Here’s a brick wall that I’ve been taking a semi-masochistic pleasure in butting my head up against. A single photo found among other family photographs that has no identification other than the imprint on the left: Sturgis Union School. Is this a keepsake from a cherished friend? Or is there (fingers crossed) a family member here? So far, all research has ended in a null result.
Date? 1860-ish. The original size of the photograph is not known to me, and the only other clue is the sepia toned albumen print on thin paper that has been mounted on card stock – it could be either a carte de visite, or a cabinet card – both were popular in the 1860’s. I dislike being ambiguous, so for starters, let’s put this one in the late 1860’s. I arrived at that date through the details and hints in their clothing, and by keeping in mind that these people were almost certainly school staff and would dress conservatively to set a good example for their students…
Nearly bandbox fresh: Bodices of the 1860’s fastened down the front with buttons, and the buttons got progressively larger as the decade drew to a close. Small white collars often fastened by a brooch were considered fashion forward. Shoulders were long and sloping, with sleeve openings that circled the upper arm. Bishop sleeves, jockey waists with belts, full skirts with a slightly flatter front, hints of braid and bodice trim, and quietly prominent jewelry, all suggest the early part of the decade had been left behind and trends were moving towards the more flamboyant styles of the 1870’s.
Coiffures: Crimps were worn in a girlish and playful style, but the conservative fashionistas often wore their hair center-parted and pulled back into a bun, with a hair net, then let the bun release to fall down the neck.
Birds of a different feather: Let’s not exclude the less showily dressed – and perhaps more telling members of the group. These two men seem to be dressed in a transitional style; the jackets are baggy (sack jackets), with large flat lapels and low collars, a style very popular in the late 1850’s, but both men sport single-breasted vests, high shirt collars with narrow silk ties, and not the double breasted waistcoat and two-inch wide and knotted silk ties of the previous decade. On the other hand, neither one wears the wide and squared-ended neckties worn low on the throat that were so popular in the 1870’s. Their coats and vests are made from contrasting fabrics. Ditto suits – where all components are made of the same material – were still a novelty in the 1860’s.
The latest from the tonsorial parlor: Hair is cut ear-length in the back, parted on the side, and combed smoothly back with neatly trimmed sideburns and whiskers – a huge departure from the longer, over-the-ear style with a high front wave and the smoothly shaven face of the 1850’s.
I’ve spent so much time being fascinated by the details found in the photograph – from the obvious (that carpet!), to the not-so obvious (is that a pelisse or a paletot?), that even if there is no family connection, I still have a piece of history that has given me a lot of enjoyment. I adore the nearly matching plaid fabrics that two of the young women are wearing, and the older gent with the far-seeing eyes blows me away.
And the poses; one man’s hand placed on a woman’s shoulder, another woman has her hand on a chair back, the two women in the back row turned slightly inward, one posed in 3/4 profile, and the favorite; the young woman seated in front – yes, the one who is wearing the jacket – fingertips resting on her face, and lounging with an elbow braced on the central figure’s knee. All of this seems to suggest the idea of a casual family group, but I don’t see any similarities in the faces, and that leaves me firmly in the camp that says this is a group of coworkers (note the bands worn on the ring fingers of the two women in plaid – they weren’t students).
But… there is one young woman, center row left, whose features bear a certain family resemblance, and teaching as a vocation keeps popping up in the Saucier family – could we be connected to one of the people in this photo, after all?