Child from Dayton, Pennsylvania

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What it is:

Cabinet card measuring just under 4.25 x 6.5 inches.

What I know about it:

Photographer is E. L. Sayers of Dayton, Pennsylvania.  Otherwise undated and unidentified.


I’m operating under the assumption that this is a girl, rather than a boy dressed up in what we now think of as girl’s clothing, but I titled it “child” because I wasn’t one hundred percent certain.  I’m not sure what she’s holding in her hands, though given the fact that her necklace looks almost like a rosary, I’m inclined to suspect it might be a prayer book.  Perhaps this photo is commemorating some related occasion?  The outfit, with its bold white trim, is unusual to me, but perhaps the style is familiar to a reader?  I wonder what color the main body of it is.  There’s some strange stuff going on with the image quality, particularly that cloudiness in the upper right, that makes me wonder if something went wrong in its development, or even if it’s a reproduction.  But if it is a reproduction, it was surely done around the time of the original, and I think there’s plenty about this image that is interesting enough to justify posting it.

10 comments on “Child from Dayton, Pennsylvania”

  1. I’m not totally sold on it’s being a girl, because of the haircut and sturdy boots, but I’m not sure. In some ways the dress seems quite feminine, and in other ways it’s less lacy and delicate than it might have been. It reminds me a lot of a John Singer Sargent portrait that I can’t quite locate–hopefully I’ll remember it later. I’m guessing this is 1890’s.

    • Yes, I know what you mean. I was having the same problems with the dress, thinking it looks more feminine than dresses boys wore, yet less feminine than what the girls wore, if such generalizations are even accurate. To me it looks like a costume the Ice Capades might whip up to represent Mrs. Claus, but I realize that’s just silly. As for the hair, I agree it looks like a boy’s cut, but Mrs. Marvel posted an interesting photo on her blog HERE of what is more apparently a girl with a similar cut. It’s so hard to be certain sometimes!

  2. I think it’s a boy….maybe first communion or something. My dad has pictures of himself in a dress when he was a kid and told me that they dressed up boys as girls for some reason in those days. The outfit seems like a religious ‘robe’ to me and maybe that’s a prayerbook in his hands and rosaries around his neck. The ‘book’ he’s holding also looks like a harmonica, but I don’t think so.

    • Hi Dave! Thanks for the input. I’ve posted other pictures of boys in dresses, but sometimes, as in this case, it can just be hard to tell, at least for me. I agree, the dress has almost the quality of a ceremonial robe, but if that’s the case, it’s not one I’m familiar with. It’s certainly unlike all the other first communion photos I have. And I have to say I chuckled at the thought that this kid is holding a harmonica. You’re right, it looks like one.

    • It’s not so much that they dressed boys like girls, as that they dressed all children the same. All children wore dresses until age 6, for several reasons. They didn’t have the same fixation our age does with determining gender, it’s easier to sew dresses, easier to mend dresses, it’s easier to potty train in dresses, and it’s easier if all the children of the family wear the same thing. So, white dresses until either school, apprenticeship, or farmwork.

      • Yeah, I was taken to task for my wording on a previous post of a boy in a dress, so I was careful this time to say it’s clothing we now think of as girls’ clothing. The gender-neutrality of children in that era is fascinating today. I think it’s similar to the way Victorians sometimes photographed little children in ways that strike us today as shockingly erotic, when it was supposedly a reflection of the Victorian view that children are inherently sexless and therefore inherently innocent. Or so I’ve read.

  3. Boy. Three, maybe four years old. That makes it rather early for communion, by which time boys were in pants; yet late for christening. Puzzling because the occasion isn’t clear. Honestly, it looks like a coronation, but that’s unlikely.

  4. Mrs. Marvel’s photo adds an interesting visual to the debate!

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