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2001.0017.0031, [Photograph of an unidentified woman and an unidentified child on a porch], “The Baltimore Collection,” 1915-1925. Image courtesy of Museums Collections, University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press. A white child looks adoringly at a black woman seated on a canvas chair with a cloth over her lap. She holds a teddy bear with articulated arms and legs, presumably trying to entertain the child, but instead the child looks at the woman's face. They are on a porch with a window behind the woman's head and a door just visible on the right edge of the image. There is a geometric flatweave rug beneath the woman and child's feet which extends below and to the left of the visible image.

2001.0017.0031, [Photograph of an unidentified woman and an unidentified child on a porch], “The Baltimore Collection,” 1915-1925. Image courtesy of Museums Collections, University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press.

A child looks adoringly at a woman who sits comfortably in a cloth-backed chair. They appear to be on a porch, with a cedar-shingled wall behind them and a flatwoven rug over a cement ground beneath their feet. She tries to amuse him with a teddy bear, but fails to keep his attention at the exact moment when the photographer captures the image – breaking the staged scene and allowing the viewer a glimpse into an everyday moment. When tasked with selecting six or so photographs from “The Baltimore Collection” to research I was immediately struck by this photograph of an unidentified woman and child on a porch. At first glance it appears to be a charming scene of the pair playing, but without either sitter’s name it leads to more questions than answers. Like many photographs in “The Baltimore Collection,” this one lacks any inscriptions to provide any context, so we must rely on the sitters’ clothing and surroundings as well as an open mind to (hopefully) help us better understand early American photography.

After looking through countless images of photographs taken between 1850 and 1950 in the collections of the Library of Congress, Library Company of Philadelphia, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I found that both sitters’ clothing seems to be fairly standard for the early twentieth century. While I thought the teddy bear would be useful in further narrowing down the time frame, I found that the first teddy bears with articulated arms were made by Steiff in the 1880s, and their toys remained wildly popular well into the twentieth century. By focusing only on the two sitters, I was able to confirm that this photograph could not have been taken prior to 1900; could I learn anything more from their surroundings?

Unfortunately, I ran into the same ambiguity when I looked at the chair and rug. Flatwoven rugs such as the one pictured here were commonly used in American homes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The geometric pattern and coarse weave are consistent with many Native American weavings created for the tourist market, and without a complete image of the rug’s fringed ends and full pattern I could not find anything more specific to help identify the image. Furthermore, the chair in which the woman is sitting was commonly used as portable seating furniture in a number of homes in the early twentieth century.

When discussing this photograph in class, an observant colleague asked why I had identified the setting as a porch. In answering her question – that the shingles, window, door, and cement floor identified the sitters’ location as outdoors or semi-outdoors – I realized I had not researched concrete flooring in homes. It is so ubiquitous in construction today that I had glanced right over it without considering it a clue as I had the other objects and architecture. When did cement become widespread in home construction?

I found that concrete and cement have related histories. While concrete includes any mixture of sand or gravel with water to form a paste which hardens as it dries, cement is a particular combination which was invented in 1824. In 1908, Thomas Edison was the first to use it to quickly build sturdy homes in New Jersey. Then, in 1913, “ready mix” cement was first delivered in Baltimore, Maryland. This was the detail I had been hoping to find: with many photographs in “The Baltimore Collection” being from the Mid-Atlantic and Baltimore specifically, I finally had found a “concrete” connection to help narrow down the date range of this photograph and solid evidence to connect it with the other photographs.

When I began this project, I had no idea that I would be so thrilled to find a timeline of the history of cement and concrete. With a new start date of 1913, I went back to the Library of Congress digital photography archive and looked again at American dress from 1910-1950. The striped construction of the woman’s bodice in combination with the billowing child’s shirt and bloomer-style pants over stockings helped me to confirm that this image was likely taken prior to 1930. Looking at both sitters’ collars and the child’s shoes, I narrowed down the time period to 1915-1925.

I grew to love this photograph, imagining the day on which it was taken and what the two sitters were doing. Although I was unable to identify the sitters or their specific location, it is safe to say that they lived in the Baltimore area in a newly-constructed home. I was amazed to see how much I could find when I looked both at and around the sitters, and I hope that more information comes back to them someday.

 

Who knew that cement history could be so exciting!

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