Ancestor Search Leads to Carte de Visite Photography History

This ancestor search stuff would be SO much easier if you just could jump to conclusions, enter your hunch in a family tree and get on with life.

Unfortunately, I have been writing and researching too long. I’ve caught a bit of the journalist’s ideal of verifying sources.

Ancestor Search

Man from Antique Album

When I found the picture of this handsome young man in an antique family album (probably belonging to my great-grandmother, Hattie Morgan Stout), I wanted SOOOO much for it to be Jesse Morgan, her father. I turned it over and saw this information:

Ancestor photograph

Back of Photo from St. Joseph

That was really exciting, because, although I’m not ready to go into details about Jesse–that’s for a later ancestor search–we know that he might have been through St. Joseph Missouri in 1849.

I e-mailed my brother and sister , partners in the ancestor search, and they shared my excitement. The general consensus was that this is Jesse and we’re sticking to our story.

[UPDATE: 2016. I now believe that the picture above is Carlos Morgan, son of Jesse Morgan.The beautiful woman below is his wife, Jane (not Hattie). For their story see this post about Carlos and Jane.]

But I couldn’t stick to the story without doing just a wee bit of sleuthing.  When was this photo taken?  Well, first I looked to see when this type of photo was popular.  Commercial portrait photography began with  tintypes, starting in 1855. Although they were miraculous, they had limitations–mostly that the photographer could not make multiple copies.

Some photos were printed on paper starting in 1830, and became the standard by 1860. Paper photos pasted on a cardboard backing (4 1/3″ x 2 1/2″) were used between 1860 and 1890.

Ancestor search carte de viste

Carte de visite: Inscription-Hattie Morgan wife of Carlos Morgan

These were called carte de visite. And yes, they DO remind me of baseball cards that come in bubblegum packages, except that they are sepia, and instead of stats have information about the photographer on the back (or sometimes as in this case–on the front). Most proudly proclaim that negatives are available for copies.

The antique album with family pictures that I rely on for my ancestor search has both tintypes and cartes de visite in abundance.

Okay, things are not looking good for my assumption.  If cartes de visite were popular starting around 1860, that’s too late for Jesse Morgan’s appearance in Missouri.

Next, I asked, “When and where did photographer W. J. Rea work?” I found various references to him. Most were photographs with his stamp on the back of unidentified photos in the archives of antique photo collectors.  A paper written in 2004 by David Boutras (who mentioned that he started the research 30 years earlier) traces “Photographers and Artists in St. Joseph, Missouri 1859-1889” and refers to photos by William J. Rea that date between 1878 and 1882. [Unfortunately that paper is no longer on line and another paper by Boutras does not seem to mention Rea at all.

Other tidbits on the Internet showed that W. J. Rea photographed Santa Barbara CA in 1883-1884, and he also took photos in St. Louis and Windsor Ontario.

Finally, giving up on any chance that Jesse Morgan was photographed by W. J. Rea, I looked at the backs of as many other cartes de visite as I could find in the family collection to see if anyone else in the family was in St. Joseph. No luck there, although I found people from several other western states–some identified and some not. (I told you that my ancestors got around).

As part of my ancestor search, I should look at the unknown ancestor’s clothing. It might provide a clue as to exactly when this photo was taken, but that’s not a field in which I’m an expert. It is far more difficult (in my experience) to date a man’s photo by clothing than a woman’s.  Facial hair, does provide a clue, but I have not yet searched to find the “clean-shaven period,” although I think it comes around the turn of the 19th to 20th century, or even after the turn.

I may not have learned anything about the man in the photo, but I did learn a bit about portrait photography.

Do you have anything to add?  Know about the clothes?  Even better, ever see this guy in your own family album?

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