only person in the world who can go on vacation and return without a single photograph.

    1. Good for you, Margaret! I wouldn't say THAT would be the case with me, but I don't have to memorialize every moment of daily life.