Common folk taking a personal and family photographic likeness for “memory” first became popular in the later 1840s. Young men leaving for California gold fields, who likely would not see their families and sweethearts for years if ever again, exchanged photo portraits as a matter of duty with those who remained home. With the proliferation of itinerant photographers, studios, and improvements in photo processes, the trend accelerated as events unfolded in the 1850s and 1860s.

Before embarking for war, Civil War recruits making farewells to mother, family and home felt compelled to pay a visit to a local photography studio. The possibilities of death in the camps and on the battlefields were very real. The “memory” of the young soldiers mounted on the parlor mantle and in family albums became a visual testament to youthful vitality and the inscrutability of fateful mortality.

Getting one’s “picher” taken in best Sunday suits and dresses, stiff collars, buttons fastened, ribbons flowing, hair combed, while gazing solemnly at the camera in the studio became the raw material of family history. Family albums grew in popularity in the later part of the century. “Mother sent her photograph to me,” wrote a blacksmith in his diary in 1869, “It is as natural as life.” Frozen in time, the family photographs told a story of the passages of generations and etched lines on aging faces.

Street photography studios on the West Side of Chicago did a brisk business. “Harvest for photographers,” headlined the Chicago Daily Tribune in a 1909 interview in one street establishment. “There are certain days during the summer … when you will find no standing room in this place …. Having a picture of a baby taken may be a simple matter with an American mother. With the immigrant women, however, it is an event.” Weddings were as eventful and a reliable source of income. Most who visited the studios insisted on an enlargement portrait, which photographers provided free of charge as a premium with an order of a dozen or more pictures.

Commenting further on the “attitude of foreign women,” the studio photographer observed that some of them look upon his gallery as a “free dispensary …. they feel a sort of an awe for the place, the machinery, and the man behind the camera.” Others, however, treated the photographer as a “vegetable peddler …. They bargain with him and if they do not succeed in reducing the price they at least go home with the feeling that they have done everything in their power to get the best of him.”  bjb