Frozen in Time

The verso of a William F. Sawtell photograph. Author's collection.

The verso of a William F. Sawtell photograph. Author’s collection.

I recently obtained a small collection of photographs by 19th-century Wellington photographer William F. Sawtell. Since my first posts were text-heavy, I thought it might be fun to post some period images, in the vein of my last entry on “setting the scene.”

Sawtell had a fascinating, but sadly difficult, life. I will tell his story in a future installment. For now, the important thing to know is that he was a Wellington resident for many decades and kept the preeminent photography studio in town from 1866 until 1888. During the “Cheese Boom,” Sawtell was the man most likely to preserve you for posterity. On April 17, 1873, The Wellington Enterprise reported, “A couple of ‘bon-ton’ picture takers hung out their sign here for a few days last week, but left for want of patronage, the people liking Sawtell’s photographs better than the Co.’s cheap pictures” (pg. 3).

There are ten photographs in this little grouping. Nine measure 2.5″ x 4″ while one is a 4″ x 6″ print. The smaller images are a form called “carte de visite” and the larger was called a “cabinet card.” Both were enormously popular in 19th-century America. For those interested in reading more about the history of albumen prints, I highly recommend James M. Reilly’s Care and Identification of 19th-Century Photographic Prints (1986).

Here are some highlights from this small collection:

Undated photograph by William F. Sawtell. Author's collection.

Undated photograph by William F. Sawtell. Author’s collection.

The photographer’s advertising information shown at the top of this post is on the verso of this photograph, featuring a grouping of three young women.

Undated photograph of

Undated photograph of “Addie Dudley” by William F. Sawtell. Author’s collection.

This is the only image that has identification attached to it. The name “Addie Dudley” is marked in pencil on the bottom of the card. I have not been able to find any additional biographical information about her.

Undated photograph by William F. Sawtell. Author's collection.

Undated photograph by William F. Sawtell. Author’s collection.

This is the 4″ x 6″ cabinet card, showing an older, bearded man. It was clearly framed for some part of its existence, and the acidic matting materials used have caused staining around the edges of the photo. The shape of the mounting card and the size and complexity of the photographer’s advertisement on the verso suggest a date of 1880 to 1890. Since Sawtell ceased operations in 1888, the dating window becomes even narrower.

Undated photograph by William F. Sawtell. Author's collection.

Undated photograph by William F. Sawtell. Author’s collection.

Verso of image above by William F. Sawtell. Author's collection.

Verso of image above by William F. Sawtell. Author’s collection.

This image of a young boy is on pink-tinted paper, as you can see on its verso. According to James M. Reilly, “The discovery of new synthetic dyes during the 1860s made possible the tinting of albumen paper. Pink, blue, and violet dyes were added to the albumen before it was coated. The slight highlight coloration that dyes provided lent a pleasing effect and tended to mask the yellowing of the albumen itself. Tinted paper gained popularity during the 1870s, and the bulk of the albumen paper sold after 1880 was tinted. Pink shades were the most popular” (pg. 6).

I love these photographs. I love the idea that I am looking at the faces of people who nodded or tipped a hat to one another daily on the streets I now call home. I love the idea that I smile and nod at their descendants on the same streets. For me, a totally unexpected result of this research project has been a deepening sense of connection to place and community. I have learned that buildings and landscapes and even faces have secrets that can draw you in, if you let them.

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