Harry Garfield

What it is:

Carte de visite (CDV) measuring 2.3 x 4 inches.

What I know about it:

The subject is identified on the front as Harry Garfield.  No date or photographer’s information, but see below.


While going through a box, looking for inspiration for this post, I found this photo, which I had largely forgotten.   The guy’s a looker, but it’s small, it’s pretty beat up, it’s not much more than head and shoulders, the name Harry Garfield didn’t ring a bell, and it was sold to me as just one of a batch of random old photos.  So I had always skipped right over it to more interesting photos.  But this time I paused and thought I should at least do an internet search on the name.  It’s rather unusual for the photo’s subject to be identified in this way, a practice most typical with celebrities.  His leading man looks and his bold tie made me assume he was some sort of entertainer.  But a Google search revealed that he was a different type of celebrity.  Harry Augustus Garfield led a distinguished life as a lawyer, as president of Williams College, and as director of the Federal Fuel Administration under President Wilson.  But his initial fame came as the eldest son of President James A. Garfield.  Cartes de visite were at about the height of their popularity around this time, and while people would obviously buy photos of themselves in this style, photos of celebrities, including politicians, were also big sellers.  So it makes sense that a photo of the handsome young son of the nation’s leader would be published.  In fact, realizing who this is, I did a search and found similar CDVs on an auction site for President Garfield, his wife, his mother, and three of his five children, including another copy of this one.  I’m going to assume this photo was published during that presidency.  (I doubt a photo would be published of the son of a mere Congressman, and the outfit seems too youthful and informal for one of his later incarnations.)  In that case, given that the Garfield Presidency was so brief (it ended with Garfield’s assassination, which Harry witnessed), this photo can be dated to 1881, when Harry was 17.  If you’re interested in comparing, other youthful photos of Harry can be found here and here.  I’m so glad I bothered to give this photo a chance!

2 comments on “Harry Garfield”

  1. Boy, he really has a look that would be popular today–even his expression for the photo seems like it would fit perfectly in the pages of “Vanity Fair” or other modern magazine. They could put him right into the cast of “Deadwood*”–but 95% of contemporary costumers would remove that tie. It’s hard for today’s eyes to get around the “effeminate” association big bows have. One of the major perils of costuming: the real things that modern audiences won’t accept.

    Not that I didn’t notice he went on to do more than look pretty!

    *This pic is just a few years later than the series is set, but I suspect no one would notice.

    • Yes, I completely agree, I think he has a very contemporary sort of handsomeness about him. I’m never sure whether certain faces are timeless or whether they have just cycled back into fashion. And you’re right about that bow. The other day I was watching a contemporary movie set in the early-to-mid 20th Century, and I noticed a detail or two that felt period incorrect, and yet I realized that to have made them accurate would have required the sort of explanation that would have bogged down the moment. Choices made that resulted in inauthenticity nevertheless served the overall telling of the story (assuming that much thought went into it in the first place). It’s always so interesting to watch movies (or plays, or whatever) that try to be as authentic as possible regardless.

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