Sunday, January 4, 2015

The "Specter at the Right"

Flipping through the finalists of a frenzied photo shopping spree one day last fall, Tyler and I debated which CDV's, tintypes, snapshots, and cabinet cards to let go and which ones to add to our collection. Short on cash, I rejected a number of interiors (oh, those store interiors!) I would have bought ordinarily (perhaps they're still there). I'm not even sure if Tyler bought this one or if I did.

Photograph of a woman and her things, late-ninteenth or early-twentieth century
(Nicole Belolan's Collection)

Either way, I'm glad it's ours now. I loved it even without noticing the self-deprecating note scribbled on the underside:

"would be very good were it not for the specter at the right."

I beg to differ!

From my perspective as a historian, this photograph is not just good but great. Like many interior photographs of parlor-type spaces from the mid-late nineteenth century, every time I look at it, I see something new. (In her book Culture & Comfort, Katherine Grier defined a parlor as "a space within a private household in which families could present their public faces" [59]. There are a lot of great interiors in her book; do take a look!) In the end, the photo was never really meant to focus on the "specter" at the right, anyway. She's off to the side, perhaps trying to draw some attention away from herself and to her stuff. Prints, photographs, table linens, a floor covering, a desk, books, and more, though I am curious to know what she was pretending to be writing. And is that mourning dress?

We don't get enough information in this photo to figure out if she used this space for sleeping too or if it was part of a larger household. Nevertheless, all the objects the sitter and photographer managed to get into the frame help the specter tell us a little about herself and her time. This particular assemblage of stuff may be unique, but the genre of the interior photograph was not. There are many others out there featuring similar personal possessions that signaled a particular level of social standing and taste. Not all of the specter's contemporaries would have boasted over a dozen books tucked into bookshelves and scattered on tabletops or decorative prints on the walls. On the flip side, some would have had even fancier abodes.

I have a few more interiors from the same period I'll post in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

In the mean time, what objects would you feature in your own home photograph? Would you choose to be photographed inside a particular room?

Further Reading

For more on nineteenth-century everyday life and aesthetics, start with Katherine C. Grier, Culture & Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery, 1850-1930 (1988), Beverly Gordon, The Saturated World: Aesthetic Meaning, Intimate Objects, Women's Lives, 1890-1940 (2006), and Thomas J. Schlereth, Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915 (1991). 

For a more recent look at domestic interiors and the stuff inside them, check out Jeanne E. Arnold et. al. Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors (2014) (I read this in one sitting last August) and Peter Menzel's Material World: A Global Family Portrait (1995).

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