What: Review of Uncoverings 1991, Volume 12 of the Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group
Topic: “Quilts Used as Backdrops in Old Photographs”
Author: Vista Anne Mahan: the time of publication this author was a lab instructor in Anatomy and Psychology at Chattanooga State Technical Community College and had worked as a volunteer in both the Tennessee and Georgia state quilt documentation projects.
The author of this article had nineteenth century family images in which quilts were used as backgrounds. That piqued her interest in learning more about when and why quilts were used as backdrops in these photographs. Her research, of necessity, also led to learning and reporting on the development of photography in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. All that and more in included in some detail in this article.
She begins with the invention of photography dating from 1839 with the work of Louis Daguerre and follows with the rapid development of various methods that reduced the amount of time, cost, and difficulty required to develop the images. From the daguerreotypes on silver-plated copper sheets to wetplate on glass to the ambrotypes (also on glass) to the tintype (actually done on iron), the process advanced and photography studios flourished across the country to the point that the first national convention for photographers was held in 1868 and “Tintype photography studios were commonplace in the United States by 1871.” [pp. 50-51]
George Eastman invented his Kodak camera in 1888 preloaded with enough film to shoot 100 images. It cost $25 to purchase the camera. When the roll was fully exposed it was sent back to the factory to be developed. Images were developed and returned to the sender with the camera reloaded for a $10 charge. This wasn’t necessarily affordable for the masses, but it brought the photography business out of the studio and was the beginning of the end for many photographic studios. Itinerant photographers began to prosper traveling around their region making a living taking pictures of families in their element. Happily for us they and their customers left a record of how people looked and lived in that era. This is primarily when the practice of using quilts as backdrops developed. This is also when instruction manuals were developed and distributed, standardizing practices for staging their photographic sessions.[p. 54]
Of particular interest to me are the suggestions in these manuals that one should…“Never sit or stand them all in a row. Some sit, some stand. Some lean against the fence or some other suitable place…Always place strangers and hired help so far to one side of the picture that they don’t take.”[p. 54] I cannot tell you how many Solomon Butcher images of homesteaders in Nebraska in the last quarter of the nineteenth century I looked at during research for my book in which the participants were arranged just so. I always wondered about those people way off to the side standing with the livestock or farm implements. Mahan also notes that many times people wanted to include personal items that were precious to them. I saw that many times in Butcher’s images with sewing machines and family bibles being most common.
This article is full of information on the development of photography and how quilts became a prominent feature in late nineteenth century, early twentieth century colloquial photographs across the expanding country. At the same time those photographs became a vital link between family members who were separated from each other by time and distance as national borders were being pushed ever further westward. And they became an important visual record of those people and their very real existence.
If you do not have a copy of this, or any, edition of Uncoverings, check the publication list on the AQSG website to see if the particular volume is available…many still are. To access an online version of any issue of Uncoverings find the links at www.quiltindex.org. As always, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.