Bound in aging, embossed leather are three photograph albums owned by Elizabeth Fisher (Homer) Nichols, her husband Arthur Howard Nichols, and his uncle Charles Nichols. Collectively they contain nearly 150 photographs, dating as far back as 1862, though it’s possible some are older. These albums both preserve the Nichols’ families social connections and their participation in album-making, a craft that exploded in the U.S. and Europe with the commercialization of photography through the cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards.[i]
The majority of the photographs in the Nichols family’s albums are cartes-de-visite or cabinet cards. Cartes-de-visite, first patented in France by Adolphe Eugène Disdéri in 1854, were small photographs printed on paper and mounted on thick stock cards. Generally small, a finished carte-de-visite was usually 2.5-by-4 inches. Within 15 years, cartes-de-visite were replaced in popularity by cabinet cards, which were of similar construction but slightly larger (4.25-by-6.5 inches). They were cheap to make and buy, easy to mail, and easy to collect.[ii]
With the popularization of cartes and cabinet cards came the advent of the photograph album. Though albums were commonly used to collect, organize, and store letters and trinkets prior to the advent of photography, the standardization of photograph sizes and their widespread availability led to the manufacturing of albums specifically made to hold cartes and cabinet cards. Photograph albums were usually leather-bound, embossed, with metal clasps and gold leaf on the pages. Their structure mimicked those of Bibles since, in large part, they began to function in much the way that the family Bible once did: as a central record of a family’s history and social connections.[iii]
For the Nichols family, having their photographs taken was a part of the process of maintaining their place as members of Boston society. Cartes and cabinet photographs were pointedly uniform in style and subject positioning. They were almost always of one or two people, positioned at the center of the photograph and against a plain background, and turned slightly to the side. This style was meant to imitate traditional portraiture, and it was important to the subjects of the photographs that they did; having one’s portrait taken was a way of signaling one’s financial and social success, as well as the quality of one’s intellect and character.[iv]
Many of the photographs in the three albums were taken at the studios of John Adams Whipple (pioneer of astronomical and night photography) on Winter Street, and George K. Warren, the inventor of the photo-illustrated year-book.[v] Arthur Howard Nichols’ photo album is likely one of these early yearbooks. The album holds 58 photographs of Harvard College students and professors, most of which were taken at George K. Warren’s Cambridgeport studio. Those that are dated are all from 1862, the year he graduated.
“Album belonging to Arthur Howard Nichols (Grandfather of Sarah S. Ingelfinger and of her 5 sibling Shurcliffs) AHN graduated from Harvard College and from the Harvard Medical School. He was the only surviving child (son) of John Perkins Nichols and Marian Clarke Nichols. AHN (MD) married Elizabeth Fisher Homer. They had 4 children! Rose Standish Nichols, Marian Clarke Nichols, Sidney Nichols (died at age 5) and Margaret Homer Nichols (married Arthur Shurcliff in 1905). “
Photographs were not simply a quick replacement for traditional portraits; rather, they helped friends and family stay connected in an era of rapid economic and technological change. Improvements in technologies related to long-distance travel, especially the steam engine, stretched families across the globe and often made face-to-face contact impossible. Photographs, however, could help bridge the gap.[vi]
A number of photographs in the Nichols family collection originate from far-flung locations. Multiple photographs of Mrs. Caroline Davenport and Mrs. Mary Ann Estabrook, for example, were taken in William M. Shews’ studio in San Francisco, CA. Another photograph, this one of Elizabeth Ridgeway, was taken in Munich, Germany. One photograph, of a Mrs. Sissy R. Drake, was taken in Boston but is inscribed with a brief sketch of Mrs. Drake’s life, a story that takes her all the way to Bombay, India, as a missionary.
“Miꝭs Sissy R. Drake 31. Received Nov 9th, 1875.
Sailed Nov. 6th Sat. Steamer. City of Berlin–[illegible] line for Liverpool
England on her to Bombay India–
Direct to the care of Rev. Charles Harding Bombay India–Via Brindisi–Faith mission
Home Stoughton Maꝭs. Deaconess at Dr. Chas. Cultis’ [illegible] Home at Grove Hall – Boston Mass.
Married to Rev. Osborn Nov. 22 1879 Bombay India”
The albums as whole objects likewise demonstrate this connectivity. The album belonging to Charles Nichols, for example, was given to him as a gift by the Pleasant Street Church in New Bedford, N.H. Charles Nichols, who himself had worked in several daguerreotype galleries, ultimately devoted his life to religious study and missionary work, though it is unclear what his precise connection to the Pleasant Street Church was.
“A Present to Chas. Nichols by the converts of the Pleasant St. Church New Bedford. Jany 2, 1865.”
Eventually, the three albums were passed down to Margaret Homer Nichols, youngest daughter of Elizabeth and Arthur Nichols, and from her it went to one of her daughters, who ultimately gifted the albums to the Nichols House Museum. The albums acted, for the family members who owned them, as physical proofs of their connections to friends and family, and still serve to preserve those social connections to this day.
[i]Patrizia Di Bello, Women’s Albums and Photography in Victorian England: Ladies, Mothers, and Flirts (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016): 29-35.
[ii] Geoffrey Batchen, “Chapter 5: Dreams of ordinary life: Cartes-de-visite and the bourgeois imagination,” in Photography: Theoretical Shots, edited by J.J. Long, Andrea Noble, Edward Welch (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009): 80-85.
[iii] Risto Sarvas and David M. Frohlich, From Snapshots to Social Media – The Changing Picture of Domestic Photography (London: Springer Science & Business Media, 2011): 36-38
[iv] Batchen, “Dreams of ordinary life,” 81-82.
[v] “John Adams Whipple,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, accessed July 15, 2017, http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artist/?id=6760; “George K. Warren,” University of South Carolina, accessed July 15, 2017, http://broadway.cas.sc.edu/node/982.
[vi] Sarvas and Frohlich, From Snapshots to Social Media, 40-42.
By Jasmine Bonanca, Intern at the Nichols House Museum.