Donkeyback Dudes

Once photography was liberated from the studio setting – which didn't take long after there were alternatives to daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, and especially after dry-plate negatives were invented – photos taken of travelers on site became common. This turn of the century cabinet card from the American Southwest or Mexico pictures dudes of the first order perched in their street clothes and sombreros on donkeys and burros. The tough, sure-footed little pack animals (the burro being the common distinguishing term for the smaller size) are quite capable of carrying adult passengers, but they get their sure revenge by making their riders look rather absurd (particularly a long-legged man like the one second from the left, back row) and anything but a slow pace will not make for happy campers.

There is no identification for the photographer or vacationers on this 5" x 9" cabinet print.


The Willing Study


In our current culture, formal attire is almost playing at dress-up, essentially a costume for an occasional party event – certainly not a serious and expected part of one's social life.

This portrait is a window into a very different world when a young girl had only to watch her mother, sisters, relatives and friends to learn what her own adult life would hold for her. The studied pose this girl has assumed for the camera may be the product of hours of practice before the mirror and may be in emulation of ones she has seen taken by others.

She may be no younger than thirteen or as old as fifteen, a mere child in our eyes though I doubt if she would agree – this moment in front of the camera is serious business. Judging by her arms, hands and the narrowness of her shoulders, I doubt if she is even five feet tall. This is formal wear but not the grown up evening wear of the ballroom. Her eyes seem to say she is a good and willing study in this business of becoming a woman by the lights of her time and place.

The photographer's mark on the cabinet card is so damaged that the only information is a New York locale. There is no identification of this woman-child. If we could see her in later life, I think we know we would recognize her.


Butch And The Boys

These fellows wouldn't earn the sobriquet of callow – they look like they have been very busy at living. There is no photographer's mark or identification of who they are or where they hailed from, but they sport confidence and appear to have made a success of whatever they have been up to. The one on the left has a little Paul Newman/Butch Cassidy thing going there (before there was a Newman, but contemporary with Cassidy); the man on the right has either had one or two boilermakers at the saloon next door or that is just his habitual appearance; and I think the man in the middle is the owner and preserver of this small cabinet print, but that's just my guess. When this trio walks in, look out!


1853 First Hose Co. Hand Pumper

Written in pencil on the back of this large cabinet card: Hand Engine of the Citizen's Fire Co., built in 1853 for the First Hose Co. of Hagerstown, Md. 

The Citizen's Fire Company of Charles Town, W. VA, acquired it at some later date and for some reason it was photographed on a residential street (Miller Home, Washington St. is indicated) unattached to the team of horses that would have pulled it and with no fire house as part of the picture. Was it out of civic pride and for the record, or was it already an outdated object of curiosity well over a century ago when it was taken?

Early railroad engines, steam tractors, fire engines and other large machinery, and even small appliances like sewing machines or typewriters, were lavishly ornamented by Victorian designers as if they were objects of art, perhaps because they were conflicted by the rapid evolution from an agrarian economy to the appalling filth and ugliness of urban mass industrialization. They got over it – industrial design was soon a matter of efficiency and cost.

This tiny pumper was operated by four men as part of a team who took enormous pride in their strength and stamina as well as their status as protectors of life and property. Steam pumpers were coming into existence at the time this pumper was built, but there was enormous resistance to adopting them even when it became evident that they were far superior in performance – the cost of fire insurance and ever taller buildings brought cities to a more rational mindset: machine over muscle.



Ruggedly Handsome


Taken by Morris of Lawrence, Kansas, this circa 1870s portrait of a 30ish man is unlike anything in the collection. Rarely do you encounter a studio image that reveals such an apparent absence of concern for striking a pose; he is stylishly dressed, so he isn't someone careless of the impression he makes; perhaps he is exceptionally modest and comfortable with himself. Or it may be he was patiently waiting for the photographer to get everything set and was not aware that the photo was being taken. It is an intriguing image.