Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
WE ALL SET OFF TO HAVE OUR PICTURES TAKEN
A few days later — I think it was June 15th — Gram's constant, urgent reminders prevailed, and directly after the noontide meal we all set off for the village, to have our pictures taken. The old lady had never ceased to mourn the fact that there were two of her sons whose photographs had not been taken before they enlisted. This was not so unusual an omission in those days as it would be at present; having one's photograph taken was then a much less common occurrence. Indeed, the photograph proper had hardly begun to be made, at least, not in the rural districts. The ambrotype was still the popular variety of portrait.
Personally, I confess to a lingering liking for the old ambrotype, the likeness taken on a glazed plate, on which the lights are represented in silver, and the shades are produced by a dark background. I like, too, the respectful privacy of the little inclosing case which you opened to gaze on the face of your friend. Best of all, I like its great durability and fadelessness. The name itself is a passport to favor in a picture, from ambrotos, immortal, and tupos, type, or impression: the immortal-type. Your pasteboard photograph so soon grows yellowed, dog-eared and stale! For certain purposes I would be glad to see the dear old ambrotype revived and coming back in fashion. True, you had to squint at it at a certain angle to see what it was; but when you obtained the right view, it was wonderfully lifelike and comforting.
One obstacle and another had delayed the trip for several weeks, but on that sunny June day the word to go was given. With much care and attention to clean faces, and hair, our best clothes were donned, for to have one's picture taken was then one of the great occasions of a youngster's life. There was earnest advice given on all sides in regard to "smiling expressions." Little Wealthy, especially, was exhorted so much in this respect, that she actually shed tears before we started. A "smiling expression" sometimes comes hard. Nor was she alone in her anxiety. I remember being a good deal worried about it, and that I had secretly resolved — since the sitting was said to occupy less than a minute — to draw a long breath, set my teeth together hard, and hold on to my "smiling expression" for that one minute, at least, if I died for it afterwards.
Indeed, the young folks of this later generation will hardly be able to understand what an ordeal it was to sit for an ambrotype, in 1866.
Ambrotypes were the kind of pictures which Gram had in view. Moreover, she had no notion of investing in more than one likeness apiece for each of us. This ambrotype was to be kept in the family archives, for the benefit of generations to come; the idea of having a dozen taken, or even half a dozen, to give away to one's friends, had not at that time entered the minds of country people in that portion of New England.
We had at first intended to start by nine in the morning and arrive by ten or eleven, so as to have the benefit of the midday sun — an important requisite for an ambrotype. But it was eleven o'clock before all were properly ready, and Gram then decided to have our noon meal before setting off. We got off a few minutes past noon. All the doors of the farmhouse were locked, or otherwise fastened, the garden gate closed and the horses harnessed. The Old Squire with Gram led the way in the single wagon, and we six cousins, with Addison driving old "Sol," followed in the express wagon, three on a seat. We were conscious that we presented a curiously holiday appearance and laughed a great deal as we rattled along the road, although secretly each felt not a little anxious.
"Oh, but it's nothing!" Halstead exclaimed over and over. "All you have to do is to sit still a minute; the cammirror is the thing that does the work;" — for he was a little shaky on the pronunciation of the word camera, or the workings of it. To Addison and Theodora's great amusement, he went on to inform the rest of us in a superior tone, that the cammirror took a reflection from a person's face, much as a looking-glass does, and then threw it on a "mess of soft chemical stuff" which the artist had spread on a little pane of glass. "Being soft, the reflection naturally sticks in it," Halse continued. "Then all the fellow has to do is to harden it up — and there you are.
"But he has to be pretty careful, or you come out upside down," Halstead added. "I had a notion of buying one of those cammirrors once, before I came here, and starting in the business. I wish I had now. It is a sight better business than farming. I knew a fellow out at New Orleans that made thirteen dollars in one day, taking pictures."
"I wonder that you didn't get a 'cammirror,' Halse," Addison remarked. "You might have become a rich man in a few years."
"Oh, but it's dreadful unhealthy work," replied Halstead, in an offhand tone. "The chemical stuff they have to mix up gets into the lungs. It smells terribly. There's two kinds. The worst-smelling kind isn't the most unhealthy, though; the other kind you can but just smell at all, but one good whiff of it will about use a man up, if it gets fairly into his lungs. It doesn't answer for the artist fellow to breathe much when he is in the little dark place, where he spreads the chemical stuff on the glass. They generally hold their noses when they are in there."
"If that is true, we had all better be careful how we breathe much this afternoon," Addison observed, feigning a very anxious glance around.
Little Wealthy looked distressed, however, and erelong intimated a desire to ride with Gram in the other wagon. She and Theodora and I rode on the back seat of our wagon; and I heard Theodora whispering to her reassuringly, that Halstead's talk was all nonsense.
On reaching the village we hitched our horses under two of the Congregationalist meeting-house sheds, and then proceeded to the small, low studio, or "saloon," with a large window in the roof, where at that time one Antony Lockett (or else Locke) practised the art of photography. He was a tall, large man of sandy complexion, somewhat slow in his movements and of pleasant manners. Gram opened negotiations with him directly, as to the price of ambrotypes, etc. She was not a little distressed, however, to learn from Mr. Lockett that ambrotypes were somewhat out of fashion, and that a new-fangled thing, called a photograph, represented the highest art and progress of the day. It was expensive, however. Of ambrotypes the artist spoke somewhat apologetically and slightingly. He also talked fluently of "tin-types," a kind of small, inferior likeness on a thin metal plate, without case, or glass. These he offered to make by the dozen at prices which almost shocked us from their cheapness.
As an artist who wished to exercise his vocation to the extent of its possibilities, Mr. Lockett argued adroitly in favor of the new photographs for all of us.
Grandmother was much perplexed. "It appears that times are changing," I heard her say to the Old Squire. "I should say times were changing, Ruth!" he replied rather shortly. "If this man is going to charge six dollars apiece for us all, for photographs, I guess we had better get our horses and go home."
"Of course we cannot pay any such money as that, Joseph," Gram concurred. "We shall have to have ambrotypes, as we set out in the first place. I cannot see any better way. But it's a pity fashion has turned against them."
Ambrotypes being declared for, artist Lockett made his preparations, including several trips into his little dark room, the erection of his camera on its tripod, hanging a little pink sock on a hook upon the wall to look at, and setting out a chair with an iron head-rest. He then said, somewhat impressively, "I am ready. Who will sit first?"
None of us wished for that distinction, and to this day I recall the terrified look in little Wealthy's eye as she sought to make herself invisible behind Theodora's shoulder. The child was really much alarmed, largely from the peculiar odor which pervaded the place, and the stories which Halstead had told on our way down. It was the odor of all ambrotype "saloons" of that date, which can best be described by saying that it resembled what might have been, if the place had long been the haunt of a horde of cats.
"Joseph," said Gram at length, "you had better sit first, you are the oldest."
"I am not so very many months older than you, Ruth," replied the Old Squire, with a twinkle of his eye. "And when I was a young man, it was held to be the proper thing to seat the ladies first."
"Now don't you go to being funny, Joe," replied Gram, fanning herself vigorously. "This is no place for it."
Thus rebuked, and after some hesitation, the old gentleman with a queer expression took his seat in the "chair," and had his iron-gray head adjusted to the round black disks of the head-rest. Gram arranged his front lock with her comb, and said, "Now keep your eye on the little sock, Joseph, and look smilin';" — a superfluous piece of advice, as it proved, for he had already begun grinning awfully.
The artist, who had his head under the black cloth of his camera, now suddenly looked forth and gave different advice. "Not too smilin'. Not so smilin' as that, quite," said he.
But the Old Squire only grinned the more vigorously, showing several teeth.
Gram went around in front by the artist. "Oh, no, Joseph, not near so smilin'!" she exclaimed.
But do their best, they could not get the smile off his face.
"Look more solemn, Joseph," Gram now exhorted him. "You are overdoing it."
But so certain as the artist raised his hand to take off the cap from the camera, the Old Squire's face would begin to pucker again, and the artist was obliged to wait.
We all grew scandalized at his unaccountable levity. Addison sat laughing silently in a chair behind, and Gram at last lost her patience.
"If you were only a little boy, it wouldn't be quite so silly!" she exclaimed. "But an old man, with only a few years more on the earth, to behave so, is all out of character. Think of the shortness of life, Joseph, and the certainty of death."
But still from some nervous perversity, the old gentleman's face drew up in the same inveterate pucker whenever Lockett raised his hand to uncap the camera.
"O Joe, I'm astonished at you! I am for certain!" cried Gram, so vexed and angry that she lost all patience. She rushed to the door and looked out, to control her feelings.
Theodora then drew near the Old Squire's side and whispered, "Think of the War, Grandpa."
The War was then a topic of such terrible sadness for us that the mention of it, ordinarily, was sufficient to unloose the most poignant recollections. To grandfather, as to us all, it had brought a sable cloud of bereavement. But even thoughts of the War did not now long suffice to remove that grin — longer than till the Old Squire saw Lockett's hand raised. Then out jumped the all too "smilin' expression" again.
Gram went out of doors altogether and walked along the sidewalk, in mortification and despite; her feelings were much outraged.
Lockett now essayed to turn the conversation upon a current political topic, namely the nomination of General Grant for the Presidency; and it seemed as if the grin was at last exorcised. Yet when the artist attempted covertly to remove the cap, a hundred puckers gathered about Gramp's eyes again, his chin twitched, and even there were wrinkles on his nose.
With that, Lockett himself walked to the door for a time. Gram now returned, her face very red, and stalking in, surveyed the offender with a look of hard exasperation. "My senses, Joseph, you are the most provoking man I ever set my two eyes on. I do declare you are!"
Lockett returned to his place by the camera, looking somewhat bored. "Well, shall we try again?" said he.
"If he don't keep his face straight now, I'll know the reason!" Gram chimed in.
Yet quite the same when Lockett lifted his hand, after an awful pause, every furrow and pucker reappeared.
"Oh, there!" Gram exclaimed almost in tears, so vexed she had grown. "Take him. Take him, just as he is, the old Chessy-cat!" and again she rushed away to the door and snatched out her pocket handkerchief.
Then Addison, who had sat and laughed till he had laughed himself tired and sober, came to the rescue, with a stroke of genius. Nodding covertly to Lockett, he approached the Old Squire from behind, and in a tone, as intended only for his private ear, murmured, "Say, Gramp, d'ye know this Lockett charges six dollars an hour for his time!"
The old gentleman's face suddenly straightened as his ear caught the words, and a look of dignified indignation and incredulity overspread his countenance, observing which the artist removed the cap and the likeness was taken. What the thoughts of death and War failed to accomplish was done by sudden resentment. After a moment or two, Gramp perceived the ruse which Addison had practised on him, and laughed as he rose from the chair. But Gram would not so much as look at him, and she scarcely spoke to him again that day.
The Old Squire did not at the time condescend to offer any explanation of his "smilin' expression;" but years afterwards, on an occasion when he and I were making a journey together, he told me that he never quite understood, himself, what whimsical freak took possession of his mind that day. To have saved his life — he said — he could not have kept a sober face when Lockett raised his hand to the cap. The ambrotype faithfully reproduced the sudden resentful expression on his countenance; and we always spoke of it as the "six dollars an hour expression."
Grandmother sat next, after Theodora and Ellen had arranged or rather rearranged her somewhat ruffled hair and collar. There was no troublesome smile on her countenance that afternoon! The flush of excitement and anger still tinged her cheeks, and her eye looked a little snappy. Theodora tried to modify the severe expression by saying pleasant things while helping seat her in a good position, but only half succeeded; and the picture which we have of her does not do her entire justice, since it gives an impression of austerity not in keeping with her usual disposition and character.
I think that Addison sat next, and after him Halstead, who assumed a somewhat bumptious air, which was to an extent reflected in his picture.
Theodora had the "smiling expression" naturally, and perhaps added a trifle to it for the occasion. We often said to her afterwards, when looking at the pictures, that her smile was almost as broad as Gramp's irrepressible one. Still, it was a very good likeness of her at fifteen and of the genial, half-amused expression she often wore during those happy years at the farm.
It now came my turn to sit in the chair and have my head put back against the rest. For some reason Addison laughed, and then the others came around in front of me and laughed, too. "Don't he look worried?" cried Halstead. "Get on your 'smiling expression.' Don't stare at that poor little sock so hard, you'll knock it down off the hook! The little sock isn't to blame."
"Smile a little," said the artist gently.
But I had just witnessed what befell Gramp from smiling, and was afraid to risk it. "Oh, now!" whispered Theodora, "you really mustn't look so morose. Think of something pleasant. Think of catching trout."
But it would not come to me. "He can't smile," said Addison. "I'll stump him to smile."
"Oh, but you do look sad!" exclaimed Ellen.
"A regular cast-iron glare," said Halstead.
I grew angry.
"There's going to be a thunder-shower from the looks of his face," Addison remarked. "I'm going to get under cover."
They all took the hint and went away from in front of me. It seemed to me that those iron disks of the head-rest were the only two points on which my entire weight rested. The little pink sock swam up and down; and from somewheres in the rear I heard Halse saying, "He will have a fit in a minute more!"
At that moment Lockett took off the cap. I caught my breath, tried hard to smile just a little and no more, and clenched my fists. Click! the cap was replaced, and Lockett said, "That'll do." I got out of the chair and walked to the door; my ears were singing and both feet had "gone to sleep." The ambrotype subsequently gave evidence that my last effort to smile had materialized to the extent of being faintly visible, like a far-distant nebula on a clear night. The others always hectored me about that "frozen smile."
Ellen sat next and was taken very quickly, while I stood at the door recovering myself; but Wealthy suffered even more than I did, I feel sure. The poor child had stood awestruck and alarmed all the time the others were sitting. What she had seen had by no means tended to reassure her. She actually turned pale when Theodora took her to the chair; her dark eyes looked uncommonly large and wild. The smile which they finally developed on her face was one of fascination rather than pleasure; and when at length the cap was replaced and the artist said, "That'll do," she bounced out of the chair as if made of India-rubber.
We did not get the ambrotypes, in their small, square, black cases, till some weeks subsequently; and I recollect that the entire bill was twelve dollars, also that we all — all except Gram — rode home from the village in very high spirits, as those do who have successfully passed through a perilous ordeal. Gram, indeed, was unable to recover her equanimity till next day.