Well folks, I think it’s time and appropriate that I spin off my blogging about image collecting from my blogging about my own photographic endeavors. I want to differentiate the two activities and use this blog, dcphotoartist.com, as a professional communication channel to talk about and share my portrait work and travel images. So I hope you all will bear with me as I make the transition, and read up on both blogs. The new blog will be http://dcphotocollector.com. I’m using the theme photo of this post as the branding for the collecting site, at least for now. I’m launching it with another post about Tom Thumb and his wife.
No, not a prequel to The Thief, the Cook, His Wife and Her Lover, it’s a CDV by an unidentified photographer of Tom Thumb, his wife, and her sister Minnie Warren.
The latest addition to the collection of Tom Thumb images, this was one I hadn’t seen before. Clipped corners aside, it’s in quite good condition overall. Certainly the image is very clear and sharp, and the print has minimal wear. In the conversation I had with Zoe Trodd, the co-author of Picturing Frederick Douglass, she triggered an interesting thought. The main thesis of Picturing Frederick Douglass is that he is the most-photographed American of the 19th century. I was skeptical of this as his images on the secondary collector market are not common, however the book does document her case rather thoroughly, with 150-some distinct images of him known. This got me to wondering how many different images of my favorite subject to collect are there. I’ll enumerate the Tom Thumb images I have below:
These are the ones I have in my collection. I know there are more out there that I don’t have (one particular one from the wedding, and at least two from the London Stereoscopic Company). This puts me at 15, eighteen if you count the ones I know but don’t have. It’s a far cry from the 150 of Frederick Douglass, but I’m going to keep hunting and collecting and tallying up. Having been a star of stage and circus for most of his life, he was dependent on publicity for his career and would have worked hard to keep his image in the public eye.
The newest addition to the collection of CDVs of little people sideshow performers – Admiral Dot, age thirteen.
I would take his age, height and weight in this photo with a grain of salt – the producers of these CDVs were prone to mis-statement, exaggeration and even outright lies about the subject’s physical traits as part of the sideshow hype. Fat men and women were often described as sometimes a hundred plus pounds bigger than they were. “Giants” were often endowed with an additional six or seven inches in height. In this case, I’ve managed to wangle a series of Admiral Dot at three different ages- 13, 14 and 18. In the span of five years he’s gained an inch (not unbelievable) and only five pounds.
Admiral Dot was born Leopold Kahn in San Francisco. He had two brothers, also little people, who also went on to become sideshow performers – Major Atom and General Pin. He began his career working for P.T. Barnum, but went on to perform with other companies of little people, married another little person, Lottie Swartood, and have two children before dying from the Spanish Flu during the 1918 epidemic at the age of 59. While I do have images of Major Atom, I have yet to come across one of General Pin – he must not have had the career his two siblings did.
Here is my CDV of Major Atom. Can you see a family resemblance?
I haven’t been collecting much lately as I’ve been focused (pun intended) on shooting and creating images more. However, in a casual perusal of Ebay the other day I found this image. I’ve been wanting a CDV of Che Mah for a while. This one is rather faded and not in the best of condition, but I jumped on it as A: it was a reasonable price, and B: CDVs of Che Mah don’t show up all that often. I’ll shop around for another one in better condition later, but having this one fills a gap in my collection.
About Che Mah:
Like many sideshow performers, Che Mah had an exotic backstory. It was claimed that he was born in Ningpo in 1838 off China’s coast on the island of Choo-Sang and discovered by Barnum on one of his worldwide scouting expeditions. The reality is likely more mundane. After his death the book This Way to the Big Show: The Life of Dexter Fellows made the claim that he was Jewish and from London.1
Regardless of his ethnicity and country of origin, Che Mah was a popular attraction and throughout his career he worked in the Barnum & Bailey Circus, Kohl and Middleton dime museum in Chicago and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Unlike many of the more diminutive performers of his day, he married a women far larger than he. His first wife, Louisa Colman was a normal-sized trapeze artist, his second, Norah Cleveland, weighed 200 pounds. Norah and he divorced after 14 years of marriage on the grounds his wife would not provide enough sex.2
Upon retirement, he bought a farm in rural Indiana but working a farm proved to be too difficult. He sold the farm and brought a house in Knox. Che Mah died in 1936 and was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Knox, Indiana.
1.Hartzman Marc, American Sideshow. New York: Tarcher. 2006. 27. Print.
2.Homberger, Francine. Carny Folk. New York: Citadel. 2005. 1-3. Print.
Courtesy of the Sideshow Slideshow
Note the signature in the upper left of the verso. It appears to be hand-signed in ink, so that may well be his actual signature.
Over the weekend I was on a Civil War history tour with the inimitable Ed Bearss. Another tour participant was a fellow civil war image collector and a re-enactor who talks about Civil War medicine. He also works for the Civil War Medical Museum in Frederick, Maryland. We were discussing images in our collections and he too has a copy of this CDV, and even without my prompting, described it as Clara Barton and John J. Elwell. I’m still going to take some time to go down to the Library of Congress to try and verify the image in their collection. But it’s good to know that I’m NOT alone in my interpretation of who these sitters are.
A new acquisition to the CDV collection – another Civil War soldier (definitely Union this time!) complete with sword, cap, and patriotic studio backdrop. The sword, his youth, and the overall style of his uniform suggest to me junior grade officer. Some non-commissioned officers did carry swords, particularly in the cavalry and artillery, but they would have had rank insignia on their sleeves.
This is the first soldier portrait from the period that I have which has a patriotic battle-themed background (notice the cannon to his right just above the table, along with the field tents and flag). This was a popular thing to do during the Civil War for soldiers. Many itinerant photographers had backdrops painted to depict scenes of camp life in front of which they would pose the soldiers. These backdrops served as positive propaganda back home, as it gave the soldiers’ loved ones a sense of normalcy to the life of their son/brother/husband/father. This one was done in a proper studio in Washington DC, just a few doors down the street from Matthew Brady’s parlor. I would guess based on the rather healthy looking condition of the young man that this was taken before he first marched into the field, and probably early in the war.
On a separate but not entirely unrelated note – if you observe carefully, you can see the foot of the posing stand peeking out from behind his legs. I’ve been seeing a lot of comments on Facebook lately about how some at best tragically uninformed and at worst scandalously unscrupulous people out there on Ebay and other online venues have been describing ANY photo of this period where the posing stand is visible as a post-mortem. I want to debunk this myth as strenuously and vigorously as possible. Posing stands were NOT meant to keep corpses in the upright position while they were being photographed. For that matter, most genuine post-mortems I’ve seen have shown the deceased in a prone position if an adult, sometimes sitting up or being held by a parent if a child, but even then children were not uncommonly posed in their coffins.
I would say that this young man is very definitely, obviously alive and well at the time of the taking of this photograph, wouldn’t you agree?
The latest acquisition in my collection – an unnamed Corporal in the US Army, photographed by Alexander Gardner.
If you look carefully you can see the service stripe on his sleeve. This designates three years of service, so in all likelihood this was taken in 1864, as Gardner was working for Mathew Brady until late 1862, and opened his own Washington DC studio in 1863. Soldiers with the three year service stripe would have been quite rare before 1864 due to the politics of enlistment in the first years of the war and the relatively small size of the army prior to 1861. I’m not sure how long after the War ended he continued to use the “Photographer to the Army of the Potomac” logo, but it most likely ceased within a year or two after the war, as the civilian population quickly tired of reminders of the irrepressible bloody conflict.
I just discovered one reason why Gardner studio imprint CDVs are so much less common than Brady studio imprint CDVs – Gardner ceased photographing in 1871 and opened an insurance firm, whereas Brady continued working as a photographer until his death three decades after the war.