Who can resist the image of a baby in a crisp white dress with lacy edging? The poor child looks fearfully at the man behind the hulking Victorian camera. He or she lies alone, propped up in a heavy chair that is ornately carved and embroidered.
We know the photographer whose name is emblazoned on the back of this sturdy 4x6 inch card, its scalloped border flecked in gold paint. But as is too often the case, we’ll never know who this little character became. No one “tagged” his picture for future generations. Unidentified Victorian pictures like this often end up in the discard bin at the local flea market. Remember that the next time you post an untagged photo on Facebook.
We know this portrait was taken by one of the Davis Brothers, either at 15 Pleasant St. or 5 Congress St. in downtown Portsmouth. In 1861, Lewis Davis, originally from Ripley, Maine, partnered with his brother Charles in a company that preserved local history for decades to come. Their "carte de visite" prints backed on heavy paper, became the Facebook of the second half of the 19th century. Affordable, portable, and durable, they could be exchanged like business cards. The Davis Bros. also cashed in on the stereoscope craze in which two similar images, when viewed in a hand-held device, produced a three-dimensional effect.
By the end of the Civil War, photography was embedded in American culture. The Davis Bros. advertised "Pictures for the Millions" and operated from studios, first on Daniel Street and later on Pleasant Street and Congress. A notice at the bottom of a newspaper advertisement read: "Sick and deceased persons taken at their residences."
They flourished for 35 years until the influx of cheap personal cameras made picture-taking accessible to the masses. Charles Davis and his wife Mattie built a large home on Miller Avenue, while Lewis and Cyrena raised their family at the corner of Highland and Broad streets. As the Seacoast tourism industry expanded in the 1870s, thousands of Davis Bros. souvenir cards appeared showing memorable scenes from Hampton Beach and the Isles of Shoals to York, Maine.
(Photo courtesy author’s collection. “Historic Portsmouth” is presented every Thursday by J. Dennis Robinson whose history books on the Smuttynose murders, Wentworth by the Sea hotel, Strawbery Banke Museum and other topics are available in local stores and on Amazon. He is currently working on a hardcover history of the Music Hall and can be reached at dennis@mySeacoastNH.com. This is weekly image number 755.)