“Seaside” portraits In the late 19th Century

Sometime in the 1880’s, the highly formalized style of portrait photography gave way to more relaxed poses and settings. Some of these settings were at the “seashore,” for the most part backdrops in the photographer’s studio, and usually far away from the water. There are several in the Milton Historical Society’s collection and in private collections that depict their subjects against this kind of background. This posting offers a sampling.

Mary E. King, wife of David A. Conner, probably taken between 1880 and 1890
Mary E. King, wife of David A. Conner, probably taken between 1880 and 1890 (courtesy Fred Pepper)

Until recently, no portraits of Mary E. King (1845 – 1901), David A. Conner’s wife, had come to light. Anyone who has read Conner’s story about how the two met – “A Thirty Days’ Campaign, or The Little Maid of Mankin’s Woods” – knows how smitten he was with her at first sight, and how profoundly she would shape his views of women, all of whom would inevitably be compared to her. A portrait was discovered among the Conner family’s artifacts which is believed to be of Mary, taken at a photographer’s studio with a seaside backdrop.


"Lady in White," from the Philadelphia Album
“Lady in White,” from the Philadelphia Album, MHS collection

The “Philadelphia Album,” in the MHS collection, contains several dozen cartes de visite (calling cards) and ferrotypes from the Civil War period through about 1880. The subjects are unidentified, but many of the portraits were taken in Philadelphia studios, hence the name given to the album. One of these ferrotypes (or tintypes, as they are often referred to) is the “Lady in White,” above. An audiovisual presentation of highlights from that album can be viewed by clicking on this link. For optimum viewing, use a tablet, laptop, or PC and turn on your speakers.


Clarence Conwell, undated, from the Conwell Family Album, MHS collection

Men had their portraits taken against seaside backdrops too, often in bathing attire – something not usually seen with “respectable” women in the 19th century. Clarence Conwell (1864 – 1889), youngest child of farmer Joseph B. Conwell (1803 – 1868), was a freight conductor for the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad who was struck by an oncoming passenger train in the Wilmington yard as he was conversing with another railroad employee. He was a relative of Fredonia Clowes Wilson and others in Milton.

Nathaniel Wallace White, ca. 1900
Nathaniel Wallace White, ca. 1900, courtesy Richard Downing

Richard Downing, a descendant of Milton entrepreneur and church trustee N. Wallace White (1850 – 1923), provided this portrait of his great-grandfather. White dressed a little more modestly for his portrait than other, younger men might have.

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