Older woman from New Bedford, Massachusetts

Click here to view it larger.

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.

11 comments on “Older woman from New Bedford, Massachusetts”

  1. Yoou are very entertaining today! 🙂 She has amazingly smooth skin for an older person. Did they touch up photos back then?

    • Thanks! 🙂 That’s a good question about the smooth skin. I’ve noticed similar skin on so many antique pictures, wrinkle-free old people, pimple-free teenagers, etc. I wonder how they are so consistently without blemishes, and I keep meaning to try to see if there was some technique used to achieve that effect, but it keeps getting shoved to the back burner.

      • I can take a somewhat rudimentary stab and the flawless finish issue.

        The short version: the soft focus and soft diffusion we see on a lot of your photos is due to altered focus and lighting.

        Retouching negatives happened as early as 1850. They probably wouldn’t have wanted to soften wrinkles that way, but blemishes can be erased that way. Some of the more famous of your photographers might have retouched negatives for this effect, depending on their general view on photography as art form.

        Part of the soft focus of many of your portraits is due to lighting. It is very difficult to light a subject well, and to minimize shadows photographers often used filtered light (usually lights softened by fabric). Soft light equals soft focus. Soft focus means you don’t see wrinkles or blemishes or fine details.

        I’m sure some of the obscured details in some of the photos are also due to the popularity of pictorialism, a movement in which photographs were intentionally kept a bit out of focus to express an art form divergent from the science of photography.

        The political answer, though, is that just as heavily staged as the subjects, the technical aspects were very carefully altered to soften those who society felt should be softer.

        I can get you access to this article through the Cal library:
        Just email me and I’ll print it and send it to you.

        Hope this helps a bit.

      • Wow, thanks! Intellectually I know all this, but it’s easy to forget. It’s easy to look at vintage photos and assume an attitude that anything that old must be inherently primitive. I remember reading something about the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron that said her photos are so typically soft and gauzy that it’s easy to assume that’s the best she was capable of, until you see a photo in sharp focus and realize the softer ones are an artistic choice. Part of the thing with my old photos is that they are well enough done that you don’t especially notice the effect until you see a bunch of flawless faces in a row and start to wonder about it. That’s when you start to recognize the skill of the photographers back then.

  2. Naptime, thanks for answering my question. 🙂 Checked out your blog…very nice…you amuse me…I will be following.

  3. Very interesting piece of history. She was a beautiful lady. Great post!

    • Thanks, Jenna! Sometimes I get carried away googling things when I’m doing a post. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      • As a lover of historical research, I know just what you mean about googling things. 🙂 It’s fun to learn these little bits and pieces and put them all together.

      • Yes, digging around for information can be fun, I’m glad you get it. It can be dangerous, though. Sometimes I’ll sit down to post a photo, thinking it will take fifteen minutes, and something captures my interest, I start googling, and suddenly an hour or two has passed. 🙂

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