Older woman from New Bedford, Massachusetts
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What it is:
Cabinet card measuring 4.5 x 6.25 inches.
What I know about it:
Photographer is C. S. Jordan of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Otherwise undated and unidentified.
What a great face, right? “Such character!” we’d say. “What a full life she must have led!” Or so we assume, as we project ourselves onto her. Was she surrounded by friends and family, or essentially a loner? Did she live a life of toil, or a life of leisure? Was she smart or stupid? Was she a twinkly, happy soul, or was she shriveled and bitter? Really, I don’t know. This face can be interpreted in all these ways and more. What are my clues? She’s clearly older, and you simply don’t live that long without having had some major life experiences, good and bad. She’s dressed nicely and getting her photo taken, so presumably she’s not a miserly misanthrope. What was her life like in New Bedford (assuming she actually lived there)? New Bedford was nicknamed “The Whaling City” for its dominant 19th Century industry. Herman Melville sailed from New Bedford as a crew member on a whaling ship before writing Moby-Dick. The city is home to the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. But it was more than that. Frederick Douglass made his home in New Bedford after escaping slavery. (Click here for a list of monuments celebrating black heritage in New Bedford.) And by the time this photo was taken, the whaling industry would have been in decline. (Once upon a time, the primary source of oil for lamps and wax for candles was whale blubber, which changed with the modern oil boom after Drake discovered oil with his well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859. Ironically, as devastating to the environment as the current oil industry is, it is credited with having largely saved whales as a species.) Was our lady here even remotely connected with the whaling industry? Did her fortunes rise and fall with it? I can make up stories in my mind about how she was twice widowed by husbands lost at sea, or how she was heiress to a great whaling fortune, but let’s face it, I have no idea. Perhaps, instead, she was a fiery abolitionist? Or, heck, maybe all of the above? I find it so interesting that her face speaks volumes to us without our actually knowing what those volumes say.