A Sampling of the Historic Photographs in the Made of Thunder Exhibit

Joan Severa, the Curator Emeritus and costume history consultant for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin Museum wrote:

The nineteenth century was in a very large part based on appearances and that there was a powerful drive towards a proper façade. It was of tremendous, almost moral significance during the nineteenth century that one appear cultured (Severa 1995: xv).

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of fashion in the nineteenth century.

“Fashion is extremely aristocratic in its tendencies,” wrote Mary P. Merrifield in 1854. “Every change emanates from the highest circles, who reject it when it has descended to the vulgar. No new form of dress was ever successful which did not originate among the aristocracy. From the ladies of the court, the fashions descended through all the ranks of society, until they at last die a natural death among the cast-off clothes of the housemaid” (Merrifield 1854).

Nineteenth century ladies’ magazines such as Godey’s Ladies Book, Peterson’s Magazine, Demorest’s, Harper’s Bazaar and others, kept women abreast of the current Paris fashion trends and allowed the average woman the opportunity to venture into the fashion world of the elite and upper classes.

The advent of photography created a permanent record of the individuals who cherished the so called “exotic curiosities” that were made by the Indians. Beyond the dating, the photographs are important because they put the work in context.

The Daguerreotype process, invented in 1839, was the first practical photographic method. It produced a sharp, positive image on a highly polished, silver coated copper plate and it fell out of favor by 1860, replaced by the less expensive Ambrotype. Introduced in 1854, the Ambrotype process produced a negative image on a glass plate that could be viewed as a positive image by the addition of a black paper backing. It fell out of favor by the mid-1860s, replaced by the less expensive tintype and prints that were made on paper, such as cabinet cards and carte-de-visites (CDVs). Tintypes and prints produced on paper first appeared in the 1850s so there is some overlap in the photographic processes that were in use.

With a little effort, these early images can be accurately dated by ascertaining the debut of the clothing styles worn by the subjects.  In the early years of photography the very slow film speeds made time exposures a necessity. This in turn made portraits look static as the subject had to keep still for as much as thirty seconds, or more, depending on lighting conditions. Despite this, having a portrait taken by the fashionably new Daguerreotype process was a grand event that required wearing the newest and most stylish outfit in your wardrobe. So by studying nineteenth century fashion trends an old photograph can often be dated to within just a year or two of when it was taken.

Merrifield, Mary Philadelphia
1854 - Dress as Fine Art, London (Reprinted from articles published the previous year)

Severa, Joan
1995 - Dressed for the Photographer – Ordinary Americans & Fashion 1840-1900. The Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio & London, England.