Parson Brownlow

By: usermattw

Jun 26 2019

Tags: , ,

Category: Men


Click here to view it larger.

What it is:

Carte de visite (CDV) measuring 2.5 x 4 inches.


What I know about it:

Sitter is identified as Parson Brownlow.  Otherwise no information.



In the mid- and late- 1800s, cartes de visite were a widely used format for photographs, inexpensive to produce, easy to reproduce, and perfect for mailing in small envelopes.  This made them popular with ordinary people as a means of having portraits of themselves and their loved ones, but it also lent itself to a booming trade in collectible celebrity photographs, which were sold in stores like postcards are today.  A photographer or publisher might produce such photos for the money, but famous people might sell pictures of themselves as a means of increasing their popularity and attempting to control their own image, since these cards could often be circulated more widely than, say, a newspaper.  (I have at least one other collectible celebrity CDV in my collection, seen here, showing the image of the son of President Garfield.)  I had never heard of Parson Brownlow, but I suspected he was worth looking up.  Sure enough, he was quite the controversial figure in his day.  William Gannaway Brownlow (1805-1877) was, among other things, a traveling preacher, a newspaper editor, the Governor of Tennessee, and then a Senator from Tennessee.  He was combative and inflammatory, picking fights (sometimes physical ones) every step of the way.  Though he was pro-slavery, he was strongly anti-secession, and campaigned so vehemently against Tennessee joining the Confederacy that he was jailed for treason once it did.  Elected Governor at the end of the Civil War, he pushed the state into quick ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments (outlawing slavery), and sought to restore former slaves to full citizenship during Reconstruction, motivated largely by a desire to get Tennessee quickly approved back into the United States.  He’s a fascinating character study, full of energy and contradictions.  (There’s plenty more about him online.)  As for this photo, though I’ve found other examples of it online, I don’t know who the photographer was, or when it was taken.  If it’s from during or after his years in elected office (1865-1975), then it’s interesting that they would still use his more folksy moniker “Parson”.

7 comments on “Parson Brownlow”

  1. I feel like this portrait tells us a lot about his personality! Intriguingly, from the neck up it looks like a photo, while from the neck down it looks more like a drawing. Or maybe an enhanced photo?

    • Good point; it kind of looks like the suit is from an engraving, which doesn’t quite make sense to me.

    • I agree about the telling nature of the image. Most of the pictures I’ve found of him show him looking dour and argumentative. (And the one he used as the frontispiece of his book makes him look like he just woke up from a violent bender.) And yes, I noticed the odd way his suit looks like an engraving. It actually looks normal when you look at the real thing in your hands, and only looks odd when you enlarge it, a bit like the pixelated effect you get when you enlarge a photo from a newspaper. I’m guessing the original was a little washed out, and was enhanced to give it more depth or texture. Maybe the original portrait wasn’t very good. Or maybe this is a bootleg copy (from back in the days when copyrighting photos was still a debatable concept), that needed to be touched up to make it look more original. Or, of course, maybe his suit was made of some really weird fabric. 🙂

    • It’s the cross-hatching that makes the suit look engraved when viewed up close. All very interesting!

  2. Fantastic summary of a complex person! And as always, I’m struck by how sloppily tailored men’s civil-war-era clothes were.

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