Tag Archives: Philly

Philadelphia’s Colonial-Era Portraits were the Facebook Profile Pictures of their Time

Read the related Skyline Stories post on Verplanck’s presentation.
View The Library Company’s exhibit on daugerrotypes.
Browse books on early American photography at partner Diane Publishing.


OLD CITY, Philadelphia — When was the last time you had your portrait taken? I don’t mean by a cameraphone or digital camera, but actually sitting down, in a pose and wearing a suit or dress. College graduation or high school prom?

Miniature of Isaac Newtown, APS

Miniature of Isaac Newtown, ca. late 1700s. / American Philosophical Society.

But in colonial-era Philadelphia, portraits in the form of miniatures, silhouettes and early photos were popular, especially among the wealthy to maintain group identities, said independent scholar and curator Anne Verplanck at her recent lecture co-sponsored by the American Philosophical Society and The Library Company of Philadelphia. (Disclosure: I manage the APS’ Facebook page.)

From 1790-1810, miniatures were fashionable in Europe and the newly formed United States, she said. Artists such as James Peale, Charles Wilson Peale and Benjamin Trott painted tiny portraits, mostly of the “mercantile elite,” who put these in lockets, bracelets and necklaces.

“Miniatures needed proximity for viewing, so they expressed private sentiments,” Verplanck said during her lecture “Philadelphians’ Uses of Silhouettes, Miniatures and Daguerreotypes, 1760-1860” on February 24. “Some were embellished with a signature or locket of hair.”

Silhouette of Thomas Jefferson, APS

Silhouette of Thomas Jefferson, ca. 1800? / American Philosophical Society

Wealthy, urban Quakers tended to separate themselves from other groups, usually buying silhouettes and photos instead of miniatures. “Quakers preferred plainness and not having to interpret an artist’s work,” Verplanck said. “Physiognomy was popular too, it was being able to tell a person’s character by their body or face.”

In contrast to miniatures, silhouettes did not require an appointment or a long sitting time, as the images were not exposed. A small machine traced the person’s outline.

In the early 1800s, as the United States celebrated its founding and French General Marquis de Lafayette visited the country, Quakers collected one another’s silhouettes. “Quakers preserved and interpreted their identity and role in early United States history before genealogy became popular in the 1850s-60s,” she said.

After an early photo method called the daguerreotype was invented in France in 1839, Philadelphia (along with Boston, New York and Wilmington) became hubs of professional and amateur scientists experimenting with the new medium.

Daguerreotype of Paul Back Goddard, APS

One of Philadelphia's first daguerreotypes, of Dr. Paul Beck Goddard, 1839. / American Philosophical Society

Daguerreotypes provided an exact likeness, and were novel and inexpensive, Verplanck said. It took only 10-15 minutes to sit for a daguerreotype, and the top galleries in Philadelphia were on Market, Chestnut and Arch Streets. While miniatures cost $100-200, daguerreotypes cost $3-6.

Colonial-era sitters had to choose options that are familiar to anyone who changes their Facebook profile picture: what outfit should I wear? serious or fun pose? for a background, do I want the mountains or space lasers?


Read the related Skyline Stories post on Verplanck’s presentation.
View The Library Company’s exhibit on daugerrotypes.
Browse books on early American photography at partner Diane Publishing.


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Philadelphia’s Miniatures, Silhouettes and Daguerreotypes Presentation

Read the related Skyline Stories post on Verplanck’s presentation.
View The Library Company’s exhibit on daugerrotypes.
Browse books on early American photography at partner Diane Publishing.


Below is the slideshow that was to have been presented before the lecture: “Philadelphians’ Interest in Silhouettes, Miniatures, and Daguerreotypes, 1760-1860” by Anne Verplanck, independent scholar and curator, on February 24, 2010. The lecture was co-sponsored by the American Philosophical Society and The Library Company of Philadelphia.

You can also become a Facebook fan of the American Philosophical Society and The Library Company. (Disclosure: I manage the APS’ Facebook page.)

The Library Company of Philadelphia also recently exhibited “Catching A Shadow: Daguerreotypes in Philadelphia, 1839-1860.”


Read the related Skyline Stories post on Verplanck’s presentation.
View The Library Company’s exhibit on daugerrotypes.
Browse books on early American photography at partner Diane Publishing.


Tell a Friend Bookmark and Share

Yuletide Spirit on Elfreth’s Alley

Carolers on Elfreth's Alley

Carolers on Elfreth's Alley, during the annual "Deck the Alley" event.

OLD CITY, Philadelphia — Fresh pine boughs, gingerbread, logs on the fire – and the first snowfall of the year.

This may sound like the book “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” but no! This was the scene at “Deck the Alley” on Elfreth’s Alley, held on December 5th.

“Deck the Alley” is Elfreth’s Alley’s roughly 10th annual self-guided tour of 13 private homes festooned with Christmas and holiday decorations. Elfreth’s Alley bills itself as the oldest continually-inhabited street in the country, dating to 1702. About 200 visitors paid $25 each to tour the colonial-era homes (plus cider and soup from The Clay Studio), while author Trinka Noble read from her children’s book “The Scarlet Stocking Spy.”

Elfreth's Alley Flickr Gallery

Robert and Susan Kettell, two longtime residents, spent countless hours decorating their late-1700s home. The Kettells hosted carolers in the living room, while the dining room warmly glowed with candlelight. In another house, a Christmas tree’s ornaments had been made by the resident’s late Grandmother.

Perhaps the best bit of holiday magic was when Gordon Trotter, a direct descendant of Daniel Trotter, an Elfreth’s Alley tenant in the 1770s, finally walked into his ancestor’s house. After current owner Sheri Watson met him, she said, “It was wonderful meeting someone with the connection to the past.” Trotter added, “I think it’s fantastic that I was able to come back to this house!”

“Deck the Alley” is one of the Alley’s two annual festivals, the other being Fête Day in June.

Note: A version of this article is slated to be published by Elfreth’s Alley.

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